Photo: Liz Boynes
Divine Miss M back with album, tour
By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — The latest Bette Midler CD is not a Bette Midler CD, at least, not according to Midler. “This is Barry’s record,” she insists.
That would be Barry Manilow, who produced Midler’s breakthrough album 31 years ago and recently returned to the studio with her for the first time since the 1970s.
The result of that reunion, Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, entered the chart at No. 14 last week, marking the Divine Miss M’s highest chart debut in 13 years.
Though Midler was a longtime admirer of Clooney, who died last year of lung cancer, it was Manilow’s idea to have his old friend, accompanied by a full orchestra, cover material that Clooney recorded back in the ’50s.
“When Barry and I first worked together, we fought like cats and dogs,” Midler recalls. “We were always at each other’s throats because we’re both control freaks. But this time, I was grown-up enough to say, ‘This is your baby.’ I just sang.”
In addition to co-producing and co-arranging, Manilow sings and plays piano on the winking On a Slow Boat to China. Other tracks range from traditional pop classics, such as You’ll Never Know and In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening, to the bouncy novelty tunes Mambo Italiano and Come On-a My House.
“Whether she liked a song or not, she sang it like it was the greatest thing ever written,” Midler says of Clooney, whom she knew personally.
“She was full of human kindness that showed in her music. When I first met her, she made me feel like I was a long-lost cousin. Then I discovered she was like that to everybody.
“She kept going through health problems and everything, and she didn’t let you see her sweat. It’s really hard to sing her kind of material. You need a beautiful voice and a good ear and breath control, and you have to know what the lyric is about. But she came from the generation of people who made it all look effortless.”
Midler will tackle Clooney’s repertoire live beginning Dec. 10, when she launches her Kiss My Brass tour, which is scheduled to hit 40 cities before wrapping in mid-February. “I made my name performing live, and I think I do well in that arena,” she says. “It can be stressful, but it never lets me down.”
In contrast, Bette, her short-lived CBS sitcom in 2000, was “a source of tremendous frustration,” she concedes. “I went into it without knowing what was required, and I never really discovered how to make it work. I was so unhappy that I couldn’t be around people without screaming about how upsetting it was. So I shot myself in the foot. But everybody makes mistakes. Mine was a very expensive one, and I take responsibility for it. It’s just not my field.”
Midler hasn’t forsaken big-screen acting, though. She’ll appear next year in a new version of The Stepford Wives, co-starring Nicole Kidman, Glenn Close and Matthew Broderick.
“The movie has been updated, so now it’s a comedy. It’s still haunting and horrific, but very funny, too.”
Behind the scenes, Midler continues to work on behalf of the New York Restoration Project, an organization she founded in 1997 to restore neglected public spaces, and to raise 16-year-old daughter, Sophie, who could be following in her mother’s footsteps.
“For a long time, I told her if she ever went into show business I would kill her,” Midler says. “But about two years ago, I said, if you really want to, you can. She plays classical piano, she’s a good singer, and she just loves the music business. She wants to be part of it.”
Asked to define her own role, the show-biz veteran says, “I’m an entertainer. For a long time, I’d say I was an actor. Then, when I couldn’t get a job acting, I said I was a singer. But basically, I take what comes my way and make some work on my own. And fortunately, I’m still having fun with it.”