Interview: KMB Rolling Into Raleigh

The Raleigh News Observer
Bette Midler brings her brass to Raleigh
Bette Midler Is Still Doing Her Own Thing — Divinely.
By ORLA SWIFT, Staff Writer

Photo: Mary Altaffer

It has been more than four decades since a teenage Bette Midler first sought the spotlight and boldly dubbed herself “divine.” Now, as her own teenage daughter, Sophie, settles in at college, the Divine Miss M. laments that young ladies these days aren’t encouraged to seek out their own divine individuality.

“I think they have a terrible time,” says Midler, 58, whose “Kiss My Brass” music and comedy tour hits Raleigh’s RBC Center tonight. “They have so much pressure on them. They have everybody trying to get their hands in their wallets. They’re marketed to relentlessly. They’re browbeaten to look a certain way. They all talk the same: ‘Like, like, like, like.’ … That just drives me nuts because it doesn’t matter how intelligent you are, you sound like an idiot.”

Midler clearly has a lot to say about how to be a strong young lady. She admits it can be overwhelming when she climbs up on her maternal soap box. “But sometimes you think, if you’re not screaming, you’re not getting through,” she says.

It’s hard to imagine Midler not getting through to anyone. From the start of her career, performing at cabarets such as Raleigh’s now defunct Frog and Nightgown in the 1970s with the then-unknown Barry Manilow, to powerful film roles in “The Rose” and, most recently, this year’s remake of “The Stepford Wives,” Midler’s image has been that of a sassy powerhouse with little apparent concern for what people think of her.

She was only 28 when she created her first solo show on Broadway, and she made a second one just over a year later, in 1974, and two more since then. Her ’74 show, “Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell Revue,” won a special Tony Award for, as the Tonys put it, “adding luster to the Broadway season.”

She has won three Grammy Awards and sold more than 14 million albums. She has climbed high on the pop charts time and again, from early ’70s hits such as “Do You Want to Dance” and a cover of the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” to “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “From a Distance” and “The Rose.”

Midler has had her flops, too, including a 1982 stinker appropriately titled “Jinxed” and a canceled self-titled television series in 2000. And they’ve crushed her spirit at times. But she’s resilient, personally and professionally. In a phone interview near the start of this second leg of her “Kiss My Brass Tour,” subtitled “I’m Not Retiring and You Can’t Make Me!” she speaks excitedly about the 10-truck spectacle she’s bringing to Raleigh.

“It all takes place on the boardwalk of an amusement park somewhere near the shore,” she says. “It’s kind of a dreamlike state, but it is based loosely on Coney Island at the end of the 19th century, when they first invented light bulbs and people would dash down there and just throw their clothes off as soon as they got off the train and just have the best time, because it was almost like a license to play.

“That’s the kind of attitude that I was hoping for, because when we started doing the show, it was such a grim time,” says Midler, who began the first leg of the tour in December and is now beginning the second leg, hitting smaller markets. “It’s still quite grim, but people seem to really want to come out of it now. So we’re trying to provide them with a nice escape.”

The show will include many of Midler’s hits, as well as tunes from her recent CD of Rosemary Clooney songs, which she recorded with Manilow. She’ll also portray favorite characters such as the disco-loving mermaid Dolores De Lago. And judging from reviews of past “Brass” stops, you can expect political rants and plenty of bawdy jokes.

As the tour’s title indicates, there’ll be another new treat: brass. In addition to the core band of two guitarists, two keyboardists, percussion, drums and bass — and the backup Harlettes — Midler has added a five-piece horn section, something new for her. She says she’ll never go without again.

Lest her fans recoil at the thought of an aggressive, showy horn ensemble drowning out their Divine star, Midler notes that her horns are more refined than that.

“I don’t like that Vegas sound. I never did,” she says. “I always thought of it as really phony. Horns are not phony. Horns can be incredibly romantic. They can add punch and color to an arrangement without sounding strident. And when they play together, when they play in harmony, sometimes it can be so magical.”

Midler hopes her Frog and Nightgown fans will come see her, as they have so faithfully through the years. If her daughter doesn’t always listen to her, at least her fans do. And besides, she confesses, she was pretty headstrong as a kid, too, refusing to consider any career but showbiz. And it served her just fine.

“I was so determined and so driven that once I was on that path I never looked back,” she says. “And I missed a lot. I didn’t really get a decent education. I got a very sketchy education. But I learned a lot. I learned different things. And I did have a career, the career that I wanted. And I feel very blessed.”

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