10 Surprising Bette Midler Cover Songs
posted on Jun. 5, 2014, at 6:44 p.m.
Over the years, Bette Midlerâ€™s music has often been dismissed for being too schmaltzy or because she tends to go way, way old school with her cover choices, and while the former might be relative, as to the latter, she tackled the Rosemary Clooney songbook in 2003, then followed it in 2005 by covering the Peggy Lee songbook. Not that thereâ€™s anything wrong with tackling standards, but there was a time not so long ago when Midler was turning in versions of some pretty awesome contemporary tunes.
1. Tom Waits, â€œShiver My Timbersâ€
Midler originally covered this song – which featured on Waitsâ€™ 1974 album, The Heart of Saturday Night – on Songs for the New Depression (1976), where it was paired with â€œSamedi et Vendredi,â€ an original co-written by Midler and longtime Utopia member Moogy Klingman.
The following year, she covered it all by its lonesome on her concert album, Live at Last. Possibly not by coincidence, she and Waits recorded a duet that same year: â€œI Never Talk to Strangers,â€ which can be found both on her Broken Blossom album and his Foreign Affairs album.
(Midler also recorded a cover of Waitsâ€™ â€œMarthaâ€ that didnâ€™t make the cut for Broken Blossom, but she performed it beautifully on Saturday Night Live.)
2. Bob Dylan, â€œBuckets of Rainâ€
Midlerâ€™s cover of â€œBuckets of Rainâ€ was actually performed with the man who composed it. According to Aaron Russo, Midlerâ€™s manager at the time, â€œDylan wanted [Bette] to be in his Rolling Thunder Revue movie. They were talking about it and she said, â€˜Well, thereâ€™s a possibility Iâ€™ll do it, but I would like you to sing a song with me.â€™ He came to the studio one night, and they just went out and did this piece.â€
â€œBuckets of Rainâ€ wasnâ€™t the first song Dylan suggested, however: per the website Bette on the Boards, â€œWhen Bob Dylan was first approached to do a duet with Bette on this album, he wanted to record a version of â€˜Friends.â€™ Moogy Klingman reluctantly rehearsed Bette and Bob doing this song, but it became quite clear that it was a bad choice.â€
3. Neil Young, â€œBirdsâ€
In the intro to her version of â€œBirds,â€ which originally appeared on Neil Youngâ€™s 1970 album, After the Gold Rush, Midler teases Young a bit, calling him â€œmellow and laid back,â€ then tries so hard to get into the same mindset that she canâ€™t remember if sheâ€™s actually performed the song or not, asking the audience, â€œDid I sing the ballad yet? Was it wonderful?â€
4. Sammy Hagar, â€œRedâ€
The more casual Midler fans are likely aware of her second Sammy Hagar cover, â€œKeep On Rockinâ€™,â€ since it appeared on the multi-platinum-selling soundtrack to her 1980 film, The Rose. The diehards, however, will recall that she tackled the song that helped secure the Red Rocker his longtime nickname on 1977â€™s Broken Blossom.
5. Bob Seger, â€œFire Down Belowâ€
Speaking of The Rose, Midler can be heard covering Bob Segerâ€™s â€œFire Down Belowâ€ in the film, yet the track never actually made its way onto the soundtrack. Fortunately, she decided to add the song to her setlist, resulting in its appearance on her 1980 concert album, Divine Madness.
6. Marshall Crenshaw, â€œYouâ€™re My Favorite Waste of Timeâ€
Although Midlerâ€™s cover of Marshall Crenshawâ€™s most memorable B-side was released as the second single from her 1983 album, No Frills, it was ultimately overshadowed by the third single, her version of the Rolling Stonesâ€™ â€œBeast of Burden,â€ which got more attention as a result of Mick Jagger appearing in the video.
7. Bruce Springsteen, â€œPink Cadillacâ€
Years before Natalie Cole had a hit with it, Midler recorded her own take on â€œPink Cadillac,â€ ostensibly for inclusion on 1983â€™s No Frills, but itâ€™s said that Springsteen decided that the song wasnâ€™t appropriate for a woman to sing. Obviously, he changed his mind at some point, but even if he didnâ€™t want Midler to release her studio version, it didnâ€™t stop her from continuing to sing the song in concert: you can find â€œPink Cadillacâ€ opening her 1984 concert video, Art or Bust.
8. Ben Folds Five, â€œBoxingâ€
Possibly the most left field cover choice on this list, the reasons behind Midlerâ€™s decision to tackle the closing number from Ben Folds Fiveâ€™s self-titled debut remain a mystery – perhaps because of her lingering regret that she turned down the role of Adrian in Rocky? – but Folds himself was thrilled that she did. â€œDelusionally, I expected that, when I set off down the yellow brick road of musicianship, Iâ€™d be a covered writerâ€¦and I wasnâ€™t,â€ Folds told the Wisconsin Gazette in 2011. â€œIt didnâ€™t happen until Bette did that.â€
9. Kirsty MacColl, â€œIn These Shoes?â€
Although Midlerâ€™s take on the Kirsty MacColl classic song was decidedly campier than the original, it still managed to make its way to #8 on Billboardâ€™s Hot Dance Club Songs chart. (Plus, if it introduced even a few listeners to MacCollâ€™s back catalog, thatâ€™s a win by any estimation.)
10. David Bowie, â€œYoung Americansâ€
This really shouldnâ€™t count, since it was never officially released, but itâ€™s worth including – if only at the very end – because the story behind it is so cool. After David Bowie finished recording his Young Americans album, he played it for various folks, including John Lennon, Paul and Linda McCartney, Bob Dylan, andâ€¦you guessed itâ€¦Bette Midler. As such, Midler was in the position to start covering the title track very early on, putting it into the setlist of her Clams on the Half Shell Revue, where she combined it with the Beatlesâ€™ â€œA Day in the Lifeâ€ by tying the two tracks together with their shared line, â€œI read the news today, oh boy.â€ Unfortunately, she never recorded a studio version of the cover, but if you do a bit of huntingâ€¦well, letâ€™s just say itâ€™s not inconceivable that you could stumble upon a live recording somewhere on the â€˜net.
Oh, and just for fun, thereâ€™s one other interesting tie between Bowie and Midler thatâ€™ll bring this whole thing full circle: he introduced her to one of the backup singers on his Young Americans album, a young up-and-comer by the name of Luther Vandross, after which she invited Vandross to sing backup for her next album, Songs for the New Depression, which featured the aforementioned Waits and Dylan covers.