In the Song Series, I’ll explore songs that have achieved iconic status, great songs that had the misfortune of getting stuck on crappy albums, wonderful songs that somehow escaped public attention, and other songs of cultural significance.
I’d like to thank the global pandemic for making this review possible.
Like billions of others stuck inside for a couple of years, my partner and I binged on movies and television to compensate for the loss of clubbing and concerts. Looking back on that claustrophobic experience, I think our selection of entertainment options was partially driven by a need to replace the sense of continuity we felt in our pre-COVID lives with a workable substitute—television shows with continuing storylines and film packages that focused on a particular genre or artist (first there was a film noir binge, then a Barbara Stanwyck binge, which led to a Gary Cooper binge, then a Frank Capra binge, and so on). We sampled dozens of TV series and rejected many of the most popular series, usually due to excessive, pointless violence or really bad acting. We found only a few that we liked well enough to watch all the episodes: The Queen’s Gambit, Endeavour, Dix pour cent, For All Mankind and Schitt’s Creek.
The only one of those five series we’ve watched again from start to finish is Schitt’s Creek (three runs through all six seasons and selected arcs).
One of our favorite arcs in Schitt’s Creek involves the development of a loving relationship between two young men, David Rose and Patrick Brewer (portrayed by Dan Levy and Noah Reid). For Patrick, it’s a coming-out experience with the attendant fears of non-acceptance and the joys of self-discovery. David, on the other hand, has years of experience as a switch-hitter but his relationships with both men and women have been short-lived, superficial and generally unsatisfying. Part of that arc features two renditions of “The Best,” which led me to explore the song’s history and, in turn, inspired the idea of doing the Song Series.
We’re going to explore three versions of “The Best” (commonly called “Simply the Best”) and hopefully gain some insight into song structure, arrangement and vocal interpretation. The versions we’ll cover include: Bonnie Tyler’s original; Tina Turner’s signature version; and Noah Reid’s take, first performed on an episode of Schitt’s Creek.
The original version of the song was written by Holly Knight and Mike Chapman for Bonnie Tyler of “It’s a Heartache” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” fame. Knight and Chapman had already collaborated on two songs that won Best Female Rock Vocal Performance Grammies for Pat Benatar (“Love Is a Battlefield”) and Tina Turner (“Better Be Good to Me”). “The Best” was released as a single and appeared on Bonnie’s album Hide Your Heart in 1988.
As fate would have it, Hide Your Heart included a cover of Tina’s “Don’t Turn Around,” so it’s likely that Tina picked up the album to hear Bonnie’s take on the song and stumbled across “The Best” in the process.
The universe works in not-so-mysterious ways.
The music is fairly simple. Both the verses and the choruses revolve around four-chord vamps emphasizing four notes. I’ll use Tina Turner’s version in F major to explain the basic pattern of the vamps:
- Verses: F, F6, Fmaj7, F, emphasizing the notes C, D, E, F. We’ll call this Vamp 1.
- Chorus: F, F2, Fsus4, F (twice), Dm, Dm2, Dm(add4), Dm (once), emphasizing the notes F, G, Bb, A. We’ll call these Vamp 2 and 3.
Anyone who has played guitar for a while will tell you that you hardly have to move your fingers to play those chord sequences. The full chord patterns look like this:
- Verses: F, (vamp 1), F (vamp 1), Dm, Bb, C
- Chorus: (vamp 2), (vamp 2), (vamp 3), C, C7, then repeat the whole pattern.
The original lyrics aren’t all that different from the lyrics in other love songs except for a few standout phrases: “Wild and wired,” “You speak the language of love like you know what it means,” and “I get lost in your eyes/I get washed away.” I noticed that all but one of the words in the first verse are monosyllabic and the phrase “come to me” is repeated three times. This simplicity provides for a nice vocal warm-up that also gives the singer plenty of room to play with various inflections and phrasing possibilities.
