Crystal Bernard spreads wings in new direction: pop music
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By Andy Culpepper
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- We've known she's funny. We've known she's from the South. With that accent, who could deny either?
What some may not have known is what a terrific singer she is. Crystal Bernard made a name for herself in television sitcoms -- "Wings," "It's A Living," "Happy Days," among them. Now, she's poised to enter a new phase of stardom as a recording artist of no mean talent.
This pint-sized (5 feet 3 inches) actress is quite the singer-songwriter, a fact she displays in earnest on her recently released album, "Don't Touch Me There" (River North/Platinum Records).
It's her second album, following her 1996 debut, "The Girl Next Door." Someone who hasn't heard Bernard sing before may be in for a surprise.
No smoke and mirrors here. The woman can sing and does so in a clear, lilting -- dare we say crystal? -- soprano.
Bernard's first album flirted with country, but this latest offering with its pleasing array of thought-provoking stylings can only be considered pop -- all penned by the actress herself. She even co-produced.
The high life
Bernard lives high above the Los Angeles fray in a gated community off Mulholland Drive. It's an enclave shared by many of Hollywood's famous -- Pamela Anderson Lee is a neighbor. The trappings of wealth are apparent.
For the record, Bernard's home is as ostentatious as they come -- 11,000 square feet spread over at least three floors, complete with tennis pool and audacious view. The actress-cum-singer is something altogether different, though perhaps nonetheless audacious.
She descends a huge staircase -- it makes her seem even more petite -- wearing a blue pullover top and jeans, her trademark strawberry blonde tresses falling over her shoulders, bangs framing a smiling, eager face. "Hi, I'm Crystal," she says as she extends her hand.
It's the first step in what becomes almost two hours of philosophizing. The notion of this being work seems almost laughable. And why not? Bernard is, after all, an entertainer.
Topic one? Happiness versus contentment. It's an internal debate Bernard seems intent on winning at a time when she sees a definite need to find some roses to stop and smell.
"'Happy' comes from the Greek word which means 'happenstance,' which means like a roller coaster," she declares as she makes a rolling motion with her hands and utters a little "whoosh!"
"So, it's an exhilaration," she continues. "'Happy' is a strange word. Are you happy at your birthday party? Yes. After your birthday party, you're sad. Whatever those two words mean, I don't know. But are you content with yourself?" She punctuates the sermonette with a nod and a smile.
Bernard grew up on the road singing gospel with her family. Her father was a minister. The practice of sharing her thoughts and inspirations -- ministering, if you will -- might be second nature by now.
After three television series -- successful programs, at that -- she's had time to take stock of what she deems important. "And it's all about how you are every hour of your day," she says matter-of-factly. "And if you're present in every situation."
"I've been thinking about...," she pauses as if to find the precise word. "If we're talking about the catharsis of my life ... I've been thinking about enjoying everything more.
"Enjoying life, enjoying every situation, and what do I get out of it?" She measures the words, one at a time. "Not 'What do I get out of this interview,' the publicity ... and if I can sell more albums from this interview."
Singing what she preaches
Bernard's songs reflect this invigorated search for the ever-changing notion of "more." One, in particular, begs explanation.
"Gardenia" is a haunting, introspective ballad Bernard fashioned as a sort of musical tribute to the late dancer-actress Ginger Rogers.
Bernard became acquainted with the late movie star at a 90th birthday bash for Bob Hope.
A woman approached Bernard at the table at which she and her father were sitting. Someone wanted to meet the "Wings" star.
"'I don't know if you've heard of her,'" Bernard says, recalling the words the woman said. "'Her name is Ginger Rogers.'" Here, Bernard becomes animated, snapping her fingers to emphasize the jolt the name delivered. "I was up out of my chair and going over...of course I just fell all over her talking to her."
Rogers, who was frail and seated in a wheel chair, gave the younger performer her telephone number. They became friends. Five years later, the screen legend died. Bernard did some soul searching.
"I didn't spend all the time that I wish I could have spent with her. And when she died, it was such a surprise, and it was a heartache for me."
"This woman was the toast of the country," Bernard explains. "Every woman wanted to be her. Every man wanted to be with her. And then she died alone. And I thought, 'Where were all those people who loved her?'"
Themes of love and loss shape much of the singer's new material. The provocatively titled "Don't Touch Me There" actually refers to Bernard's heart -- and to a relationship long ago which taught a younger, ambitious actress what love was and wasn't.
"I was desperate for this man," she says of this unnamed object of her affections. "Talk about unconditional love -- because I excused all his behavior. He didn't want me to fulfill any of my dreams, and it dawned on me that he didn't love me."
The man in her life now might be country singer Billy Dean if he weren't what's become known in '90s-speak as "geographically undesirable." The two have become close despite their 2,000-miles-plus separation. Dean lives in Nashville.
"And the truth is," Bernard begins, sincerity etched in her forehead. "... I would love to date him. I would love for him to pick me up and go to a movie and go on a date .... We talk on the phone all the time ... I like who I am when I'm with him. He sees things in me that no one else sees in me."
Dean worked with Bernard on her first album, and joined her in singing a couple of the tunes.
But she refers to her latest album, "Don't Touch Me There," as "organic pop." And truth be told, this material should be no great revelation for students of mainstream pop music.
Singers who've recorded songs Bernard has authored include Paula Abdul, Lisa Stansfield and Tracie Spencer. Peter Cetera heard her demo tape and asked her to sing a duet with him. It subsequently stayed on the pop charts for months.
Of the 10 songs from her new collection, Bernard doesn't hesitate when she's asked to name a favorite. It's called, simply, "Hey."
"I think probably because it came so quickly. I felt all these feelings. I was at the studio in Charlotte (North Carolina), and this experience had happened to me. And we were in a break ... and I went to the piano, and I just started playing them. Talk about things just coming out of the air.
"It's very easy to write a lot of words to express your thoughts, but to say very little but express a full thought -- that's why I like this song," she affirms.
It's another rumination about relationships -- understandings and misunderstandings. And it serves as a catalyst for Bernard to explain her fascination with songwriting, this well-hidden secret she's kept from the majority of her fans over the years.
Bernard makes the leap back in time as if it were yesterday. "I remember when," and here she gestures for emphasis, touching her temple in a pointing motion. "I remember the moment .... Do you remember 'The Sonny and Cher Show?'" she asks, as if it were some esoteric event out of television's past.
"That was my training. When you ask me who were my musical influences? Sonny and Cher. That's it. Cher wrote 'Let It Be,' all the Beatles' songs ...." She tosses her head back and laughs. "All the Three Dog Night songs -- those are Cher's."
She won a role in Marshall's first feature, "Young Doctors in Love." Singing was put on hold as a burgeoning sitcom career flourished. The comparison to her childhood inspiration makes her think.
"It is interesting, isn't it?" She muses. "I was so intrigued with (Cher). And very much idolized her."
So now Crystal Bernard the singer sits back to watch this new career take shape. "If you believe it, it can happen," she says. The added irony is eerie: Cher's first No. 1 hit in years, "Believe," echoes a similar theme.
Is she now an actress who sings or a singer who acts? "I don't know," she ponders. "I feel like an artist. Just an artist."
"An artist is someone who goes from the heart, and it goes straight to someone else's heart ... You don't get it. You don't receive from it. But that's what art is -- when you feel it, and that's what I'm passionately nuts about. I love that."
Bernard goes to her piano and plays part of "Hey," singing softly to her accompaniment. For a moment, there seems to be the scent of roses mingling with the music, as Bernard leans over the keys, lost in her tune.
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