New York Daily News
Bette does Clooney (Rosemary, that is)
By JIM FARBER
Sunday, September 28th, 2003
Bette Midler has become obsessed with preservation.
Several years ago, the star initiated local programs for composting (“Who knew it could be such fun?”), city parks (“The one we cleaned up under the George Washington Bridge is to die for”) and roadways (the famous “Adopt a Highway” program).
Now Ms. M plans to preserve an endangered form of music. Her new record, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook,” released this week, salutes the grand dame of saloon songs, who died in June 2002. Midler tackles the legendary singer’s ’50s hits, like “Come On-a My House” and “Mambo Italiano,” with an actorly wit and zest.
According to Midler, 57, the idea for the project came from Barry Manilow, the producer of her first two albums, with whom she hadn’t worked for 30 years. “He said it came to him in a dream,” she says with ironic wonder.
Manilow promised Midler the moon to participate.
“Barry said, ‘I’ll get you top-drawer arrangers and you don’t have to do any of the heavy lifting. Just show up and sing,'” Midler explains. “Normally, I have to find the material, get involved in the arrangements and the mixing. It eats up your whole life. This was so easy.”
That’s appropriate, given Clooney’s role as the queen of vocal ease. “She was in that Frank/Bing school, where they make it look effortless,” says Midler. “But when you try to sing that stuff you see it’s hard. You have to have so much breath control and confidence.
“She had a very intimate sound,” Midler continues. “She would pull you into a lyric and into the experience of the song. She didn’t do runs the way they do now. But she stated the song simply. It was a very pure experience to listen to her.”
Clooney, the aunt of movie star George (see cover story), hit her commercial peak in the early ’50s, when her comforting sound keyed into the culture at large. Her breezy maternal style was as suited to the Eisenhower era of leisure as more raucous styles of singing were to the fractious ’60s, the decade that pushed her aside.
Midler’s music has straddled both eras. “I didn’t understand the pop scene the way people did on the mainland,” explains the singer, who grew up in Hawaii. “We just heard these voices over the radio. We didn’t know who the people were. So either the voice spoke to you or it didn’t. The quality of [Clooney’s] voice really came through to me. I sang her songs, even as a little girl.”
She met Clooney a few times in the ’80s. “Her humanity was almost the same as her singing,” Midler says. “She would wrap you up in this loving hold.”
Midler felt less warmth for Manilow after the last time they worked together. “When he left me in the ’70s, I was really livid,” she says. “But, after a while, I had to give him his due. He was making hit records and I was up and down with this really checkered career.”
She says they mended their friendship in time, but they avoided working together. “Two careers – two really stubborn people,” Midler says of Manilow and herself.
Last year, she found herself without a record contract for the first time, after three decades with the Warner Records group. “I met with the new head [of Warners], Tom Whalley. We had a very nice meeting and then I was let go,” she explains. “I thought ‘Oh, that’s kinda creepy.’ I was pretty upset.”
She considered going the indie-label route when, she says, “this project just fell in my lap.” Manilow got Midler a Columbia Records contract and they cut the album fast. The freshness shows. The arrangements sound contemporary without seeming tarted up. And they’ve pulled off the most crucial trick for a project like this: to make the songs swing.
“Barry chose arrangers who would bring something new to the material, but who were also respectful,” Midler says.
Ideally, she would love to play a rare series of concerts of this music. Though she has scheduled a regular fall arena tour (called “Kiss My Brass”) and is finishing her film part in the “Stepford Wives” remake, she hopes to pull off a show one day called “Five Nights – One Dress.”
“I’d play Carnegie Hall for five nights in the same outfit,” she says, laughing. “I’d just sing for a change – no flying around onstage in a fish tail.”
Meanwhile, she plans to play host to a Halloween charity event, headlined by Donna Summer, at Roseland to benefit her parks charity. And the preservation instinct doesn’t end there. Before our interview ends, the subject of the likely-to-shutter Bottom Line comes up.
“Oh,” Midler says with a sigh. “There’s gotta be a way to do something about that, don’t you think?”