I call you when I need you
And my heart’s on fire
You come to me, come to me
Wild and wired
You come to me, give me everything I need
You bring a lifetime of promises
A world of dreams
You speak the language of love
Like you know what it means
It can’t be wrong
Take my heart and make it strong
Cause you’re simply the best
Better than all the rest
Better than anyone
Anyone I ever met
I’m stuck on your heart
I hang on every word you say
Tear us apart
Baby, I would rather be dead
Deep in your heart
I see the start
Of every night and every day
And in your eyes I get lost
I get washed away
Just as long as I’m here in your arms
I could be in no better place
Cause you’re simply the best . . .
In case you didn’t know, Bonnie Tyler is of Welsh extraction and Bonnie Tyler isn’t her real name. She changed it from Gaynor Hopkin to Sherene Davis because there was already a famous Welsh singer with the last name of Hopkin—Mary Hopkin of “Those Were the Days” fame. RCA conditioned her signing on changing her name again, and the suits came up with Bonnie Tyler.
Bonnie has had kind of an up-and-down career chart-wise, largely because she relied on songwriters to provide her with material (she’s listed as co-writer only on a handful of songs). If you go that route, you’re sometimes forced to choose between some pretty slim pickings when you’re under pressure to fill out an album. I’ve listened to a few songs from every album Bonnie Tyler ever released and while I think she has always given her best, it’s obvious that she didn’t always have the best material to work with. Interpretive singing is her bread-and-butter, but there’s only so much a singer can do with a weak song.
Because of its lyrical limitations (the song was used in a Pepsi commercial, for fuck’s sake), “The Best” places the burden of carrying the song almost entirely on the singer’s ability to transform the words into something meaningful through the expression of sincere emotion. Nearly every description of Bonnie Tyler’s voice includes the adjectives “raspy,” “husky” and “gravelly” (all good qualities in a rock singer), but she can also sing with noticeable emotional power, giving her a textural range that a lot of singers would die for.
There’s no faulting Bonnie for her performance on “The Best”. She fucking nails it—phrasing, tone, emotional sincerity, grit, gravel—it’s all there. “Then why,” you may ask, “Did the single fail to chart in the US and only hit #95 in the UK?” “Well, it hit the top ten in Norway,” I respond.
And therein lies part of the problem.
The problems with the song lie entirely in the arrangement, which is boring in the extreme. The beat never varies, the bass is incredibly weak, the punctuation is eminently predictable and none of the musicians come close to matching Bonnie’s power or commitment. It also features a background of shimmery sound that reminds me of Abba, which may explain the popularity of Bonnie’s version in Scandinavia.
Great song, great vocal . . . but it needed a more thoughtful arrangement and more oomph from everyone in the studio.
That’s where Tina Turner comes in.
Tina Turner was at the top of her game during this period, having staged an incredible comeback starting with Private Dancer in 1984 and continuing with a steady stream of hit albums and singles through the 80s. That success provided Tina with a lot of juice, and she used that juice to her best advantage.
Though she liked “The Best,” Tina had some ideas on how to make it better. She rang up Holly Knight and asked Holly to add a bridge that ended with an upward key change to give the song a more dramatic lift and serve as a transition to a stronger finish. Fortunately, Holly was completely open to Tina’s absolutely brilliant suggestion.
Tina’s involvement in song editing tells me she heard something special in the song and sensed she could make it her own. She received credit as co-producer and arranger on the track, further indication of her desire to make this song her baby. As fortune would have it, the producer she chose to produce Foreign Affair (the album containing “The Best”) was Dan Hartman, whose extensive credits included a stint with the Edgar Winter Group.
I repeat: the universe works in not-so-mysterious ways.
