Plain Dealer Pop Music Critic
Bette Midler recently earned another Grammy nomination.
It’s fine by her, however, if she doesn’t win a golden gramophone at the Feb. 8 awards ceremony.
Her new CD, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook,” got a nod in the best traditional pop vocal album category.
In an unusual twist, the late Clooney herself is up for the same prize. She was nominated for her posthumous release, “The Last Concert.”
“Can you believe it?” said Midler, who performs Monday at Gund Arena in Cleveland. “I was so shocked. I’ve never seen anything sillier.”
Also vying in the same category are a duet album by Tony Bennett and k.d. lang, as well as entries by Rod Stewart and Barbra Streisand.
So whom would Midler like to see win?
“Rosemary, of course,” she said, checking in by phone last month from a tour stop in St. Louis.
Midler took home the Grammy for best new artist in 1973. Since then, the sassy singer has picked up two other Grammys.
Clooney died in 2002 of complications from lung cancer at the age of 74. She got her start singing on the radio in Cincinnati in the 1940s.
Clooney scored her first No. 1 single in 1951 with “Come On-a My House,” followed by such other Top 10 hits as “Hey There,” “This Ole House” and “Mambo Italiano.”
Those songs and other swinging gems recorded by Clooney in the 1950s – including “You’ll Never Know,” “Tenderly” and “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening” – are lovingly revisited by Midler on her new album. She dusts off “Sisters,” too, as a duet with Linda Ronstadt.
“I adored Rosemary,” said Midler, 58. “She was the warmest, kindest, most generous person. She had a beautiful voice and a big soul.”
The album was Barry Manilow’s idea. Before he found fame as a solo artist, he was Midler’s piano player.
“I hadn’t heard from him in years,” Midler said. “Suddenly, he was on the phone.”
Manilow told Midler he dreamed they reunited to record a tribute to their mutual friend Clooney. Midler jumped at the chance to make the dream come true.
“When I was thinking about who could pay tribute to – and at the same time reinvent these splendid songs, which Rosemary first introduced to the world – Bette was my first . . . and only choice!” Manilow writes in the album’s liner notes.
“Right from the start, I knew [Bette] was one of those rare artists who possessed the ability to locate the heart of a song . . . and touch the heart of the listener,” Manilow writes. “Rosemary Clooney also had this gift.”
Manilow co-produced “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook” with Robbie Buchanan, who backed Midler on keyboards in the 1979 film “The Rose.” Manilow and Buchanan oversaw fresh orchestrations for the material, too, along with several other arrangers. Among them was Ray Ellis, whose cred its include one of Midler’s all- time favorite albums, Billie Holiday’s “Lady in Satin.”
Midler and Manilow first teamed up in the early 1970s, performing campy song-and- dance routines at the Continental Baths, a gay men’s club in New York City.
“We usually worked Friday and Saturday nights,” Midler said. “It was a nightclub-style show – big opening, big closing and fill in the middle. I told jokes. Barry would back me up and underscore my patter.”
It’s like old times on Midler’s new album, especially when she and Manilow trade one-liners during “On a Slow Boat to China,” originally done by Clooney and Bing Crosby.
Midler met Clooney when the latter was performing at San Francisco’s Fairmont hotel in the early 1980s.
“She was remarkable,” Midler said. “Her voice was still intact, and her show was a wonderful compendium of anecdotes, great songs she was known for and new material, too. She never stopped learning new songs. Eventually, she settled in as a great jazz artist, which I think is what she always wanted to be in the first place.
“When I went backstage, she welcomed me with open arms. . . . She made everybody feel like part of her family.”
The two stayed in touch through the years.
“She never gave me any advice,” Midler said. “But she always said she loved what I did, which I could never understand. I always thought what I did was so raucous. But she enjoyed it.”
As the interview wound down, Midler demanded: “Aren’t you going to ask me anything about my tour?”
Please – do tell, Your Divine Miss M-ness.
“It’s the biggest show I’ve ever done,” she said. “It’s based on Luna Park, which was one of the parks in Coney Island at the turn of the [20th] century. It has a carnival quality. It’s beachy, too, with lots of seashore references.
“It’s a bit old-fashioned. But it’s contemporary, too.”
Yes, her ever-popular Delores DeLago mermaid routine is still part of the act.
Midler is on the road with a horn-heavy band (hence the tour’s “Kiss My Brass!” moniker) and three backing singers. She promises “lots of surprises,” including new costumes, short film clips and a huge LED screen.
“I’m doing a bunch of songs I’ve never sung before in concert,” Midler said, “like Skylark,’ The Perfect Kiss’ and When a Man Loves a Woman’ from The Rose,’ which I always avoided singing because it was such a struggle. I’m inhabiting it in a different way now.”
Alongside “Wind Beneath My Wings” and other calling-card numbers, concertgoers also can count on “two or three” selections from the Clooney tribute album, Midler said.
A portion of the proceeds from the Cleveland show will benefit The Plain Dealer’s Holiday Spirit: A Community Fund for the homeless, the hungry and others in need.
Midler will co-star with Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close and Christopher Walken in a remake of the 1975 film “The Stepford Wives,” due in theaters in June.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for another small-screen project for Midler. CBS canceled her autobiographical sitcom, “Bette,” in 2001, after one season.
Asked if she plans to do more television, Midler shot back: “What do you think?”
Working with Manilow again on her next album is a definite possibility, on the other hand.
“I’ve been collecting a whole bunch of contemporary songs,” Midler said. “I’m not sure which way I want to go yet. But if I do go, I hope he’s going to come with me.”