BootLeg Betty

BetteBack June 2, 1978: The Harlettes Take Front And Center

Rolling Stone Magazine
Bigger than backup
June 2, 1978

Behind Bette Midler, they were night-lifers — sleazy, easy streetwalkers, able to straddle microphone stands and strike rude poses at the snap of a certain redhead’s finger.

They had their own little scenes going: Ula, the tall one who looked like an even cooler Cher; Sharon, short and stacked (“I found her at Disneyland.” Midler would say, “where she was one of the rides!”); and Charlotte, the big one, the ringleader, the one who always laughed loudest at Bette’s lines. But they were always in tight-dressed, high-heeled uniforms, and always behind Bette Midler.

Now, Sharon Redd, Ula Hedwig and Charlotte Crossely are up front, billing themselves as Formerly of the Hartettes for practical purposes, but working toward getting known simply as Redd, Hedwig and Crossely.

The work seems to be paying off. A week at Reno Sweeney’s in New York and two weeks at the Mocambo in San Francisco drew rave review and noisy sellout crowds. The three still are scripted and choreographed to the tailfeathers, but the image is their own.

Hubba-hubba hooking is out; all-out showbiz razzmatazz is in. Charlotte, in cornrows and beads, emerges as the group comic, borrowing from Steve Martin, Bette Midler and every foil Redd Foxx, as Sanford. has ever had.

They do jazz, disco, R&B and rock and, roll, with bits of nostalgia. They are Labelle, but with less space glitter and more musical variety. They are the Pointers, but without the limitations of the glad-raggedy-sisters image. There’s some light racial humor, the obligatory poke at Anita Bryant and a sendup of Dolly Parton (Crossley in a bountiful blond bouffant as “Polly Darken”).

And, of course they plug their first album, which is produced by David Rubinson, whose previous credits include the Pointer Sisters and, after Labelle’s breakup, Patti Labelle.

On the air, at KSAN.’s studious in San Francisco, they are asked how Midler responded to their forming an act of their own and splitting.

Sharon Redd answers: “She realized she had to move and we had to move on. She’s doing her movie now (The Rose). And we weren’t born to be background singers.” (All three appeared in Jesus Christ Superstar and Hedwig was in Godspell and in a pop group named Rosie before joining Midler.)

In 1976, after a Midler run at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, a Los Angeles club owner approached the Harlettes to do a show on their own, and they began putting together an act.

While Midler recorded Broken Blossoms last year, Redd, Hedwig and Crossley set out on their first tour. Late last year, the four did their last tour together, with the Harlettes getting an opening 20-minute set. “She was so supportive and right
there for us,” says Crossley.

“To have females open for her,” Redd picks up the point. “You never see female singers open for another female singer.”

Still, there were difficult moments. Midler’s tour of highclass rooms was a smash, but she was no longer the only star onstage. The Harlettes got their own raves, from both crowds and critics, and there was even talk that reviews were kept from Midler. How was Bette in the wings, when the Harlettes had finished stirring the audiences up?

“She was moved,” says Red. But, a moment later, Crossley adds:”I don’t know what she really thought.”

As for themselves: “We’d come off from busting our buns, singing and dancing and sweating, and have to come back on and be . . .” Backup singers? “.. . Somebody else,” Crossley chooses to say.

Now the KSAN announcer asks them about their choices for success, on the heels of other vocal groups — Manhattan Transfer, Starland Vocal Band, Labelle and the Pointers among them — who gained sudden success, then slipped away.
(Redd, Hedwig and Crossley’s first single stiffed, and the new one is a fine gospel blues number, Ain’t No Man Worth It.)

Crossley says: “We want to do everything: TV, movies, stage; it’s important to have exposure in all those media because of our own personalities and training. I know I’d be very bored if I was just gonna make records. We want to run the gamut, and that’s the difference between us and the others.”

“I think the public is ready for fresh new ideas,” says Redd, “Punk rock is cute and all of that.” Crossley interrupts: “New wave is really a cold wave.”

And Redd concludes; “I think they’re ready for what we want to give, and T know I’m ready to give it.”

Crossely, for a moment, plays backup again. “I hear you,” she says.

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