There were several changes to the original arrangement that paid substantial dividends. Tina lowered the main key to F major from Bonnie’s Ab, automatically strengthening the song’s bottom. The bass is much more prominent due to a combination of T. M. Stevens’ mastery of the instrument and the use of a bass pulse generator that syncs with the drumbeat. Bonnie’s version opens with the full band; Tina’s version employs a gradual build that sequences the various instruments for maximum effect. The most obvious early-in-the-song example of effective sequencing involves the drums: Art Wood’s contribution in the first verse is a steady, unintrusive foot on the kick that you feel without really noticing; when he comes to the fore with those powerful whacks on the snare at the start of verse two, you can feel the excitement level rise a few notches. The transition between verses one and two calls out another huge difference between Bonnie’s arrangement and Tina’s—Bonnie’s band never stops playing and does very little to mark the transitions. Tina’s version features brief pauses between the early verses and between the verse and chorus that strengthen the sense of drama.
Those pauses are dispensed with entirely when we arrive at the bridge. Holly Knight wisely stuck with already-present chords in composing the bridge (Bb, Dm, C), making for a beautifully seamless repair job. Up to this point, Tina’s vocal has been strong and steady; when we hit the bridge, we sense her passion rising as her fear of losing a cherished relationship takes hold of her heart and soul:
Each time you leave me, I start losing control
You’re walking away with my heart and my soul
I can feel you even when I’m alone
Oh baby, don’t let go
The key change from F to G takes place when Tina sings “Oh baby, don’t let go,” on the transitional D major chord and what happens next never fails to give me the chills—Edgar Winter’s sax solo. In keeping with the general tenor of the song, the sax part isn’t musically complicated, but Edgar blows that sucker like there’s no tomorrow, matching Tina’s emotional intensity note for note.
Edgar’s tour-de-force is immediately followed by the chorus (now in G), where the volume on the background singers is turned up a notch, giving the listener another emotional rush. Tina allows herself a little “WHOO!” after the first line—a well-deserved burst of pride in her accomplishment. The final improvement over Bonnie’s version arrives with a good strong ending on the words, “You’re the best!” (as opposed to Bonnie’s lackluster fade out). If I had to identify one passage in the history of recorded popular music where I am 100% positive that everyone in the studio was feeling it, it would be the second half of Tina Turner’s version of “The Best,” from the bridge to the finish.
The arrangement is absolutely marvelous on many levels, but most importantly, it never overwhelms the singer but serves to highlight her performance. Nelson Riddle’s arrangements for Sinatra have that quality; on the flip side, the presence of sappy strings and saccharine background singers distract from several of the songs on the Ray Charles classic, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
When I first heard Tina Turner’s version of “The Best” I was absolutely sure that no one on earth could ever cover this song again. This was now her signature song, and trying to top her performance would be a fool’s errand similar to attempting a cover of Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” No way. Don’t bother. Shut up.
Boy, was I wrong, and boy, am I proud to admit it.
During season four of Schitt’s Creek, Noah Reid was tasked with doing the impossible. Dan Levy’s script for the episode “Open Mic” required Noah’s character (Patrick) to sing “The Best” armed only with an acoustic guitar.
NOAH REID: At the table read for ‘Open Mic,’ I remember saying to Dan, ‘You’re going to make me sing, huh?’ and he was like, ‘Yeah, for sure. And that song is very important to me, so don’t fuck it up.’
—Levy, Daniel and Levy, Eugene. Best Wishes, Warmest Regards: The Story of Schitt’s Creek. New York. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. p. 199.
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, here’s a brief summary of the storyline that led to “Open Mic.” David Rose (Dan Levy) decides to open a shop in a space previously filled by a general store. Needing to apply for a business license, he meets Patrick, who helps him complete the application (actually, Patrick does it for him). Shortly thereafter, Patrick sees potential in what is now the Rose Apothecary and offers to become David’s business partner. A more intimate relationship develops simultaneously, culminating in a kiss during the final episode of season three. After a relatively successful opening, business begins to tank, so Patrick suggests sponsoring an open mic night to connect with the community and lure more people to the shop. David is leery of the idea and becomes even more anxious when Patrick insists on performing the opening number himself to kick off the festivities, but in the end, David reluctantly allows the open mic to proceed.
