Bergen White’s For Women Only [original LP SSS International 1970/CD-re-issue Rev-Ola 2004] is the kind of discovery I always hope to make but secretly fear isn’t actually out there. It was one of several CDs I bought on an off-chance about ten years ago. I am so glad I did as this one I fell for almost the moment I pressed play.
For Women Only is a baroque/soft masterpiece if ever there was one. It beguiled me from the start and haunts me still. Several songs are so lovely that I was pretty much knocked off my perch. When you find yourself exclaiming out loud “This is fantastic!” you know you have stumbled across a rare find indeed.
The words elegant, eloquent and poetic come to mind when listening to ‘For Women Only’. So do majestic and sublime. All are apt but don’t really give a flavour of the music which is a blend of 60s pop and country with echoes of soul, surf, vocal harmony, rock’n’roll and US beat, all given a consummate chamber/baroque treatment and refracted through a soft-focus lens. Add psychedelic trimmings here and there and that maybe gives some idea.
What stands out most clearly is the quality of the songs. Bergen made the selections from top drawer songwriters such as Mann and Weil, Mickey Newbury and Townes Van Zandt and added a half dozen or so of his own compositions. All are strong melodically and are treated to sympathetic arrangements crafted by Mr White himself and played by the renowned Nashville Area Code 615 session team.
That cover couple
Reviewers tend to give the album cover a lot of attention, criticising it for being at odds with what is contained within (though I sense the cover has its own kitsch following too). I don’t know whether Bergen had a hand in selecting the cover image or indeed the album’s title. The mature, canoodling diners might lead you to expect a kind of easy listening fest and, knowing nothing about Bergen White at this point, I was prepared for a deluge of syrupy strings, just in case. But insofar as the songs are of a romantic leaning and from a mature perspective, I don’t think the cover, although far from ideal, is so misleading or surprising from a 1970 marketing point of view. This exceptionally well-crafted music wasn’t aimed squarely at the Woodstock generation (Bergen was 30 at the time and already a music business veteran) even although its own gentle tuned-in, turned-on vibe was undoubtedly influenced by it. This is perhaps more apparent listening today than it was back in 1970.
The image of Bergen on the CD case interior (and I assume on the reverse of the original album sleeve) is equally relevant but tends to get mentioned rather less. Here he stands as a psychedelic figure semi-silhouetted in some unknown landscape, recalling, perhaps, Lee Hazlewood’s space cowboy. The image is apt as the album combines traditional maleness (Don’t Keep Me Waiting) with much sensitivity and reflectiveness thus making Bergen a true hero of the new age.
Bergen White cut his teeth as a member of Ronny and The Daytonas and went on to hone his skills as producer, conductor and arranger at Nashville. This album was conceived as an outlet for his expertise as an arranger but Bergen also shows himself to be an accomplished composer and singer with his understated tenor vocals always in tune with the demands of the song rather than trying to impose his personality. The arrangements themselves are wonderful, adding colour and interest, enhancing but never overwhelming the songs. The attention played to careful placing of contrasting instrumental combinations and Bergen’s Brian Wilson sensibility when it comes to percussion is particularly notable.
The record didn’t perform commercially for any number of reasons. Bergen wasn’t a well known name outside of the industry and possibly the album was never heard sufficiently by its target audience. Come 1970, the future lay more in acoustic, stripped-down styles of confessional songwriting so the comparative lushness of For Women Only probably meant it sounded a little square on that score. But what a gem for us to discover and enjoy almost a half century later.
The CD reissue features rare photographs, extensive liner notes by Steve Stanley and plenty of comment from Bergen White himself. As well as the complete For Women Only album, there are six very worthy bonus tracks, two of which are mono versions of album tracks and five are from 1967 and sit alongside the album with ease.
If you like melodic, well-crafted songs in a baroque-pop vein delivered by a master craftsman of the genre, then this is the album for you – love or hate the cover.
I’ll talk about For Women Only track-by-gorgeous track over three posts coming soon.
1. She Is Today – (Mann-Weil) *****
2. It’s Your Time – (White) ***
3. Let Me Stay Awhile – (Newbury) *****
4. Look at Me – (Gates) ****
5. Lisa Was – (Mann) *****
6. Hurt So Bad – (Randazzo) ***
7. On and On – (White) ***
8. Gone Again – (Gates) ***
9. Second Lover’s Song – (Van Zandt) *****
10. The Bird Song – (White) *****
11. Now – (White) ****
12. It’s Over Now – (White) ****
13. If It’s Not Asking Too Much – (White, 1967) ****
14. Don’t Keep Me Waiting – (White, 1967) ****
15. What Would You Do In My Place – (White, 1967) *****
16. House on Bonnie Brae – (Linde, 1967) ***
17. The Bird Song – (White, 1967 mono] *****
18. It’s Over Now – (White, 1970 mono) ****
For Women Only: tracks 1-4
For Women Only: tracks 5-9
For Women Only: tracks 10-18