On The Road: Angling Towards Atlanta…Thanks Manilow Elf!


Divine dream reunites Midler and Manilow
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

As recently as last year, the idea of Bette Midler and Barry Manilow ever working together again seemed as likely as a grand reopening of the Continental Baths, the New York City bathhouse where the two got their auspicious, if unconventional, start in 1970.

Fans of the pop music icons had resigned themselves to the fact that the duo’s legacy together would live on only in reruns of VH1’s “Behind the Music.” The popular episode devoted to Midler featured rare grainy live footage of the singer and her former pianist-producer-musical director at work at the Continental. After a series of skirmishes, the two friends, both self-described “control freaks,” lost touch.

Manilow went on to become one of the biggest male singer-songwriters of the 1970s and early 1980s. Midler had a series of successful dramatic and comic film roles (her latest, a remake of “The Stepford Wives,” is due on screens this summer) while continuing to play arenas in concert (her latest “Kiss My Brass” tour arrives at Philips Arena on Sunday).

Then after pal Rosemary Clooney’s death in 2002, Manilow had a dream, the end result of which has landed his former boss a Grammy nomination.

“I hadn’t heard from Barry in years and all of a sudden he’s on the phone, telling me he had this dream and in it the two of us had recorded this album of Rosemary’s music,” says Midler, explaining the origins of her new “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.”

Midler describes the call from Manilow and their subsequent recording reunion as “one of the best moments of my career.”

“We both adored Rosie and her music,” Midler says. “I would never put myself in the same league as Rosemary Clooney, but I knew most of her songs from when I was a kid.”

Back in the 1970s, Manilow’s first record-producing assignments were helping to twist the knobs on Midler’s first two landmark albums, “The Divine Miss M” in 1972 and “Bette Midler” the following year. Along the way, he also learned how to push Midler’s buttons in the studio.

“He pushes them like no one can,” Midler says, laughing. “I discovered that, even now, when I made an effort, I could get Barry to yell and raise his voice! Unlike a lot of people on the production end, he appreciates singers. If what I was doing wasn’t working, he said, ‘That’s not it, it’s too dull.’ I was like, ‘I beg your pardon??’ But in the end, I really gave it up to him. He forced me to do that.”

Midler adds with a mischievous tone of glee: “And if I put up a good fight, I could get him pretty exercised, too!”

For “Songbook,” Midler and Manilow focused mainly on reimagining Clooney’s singles she recorded for Columbia between 1950 and 1957, preserving Midler’s inimitable style in the process. The pair also decided to tackle “On a Slow Boat to China,” Clooney’s breakneck-paced 1958 duet with lifelong friend and “White Christmas” co-star Bing Crosby.

While trading whimsical asides between the verses (he calls her by her 1970s nickname, “The Divine Miss M,” while she refers to him by her pet name for him from the era, “Manila”), Manilow, who also plays piano on the track, and his former employer manage to pay loving tribute to their decades-old friendship.

“When we were recording it, the correlation between us and them never struck me,” Midler says. “But I’m glad that people think of it that way. I was too fascinated with all the musicians there around us.”

Like Clooney’s original recordings, Midler and Manilow chose to cut the “Songbook” tunes live with a full orchestra. Manilow also enlisted legendary tunesmith Ray Ellis, 81, to help create new arrangements of Clooney classics “Come On-a My House,” “Sisters” and “Memories of You.” In 1958, Ellis arranged and propped Billie Holiday up through the sessions for “Lady in Satin,” recorded 17 months before her death.

” ‘Lady in Satin’ remains one of my favorite albums,” says Midler. “I still have several vinyl copies of it lying around. Getting to work with Ray Ellis was a big thrill. It wasn’t intimidating at all. He was such a nice man. I really need to send him a copy of ‘Lady in Satin’ to sign.”

While “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook” has been embraced by critics, the singer still isn’t thrilled with her current perch in CD shops on the Female Vocalist aisle. “I want to be up front there with the pop people, not shoved in the back!” says Midler, who admits she’s a fan of current pop princesses Pink and Sheryl Crow.

If the singer has her way, she won’t be at this year’s Grammy Awards either. She wants her nomination withdrawn since her tribute album is competing in the same category with Clooney’s final CD, “The Last Concert.” Clooney never won a Grammy Award.

While fans will get a sampling of “Songbook” at Sunday night’s Philips Arena show, Midler devotes most of the show to her trademark over-the-top stage antics. She says fans can expect an “old Coney Island park feel complete with freaks of nature and some death-defying acts.”

One aspect of her last tour, in 1999, when she was one of the first concert attractions to grace Philips, will be missing, however. Five years ago onstage, she openly poked fun at the tour’s top-tier $116.50 ticket price. For “Kiss My Brass,” tickets have soared as high as $127.

“I’m not making any jokes about the prices this time,” cracks Midler. “In fact, I’m trying my best to completely ignore it.”

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