“It took me a while to figure out the arrangement, because I wanted to honor the pop drive and rhythm of the song, but also wanted it to be soft and vulnerable and honest, and something that could come from Patrick,” remembered Reid (ibid). Transforming a powerhouse number into an acoustic ballad would be a challenge for anyone, but Noah Reid is a talented artist with an extensive background in music and theatre—and as an artist, he understands the enduring truth that limitations inspire creativity.
After welcoming his guests, Patrick introduces the song: “I want to dedicate this song to, um, a very special someone in my life . . . David Rose.” Noah chose to “honor the pop drive and rhythm” of the original by establishing a palpitating beat on the low E string, using the G and B strings for harmonics and duplication of the original’s four-note runs (Noah places a capo on the fourth fret, rendering the song in the key of B major). The heightened beat creates a sense of urgency, mirroring his own excitement and understandable trepidation about sharing his feelings about his same-sex partner openly, honestly and in public. His phrasing and tone alternate between moments of genuine tenderness and passages where the words come gushing out as if it’s no longer possible to contain these new and exciting emotions. The timbre of his voice conveys both honesty and clarity; his shift to falsetto at the end of the song makes for a sweet and lovely finish. Despite the urgency of his guitar and his occasionally rushed-but-appropriately-rushed delivery, the overall effect of his performance is calming and nurturing . . . Noah holds your attention from the first note to the last, lifting you out of your day-to-day and into a space filled with warmth and genuine love.
While you may think I should have recused myself from evaluating Noah’s effort due to my status as a woman living with a same-sex partner, every person I know who has seen the episode—whether gay, straight or indifferent—admits to shedding tears during and after Noah’s performance.
Three episodes later, after a misunderstanding threatens to sabotage David and Patrick’s relationship, David extends “The Olive Branch” (the name of the episode) through a musical performance of his own, lip-syncing and dancing his way through Tina Turner’s version of “The Best.” And yeah, that scene makes me cry, too (and laugh my ass off). The song makes a third, very brief reprise in the final episode when a fragment is sung by the town’s a capella group (The Jazzagals) during David and Patrick’s wedding.
I should point out something that is true for many love songs: the lyrics take on special meaning when a song becomes “our song.” In this case, “wild and wired” certainly describes David Rose to a T, and the line “it can’t be wrong” is likely to resonate with any non-hetero couple on the planet.
The version recorded in the video below is not the take filmed on Schitt’s Creek but a fuller version released as a single in Canada, where it shot to #1 on the charts.
Although the accepted definition of “art song” is narrowly limited to largely classically-oriented compositions featuring a singer and a piano, the criteria for successful interpretation of an art song applies to pop, rock, country, and any other genre you care to name. In Art Song: Linking Poetry and Music, Carol Kimball tells us that success is achieved “when the singer is able to draw the listener into the song on an emotionally responsive level.”
I think all three singers featured here achieved that success: Bonnie Tyler’s strong performance established the song’s credibility; Tina Turner’s ingenuity and full commitment lifted “The Best” to all-time-classic status; while Noah Reid’s re-imagination of the song transformed a powerhouse into a beautiful ballad.
I’d really like to summarize how three completely different takes of the same song all worked out so well, but I’m having a temporary case of writer’s block. Wait a minute . . . a fragment of a song has landed on the flypaper of my brain . . . . is that Survivor?
Well, take a message from the man
Who’s not afraid to come on strong
When there’s magic in the music
It’s the singer not the song
Ah, that cleared my brain. Yes, “it’s the singer not the song” applies to all three singers in this review, but with a caveat: it’s really the synergy between singer and song. The song has to at least give the singer something to work with. I don’t believe that a great singer can turn a crappy song into diamonds, but a diamond-level song can be thoroughly ruined by a crappy singer.
Oops—there goes my brain again . . . diamonds . . . song . . . crappy . . . ah, of course! William Shatner!