Questions of Desire, Envy, and Paranoia
Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland, Jr.
Produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier
Released February 16, 1967
Levi Stubbs - lead vocal
Renaldo Benson - vocal
Abdul Fakir - vocal
Lawrence Payton - vocal
with the Hitsville Studio "Funk Brothers" Band including:
Benny Benjamin - drums
James Jamerson - bass
Chart Action: Hit the Billboard R&B charts on March 18, 1967 where it remained for 11 weeks, achieving a top position of #3; it climbed to #4 on the pop charts.
Tradition of Disruption
Motown Records understood well the artistry of creating successful pop records. For a single to generate a following, it must rupture the continuity of radio play; it must yank the listener out of passivity and create a sense of dislocation and immersion. If a tune just blends in amongst the others, listeners will hear it and may even learn the words--but they will not take the extra step of buying and requesting it on the radio. The songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland created each of their many recordings this way, each with rhythmic drive and anthemic conviction.
The sense of dislocation is immediate in the first few seconds of "Bernadette". Through pulsing drums, soaring brass and a rattlesnake-like tambourine sound, the song demands devoted attention. If the listener denies the song the requisite attention -- while talking on the phone, for example -- the result is alienation, the radio must be turned all the way down or cranked all the way up.
A New Lyrical Focus at Motown
One of the darkest and most emotive of Motown records, "Bernadette" is a profoundly moving statement of compulsion and desire. Levi Stubbs, as lead vocalist for the Four Tops, had grown considerably as a singer since their first hit, "Baby, I Need Your Loving" (1964, R&B #11). Lamont-Dozier-Lamont had matured as songwriters, and as the tides were turning for the Civil Rights Movement, so too was Motown evolving in their approach to music.
It would be a year or more until Motown completely re-established themselves by mining the influential psychedelic-funk singles of Sly and The Family Stone. Motown began in 1967 with a lyrical emphasis on the concept of obsessive love, creating a sound that conveyed the requisite sense of conviction. These lyrical and sonic changes can be located in 1967 with Stevie Wonder - "I Was Made To Love Her" (R&B #1 for 4 weeks); very close to "Bernadette" was The Temptations - "I Know I'm Losing You" (#1-2); and quite a commendable bitterness for the Supremes in "You Keep Me Hanging On" (#1-4).
Vestige of Paranoia
In "Bernadette", we experience the paranoia of a man whose desire and obsession outweigh his feelings of love. Instead of looking inward to strengthen the bond between the two, he focuses on the collective desire of his peers for Bernadette. While he truly believes in the undying strength of their relationship, the relationship lacks intimacy and trust. For the singer, Bernadette is distant and subject to the gaze and persuasive power of the outsiders. The dark, foreboding use of flute and organ reinforce the atmosphere of panic present in the lyrics.
The Dylan Factor
While Columbia Records never allowed Bob Dylan to make a strong impression on the Billboard charts, "Like A Rolling Stone" (1965, Pop #2) achieved its popularity on the basis of listener demand alone. Its revolutionary length (6:13), message, and style were an inspiration to many musicians and listeners in the late 1960's, among them African-American songwriters Lamont-Dozier-Lamont.
In its B-section, "Bernadette" Signifies on "Like A Rolling Stone" through Levi Stubb's slightly nasal, elevated manner of vocal delivery ("Only to hold ya", "they long to con-trol ya"); in the lyric's rhythmic, rapid-fire meter; and in the song's emotional narrative. Clearly, "Like a Rolling Stone" had made a striking impression in the minds of the songwriters and lead singer; however, consider that Stubbs' vocal style had - long before he had first heard Dylan - been declamatory in character. His music's tendency for deep emotional investement was based on the testifying speech-song continuum found in much African-American music.
The singer looks upon his beloved as a fetish, something to be worshipped, not understood. In the coda, his dramatic statement ("You're the soul of me/You're a prayer to me") conveys the distance and unattainability that his lover conjures. In its symphonic fury, "Bernadette" becomes a disturbing portrait of a man overwhelmed by concurrent feelings of obsession and desire.
Lamont-Holland-Lamont's arrangement is among their most complex and least accessible. Listen particularly for the cascading background vocals ("sweet Bernadette"), soaked in reverb, reaching for layered arpeggios; James Jamerson's characteristically excellent, jazz-influenced bass guitar; and Benny Benjamin's deep bass fills.
Bernadette, people are searching for
the kind of love that we possessed.
Some go on searching their whole life through
And never find the love I've found in you.
And when I speak of you I see envy in other men's eyes,
and I'm well aware of what's on their mind.
They pretend to be my friend when all the time
They long to persuade you from my side.
They'd give the world and all they own
For just one moment we have known.
Bernadette, they want you because of the pride that gives,
But Bernadette, I want you because--I need you to live!
But while I live only to hold ya,
Some other men, they long to control ya.
But how can they control you Bernadette,
when they can not control themselves, Bernadette,
From wanting you, needing you,
But darling you belong to me.
I'll tell the world: you belong to me,
I'll tell the world: you're the soul of me,
I'll tell the world: you're a part of me.
In your arms I find the kind of peace of mind
the world is searching for.
But you, you give me the joy this heart of mine
has always been longing for.
In you I have what other men long for.
All men need someone to worship and adore:
That's why I treasure you and place you high above,
For the only joy in life is to be loved.
So whatever you do, Bernadette, keep on loving me.
Bernadette, keep on needing me.
You're the soul of me,
More than a dream,
You're a prayer to me.
You mean more to me than a woman
was ever meant to mean.