As a singer, Midler’s truly divine
Friday, February 06, 2004 – SAY what you will about her dopey movies and failed TV show, Bette Midler will go down in history as one of our best pop singers.
Although she has had mega-hits — ever heard of tunes called “The Rose” or “Wind Beneath My Wings”? — Midler is underappreciated as a singer. Listening to her 1972 debut album “The Divine Miss M” is still a revelation because she so effectively fuses pop sounds from divergent decades. No other pop performer has so successfully recorded the likes of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” “Leader of the Pack” and “Superstar” all in the space of one eclectic album.
On her second, self-titled album she tackles Hoagy Carmichael (“Skylark”), Kurt Weill (“Surabaya Johnny”) and Bob Dylan (“I Shall Be Released”). You don’t see Barbra Streisand being that adventurous.
But sometimes singing such a wild variety of songs has worked against Midler. The zany energy of her live shows only sporadically has been harnessed on record, partly because Midler’s taste in selecting songs is not always reliable.
Her 1979 album “Thighs and Whispers,” for instance, is the album equivalent of her movie “Jinxed!” — a giant stinker. What was she thinking when she recorded the lame disco tune “My Knight in Black Leather”? But even this ridiculous collection of songs has a redeeming feature: her heartfelt version of James Taylor’s ballad “Millworker.”
Midler has two live recordings (with one more on the way, so they tell us): 1977’s “Live at Last” and 1980’s “Divine Madness.” The earlier one is by far the best, if only to hear her tell dirty Sophie Tucker jokes and sing an entire song cycle built around her character Vicki Eydie, the world’s most hapless lounge singer.
Once she had a hit with “The Rose,” Midler became our premier purveyor of the power ballad. Although the entire album isn’t great, listen to “All I Need to Know” on 1983’s “No Frills.” That’s great balladry, as is her version of Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” on the “Beaches” soundtrack.
Midler’s recent output has been slick and polished — two qualities Midler should avoid. But her 1998 collection “Bathhouse Betty” captured some of the old energy.
Her latest effort, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook,” finds the singer in superb voice, and although the album is rather disappointing, her country-flavored version of “This Ole House” is among her best recordings in years.