Bette Midler – whose “Divine Intervention” tour floats down to KeyArena on Monday (June 1) – has been thinking a lot about “girl groups” lately, thanks to her effervescent 2014 album of covers, “It’s the Girls.”
“I do think [these groups] were really pioneers of a sort,” the 69-year-old three-time Grammy winner said in a recent phone interview. “Like the Shangri-Las. They actually talked about making the first move [“Give Him a Great Big Kiss”]. In a funny way these were subversive songs, even if they may not have known it.”
Midler, who is all about female empowerment (albeit with a wink and a nod), really inhabits those old songs, getting the theatrically desperate “oh-oh-oh-oh” break of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” just right, and conveying both affection and irony as she bounces over “BUM-bum-bum-bum-BUM-bum-bum-bum” in the Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman.”
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But especially bright sparks fly when she sings “It’s the Girl,” by the incomparable – but today little-known – New Orleans masters of swing jazz vocals, the Boswell Sisters.
“I first heard the Boswell Sisters when I was a little girl, maybe I was 4,” said Midler, who grew up in Hawaii, the daughter of a house painter. “We were really poor. A friend of my mother’s gave my mother a record player and two record albums of 78s. One was ”˜It’s the Girl’ and the other one was ”˜River Stay Away From My Door.’ There was something about the sound of the Boswell Sisters ”¦ they were genius, especially Connie. That record was the beginning of my musical life.”
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 “Fiddler on the Roof. “ But the vamping, Mae West-inspired, female-in-female-drag diva she became known for emerged in 1970, when she began singing at New York’s gay Continental Baths, where Barry Manilow accompanied her on piano.
The Manilow-produced 1972 debut album, “The Divine Miss M,” launched a career that has included 13 solo albums, with megahits such as “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance”; three Emmy awards (including one for her unforgettable farewell performance on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson“); a special Tony Award for her contribution to Broadway; and three Golden Globes – for “Gypsy,” “For the Boys” and her still-stunning portrayal of a tragic Janis Joplin-like figure in “The Rose.”
Though many critics didn’t much care for “The Rose,” (what????) Midler is still immensely proud of the film, which she has been readying for a deluxe DVD rerelease by Criterion.
“I think it’s the best rock ’n’ roll movie ever made,” she said.
OK, then. No one ever said Midler was shy.
Her other current project is a portrayal of the late West for HBO.
“I’m getting the pages this week,” 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 “cease and desist” 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 “It’s the Girls” as well as “The Rose.” It is getting splendid reviews, though Midler has apparently retired her famous mermaid character, Delores Delago.
Never mind. There will be plenty of other “interventions” to enjoy when the Divine Miss M descends from her celestial perch.