Bette Midler’s web site describes her 2014 album “It’s the Girls!” as “an exquisite explosion of estrogen.” On it, she revisits songs associated with girl groups across the decades, from New Orleans’ Boswell Sisters up through the Supremes, the Shirelles and even TLC of “Waterfalls” fame.
Her current Divine Intervention outing, her first American tour in a decade, stops at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans on Saturday (May 16); tickets are still available. During a recent phone interview, Midler, 69, had questions of her own — about the fate of the old Blue Room, the changes at a certain local media company, and what, exactly, is a smoothie? She started off asking about the venue for her upcoming concert.
Midler: The Smoothie King Arena — is that where I’m coming?
The Smoothie King Center, yes. You played there 10 years ago when it was still called the New Orleans Arena.
Midler: Ohh, the Smoothie King people stepped up to the plate, hunh?
They did. They put a lot of money down.
Midler: Can you now please tell me what “Smoothie King” is?
It’s sort of a frozen yogurt drink.
Midler: Wow. OK. I’ll try one when I come down there.
Back in the day, you must have played the Blue Room at the old Fairmont Hotel.
Midler: I actually did! I played the Blue Room at the Fairmont. Is it still there?
It is. It’s used mostly for private events. The hotel is now the Roosevelt, which was the original name, before the Fairmont.
Midler: Wow. That’s amazing. It’s a shame that they don’t have headliners any more. I had so much fun playing those rooms. It was a real learning experience for a lot of people just entering the business. It was a nice stepping stone.
Midler: That’s right. “Iko, Iko.” My girls!
They’re still around. They’re still singing.
Midler: Are they? That’s great to hear. Is Tipitina’s still there?
Tipitina’s is still there.
Midler: New Orleans is one of my favorite places in the whole world. I think I came for a marching band battle one year. After the hurricane, I came because I was doing my thing, trying to help people get up from under in the Ninth Ward. We went down a couple times for that. But I don’t think I’ve played there since then. I haven’t toured since 2005.
Katrina was a tough way to do urban renewal, but the city has come a long way.
Midler: I’m happy to hear that. The Times-Picayune has had a major overhaul, too, right?
Yes we have.
Midler: I remember something happened. You closed your doors and then you came back online?
Well, no. The change was from home delivery seven days a week to home delivery three days a week, with an emphasis on the web site. The idea being that we’re a digital-first news organization now; the focus is online. But this interview will appear both in print and online.
Midler: Wonderful. I’m a print person. I still read the paper. Don’t tell them I said this, but I think it’s harder online. You can’t really get to it. In the newspaper, your eye goes up and down really fast. You see things that you wouldn’t ordinarily see online. Online you have to click. It’s not as easy as reading the paper.
The “It’s the Girls!” album is named for one of the songs on it, “It’s the Girl,” by the 1930s New Orleans vocal group the Boswell Sisters.
Midler: The Boswell Sisters was the first record that ever came into my home. When I was a little girl, a friend of my mother’s gave us a phonograph and two record albums. One of them had a 78 (rpm record) of the Boswell Sisters. The song was “It’s the Girl” on one side and “River Stay Away From My Door” on the second side.
I thought they were absolute geniuses. I was like 6, and I knew that there was something special about the sound that they made. As the years went by, I collected a little bit here and a little bit there. I saw them in those shorts that they did, and I saw them occasionally in the movies. I never got over them. I thought they just swung as hard as people could swing. They were just great.
Donald Fagen (of Steely Dan), it turns out, was a fan. He recently put out a book (“Eminent Hipsters”) and he devotes a whole chapter to them. I don’t know if anyone is still listening, but I certainly did my part to shine a little spotlight on them.
They were the model for the Andrews Sisters.
Midler: They absolutely were. There’s no question about it. I think what the Andrew Sisters did was take the concept and smooth it out. Make it not so complicated. The Boswells were so sophisticated, their changes of tempo and their modulations and the way the parts kept switching. The Andrews Sisters basically just smoothed all that out and were much more straight-forward. They had huge success, and I love them, but there’s nothing like the Boswells.
Was this a long-simmering concept, to do this type of girl-group collection?
Midler: It’s the kind of thing where you don’t understand why you’ve always been drawn to it, and then suddenly you don’t want to do anything else but that. From the very beginning, I’ve sung these sort of send-ups of the girl groups, because I grew up with them.
But I always thought there was something much more interesting than the way they were presented. It seemed like there was a deeper, darker something or other going on there. It was all very sunny, but as the years have gone by, and you see what happened to them, and the country, and the evolution of music after them…
“Nostalgia” is too strong a word, but “affection” is not. I have a huge affection for the sounds and the styles and the courtesies and civilities and the way things were done. I can’t help it, because that’s what I lived through. I’m sure the little ones being born today will have a great affection for today, with all its war and mayhem.
With the first record I made, I sang “Chapel of Love,” and I sang Andrews Sisters songs. I’ve always loved the sound of voices in harmony. This just seemed like an album whose time had come. And I didn’t want to shuffle off before I did it, so I did it.
Alas, you didn’t decide to sing Kim Kardashian tweets on the album, as you did during a recent late-night talk show appearance. The Kardashians are a different kind of girl group.
Midler: Yeah, a different kind of girl group. They should sing. I wonder if they do sing? They haven’t sung so far.
There’s always hope. Is your new show as bawdy as ever, or have you toned it down?
Midler: I think it’s going to be a lot more music. Dolores the singing mermaid is not with us this year.
It will probably be pretty bawdy, but I think it’s going to be more music and less talking. I have a wonderful band; most of them are out of Atlanta. We’re playing some classic hits and new songs. We’re renovating a bunch of the stuff, giving new coats of paint to a lot of it. I think it’s going to be fun. It’s called Divine Intervention. You know me â€“ I’m the Divine Messiah. I’ll have tips for people who are in dire need — new commandments, new ways to live, new ways to get through the chaos of modern life. At least that’s what we’re shooting for, but who knows?
I do enjoy the process. I like the rehearsals, I enjoy the band, I love the girls. I’m singing my little heart out. I’m trying to get my ukulele to stay in tune and all that kind of thing.
So it will be just like being in the Blue Room, only bigger.
Midler: Only bigger! Oh my God, the Blue Room! That was the first time I discovered the Acme Clam Bar. The best potato salad in the world. Oh my God, what a time I had.
Acme Oyster Bar, you mean. Clams are the wrong part of the country.
Midler: Oyster bar, oyster bar. I’m sorry. I knew it was shellfish of some sort.
So are you doing the Boswell song “It’s the Girl” in the show?
Midler: That is the hardest song on the whole record. I did all the parts myself. When I sat down to do it, I couldn’t figure who the hell was singing. As well as I knew that song, I could not figure it out.
There’s a guy who manages Forever Plaid who had done a show on the Boswells. Somehow he had gotten his hands on their vocal charts. He let me have the charts, so I was able to reconstruct it.
But it’s really hard. I have my other girls, my Harlettes, with me. We haven’t cracked that one yet. I do hope we’ll get to it.
But sometimes you think, “I know they know it from the record, but do most of the people in this auditorium know this song? Will they sit still for it, because it’s got those stops and starts in it? Is it something that’s even too outside their camp?”
So it’s a balancing act. We’re certainly going to try it, and if it turns out great, we have to sing it in New Orleans at least.
And maybe “Chapel of Love.”
Midler: Oh there’s a good idea. Thank you for refreshing my memory.