10 essential Bette Midler songs
Ed Masley, The Republic | azcentral.com 2:07 p.m. MST May 20, 2015
With Bette Midler headed to Phoenix to perform on May 24 at US Airways Center, here’s a playlist of Midler essentials, from the chart-topping ballad “Wind Beneath My Wings” to “The Rose” and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.”
10. “Wind Beneath My Wings”
It’s kind of weird that Midler’s biggest mainstream moments are this sort of heavy, emotional ballad that couldn’t be further removed from the bawdy camp appeal of such classic performance pieces as “The Vicki Eydie Show,” as captured on her classic “Live at Last.” But Midler has been doing heartfelt from the start and by the time she got to “Wind Beneath My Wings,” she was perfectly capable of delivering inspirational ballads with conviction. Taken from the “Beaches” soundtrack, this one topped the Hot 100, going platinum.
9. “From a Distance”
Midler’s platinum followup to “Wind Beneath My Wings” is an inspirational ballad that tells us “From a distance we are instruments marching in a common band / Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace / They’re the songs of every man” before reminding us that “God is watching us.” It peaked at No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100, winning a Grammy for song of the year and landing on several worst-songs-ever lists. (You can’t please everyone.)
8. “Hello in There”
This ballad from Midler’s debut, “The Divine Miss M,” was written by the great John Prine. It’s a devastating portrait of an aging couple who lost a child in the Korean War, which rhymes with “I still don’t know what for, don’t matter anymore.” Then the chorus hits, reminding us “Ya know that old trees just grow stronger / And old rivers grow wilder every day” but “Old people just grow lonesome.”
7. “Hurry on Down”
A spirited highlight of “Live at Last,” where it follows an equally spirited romp through “In the Mood,” it’s introduced with “You like that? OK, we’ll give you another one right away.” Midler has always had a gift for big-band music mixed with playful sexual innuendo and this is as good as it gets, especially the way she sells the lyrics, “I love you / You love me / A-hurry through the alley so the neighbors don’t see.”
This Leon Russell-Bonnie Bramlett song became a standard for a reason and Midler does it justice, taking a slower, more poignant approach than the Carpenters’ hit recording. Midler often joked about a non-existent rivalry between herself and Karen Carpenter for several years after the Carpenters hit with this one. Midler’s version is featured on “The Divine Miss M.”
5. “Am I Blue?”
Another melancholy ballad “The Divine Miss M,” this jazz standard dating to the 1920s is given a vulnerable read by Midler, who delivers the opening line ”“ “I’m just a woman / A lonely woman / Waiting on the weary shore / I’m just a woman who’s only human / One you should feel sorry for” ”“ in a heartbreaking whisper.
4. “Do You Wanna Dance?”
This Bobby Freeman cover was her debut single and her first appearance on the Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 17. It’s a much slower treatment than Freeman’s original or the Beach Boys’ version, building from an understated, jazzy reading of the first lines to a full-blown, richly orchestrated chorus when the song kicks in coming out of a Beatles-esque vocal build nearly two minutes in, at which point her delivery becomes more playful. It’s featured on “The Divine Miss M.”
3. “The Rose”
This aching ballad is the song that took Midler to the masses, hitting No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 on its way to becoming her first gold single. It has held up surprisingly well, the arrangement much more understated than her subsequent hit ballads, starting with a memorable piano intro and a nuanced yet clearly emotional reading of the first verse. It gets bigger from there, but the orchestration never makes it all the way to overblown and Midler’s vocal is exactly what it takes to put this kind of song across. Taken from the soundtrack to “The Rose,” it earned the star a Grammy.
2. “In the Mood”
The big-band highlight of her second album, it stalled at No. 51 on Billboard’s Hot 100, but it feels like a perfectly logical followup to “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which had given Midler her Top 10 appearance in the Hot 100 earlier that year. Glenn Miller and his Orchestra had better luck with their version, which spent 13 weeks at No. 1 in 1940.
1. “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”
Midler’s version of this Andrews Sisters classic, featured on “The Divine Miss M,” went Top 10 on the Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 8. This track is quintessential Midler, a big-band revival that swings with a spirited vocal from Midler backed by Andrew Sisters-worthy harmonies. It has become a staple of the live show for obvious reasons, and she famously performed it as her alter-ego Dolores De Lago, a mermaid, on “Late Night with David Letterman.”