Bette Midler â€” whose â€œDivine Interventionâ€ tour floats down to KeyArena on Monday (June 1) â€” has been thinking a lot about â€œgirl groupsâ€ lately, thanks to her effervescent 2014 album of covers, â€œItâ€™s the Girls.â€
â€œI do think [these groups] were really pioneers of a sort,â€ the 69-year-old three-time Grammy winner said in a recent phone interview. â€œLike the Shangri-Las. They actually talked about making the first move [â€œGive Him a Great Big Kissâ€]. In a funny way these were subversive songs, even if they may not have known it.â€
Midler, who is all about female empowerment (albeit with a wink and a nod), really inhabits those old songs, getting the theatrically desperate â€œoh-oh-oh-ohâ€ break of the Ronettesâ€™ â€œBe My Babyâ€ just right, and conveying both affection and irony as she bounces over â€œBUM-bum-bum-bum-BUM-bum-bum-bumâ€ in the Chordettesâ€™ â€œMr. Sandman.â€
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But especially bright sparks fly when she sings â€œItâ€™s the Girl,â€ by the incomparable â€” but today little-known â€” New Orleans masters of swing jazz vocals, the Boswell Sisters.
â€œI first heard the Boswell Sisters when I was a little girl, maybe I was 4,â€ said Midler, who grew up in Hawaii, the daughter of a house painter. â€œWe were really poor. A friend of my motherâ€™s gave my mother a record player and two record albums of 78s. One was â€˜Itâ€™s the Girlâ€™ and the other one was â€˜River Stay Away From My Door.â€™ There was something about the sound of the Boswell Sisters â€¦ they were genius, especially Connie. That record was the beginning of my musical life.â€
And what a life that has been. Midler moved to New York in 1965, where the next year she snagged the role of Tzeitel on Broadway, in â€œFiddler on the Roof. â€œ But the vamping, Mae West-inspired, female-in-female-drag diva she became known for emerged in 1970, when she began singing at New Yorkâ€™s gay Continental Baths, where Barry Manilow accompanied her on piano.
The Manilow-produced 1972 debut album, â€œThe Divine Miss M,â€ launched a career that has included 13 solo albums, with megahits such as â€œWind Beneath My Wingsâ€ and â€œFrom a Distanceâ€; three Emmy awards (including one for her unforgettable farewell performance on â€œThe Tonight Show with Johnny Carsonâ€); a special Tony Award for her contribution to Broadway; and three Golden Globes â€” for â€œGypsy,â€ â€œFor the Boysâ€ and her still-stunning portrayal of a tragic Janis Joplin-like figure in â€œThe Rose.â€
Though many critics didnâ€™t much care for â€œThe Rose,â€ (what????) Midler is still immensely proud of the film, which she has been readying for a deluxe DVD rerelease by Criterion.
â€œI think itâ€™s the best rock â€™nâ€™ roll movie ever made,â€ she said.
OK, then. No one ever said Midler was shy.
Her other current project is a portrayal of the late West for HBO.
â€œIâ€™m getting the pages this week,â€ she said with unconcealed excitement, referring to the script.
Years ago, Midler had a run-in with West, when the young singer did an impression of her on Carson. West sent her a â€œcease and desistâ€ letter, which Midler told TV host Rachael Ray she still treasures.
The current tour includes elaborate costume changes and sets, more than its share of off-color jokes and, of course, a sampling from â€œItâ€™s the Girlsâ€ as well as â€œThe Rose.â€ It is getting splendid reviews, though Midler has apparently retired her famous mermaid character, Delores Delago.
Never mind. There will be plenty of other â€œinterventionsâ€ to enjoy when the Divine Miss M descends from her celestial perch.