BetteBack May 28, 1992: Walt Disney Announces New Bette Midler Movie “Mama Rock”

Sari Harrar, Record Staff Writer
The Record (Bergen County, NJ)
By Sari Harrar, Record Staff Writer
Date: 05-28-1992, Thursday
Edition: All Editions — 3 Star, 2 Star P, 2 Star B, 1 Star Late, 1 Star Early


Talk about doing the twist.

One fine day in 1957, four Passaic teenagers crowded into Florence
Greenberg’s dreamy pink living room. Da-doo-ron-ron-ron,
da-doo-ron-ron, they sang. “Florence jumped up,” recalls Shirley Reeves
of the Shirelles. “She loved it, and we agreed to record it for her.
That’s when it all started.”

Now, it’s starting over.

Walt Disney Pictures has announced that Greenberg, the Passaic
housewife who built a rock-and-roll empire on the Shirelles’ bouncy “I
Met Him on a Sunday,” will be the subject of a big-screen biography
starring Bette Midler.

“Bette and Florence remind me of each other,” says screenwriter
Susan Sandler, the “Crossing Delancey” author who’s penning Greenberg’s
story. “They’re both colorful, gutsy women with a great sense of humor
and a sense of wanting to get everything out of life. Florence
shake-rattled-and-rolled her way to the top. Who else could play her?”

With raw material like this, how can the Divine One miss?
Greenberg’s true-life tale pivots on movie-quality plot twists.

Back in ’57, the Shirelles were an unknown girl group. Greenberg
was a bored housewife “who’d only ever worked 10 days in my life, at
Macy’s over Christmas.” Her kids were nearly grown: son Stanley, a blind
pianist, was out of high school; daughter Mary Jane was close to
graduating. The gutsy Greenberg started a tiny record label when a
friend said she’d be good at it. “But my best talent was this butcher
who wanted to be a singer,” she says. Then Mary Jane heard the Shirelles
sing at a Passaic High School talent show.

Would they sing for her mom?

“We avoided it for months because we didn’t think Florence could
really record us,” confesses Reeves. “But we finally went. She had the
most beautiful living room I’ve ever seen. All pink and blue, with
touches of gold. And the food. I’d never had egg and bologna sandwiches

“It was kosher salami,” chides Greenberg, 78. “You always say it
was bologna.”

They cut a deal. Greenberg recorded their song and sold it to
Decca for $4,000. But she was frustrated by the big company’s failure
to promote the quartet. So Greenberg jumped back in. Her Scepter Records
made rock-and-roll history, launching the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick,
the Isley Brothers and B.J. Thomas, songwriter Carole King and Top 40
hits like “Louie Louie” and “Soldier Boy” before folding in 1977.

Thirty-five years later, the question remains: Did the Shirelles
fuel Greenberg’s surprising ascent? Or did Greenberg’s luck and guts
push them to the top?

“People say Florence’s love for us did it,” says Reeves. “We were
like her daughters.”

“True,” says Greenberg, sipping cocoa in her Teaneck apartment.
“That’s what matters most. You work for the gold records. What you get
along the way is love.”

There’s another twist. Fifteen years after Greenberg sold Scepter’s
master recordings and retired, a Nashville record company has reissued
the label’s greatest hits. “The Scepter Records Story,” 65 songs and
studio chatter from Warwick, Thomas, the Isley Brothers, and others, was
released Tuesday on Capricorn Records. “I think it’s the 1960s revival
that’s behind it,” says Greenberg, “don’t you?”

Could be. There seems to be a Greenberg revival, too.

“She was breaking ground,” says Mark Pucci of Capricorn. “In 1959,
she was the female owner of an important independent label. Not to sound
male-chauvinist, but this was literally unprecedented.

“Even if you look now,” Pucci says, “there aren’t many women
heading record companies. It was very much in the control of men. And
her main partner, Luther Dixon, was a black man. He produced the records
and even wrote the songs. That would be big news today. In 1959, it was

Almost overnight, Greenberg was transformed.

The Passaic mom became the rule-breaking music executive. The
two-kids-and-a-husband routine became the all-night recording session,
the Manhattan apartment “with servants,” the Rolls-Royce, the yacht, the
divorce, perhaps even a romance — Greenberg guards the details. There
were dinners with “American Bandstand’s” Dick Clark, with John and Yoko,
parties with Leslie Uggams. On tour, there were also nights sleeping at
local Y, when the black Shirelles were turned out of white hotels.

In retirement, Greenberg enjoyed a palmy Beverly Hills flat and a
Hollywood social life. Ill health prompted her move to Teaneck three
years ago, to be near her daughter.

It’s a life made for the movies, right?

“Bette likes this,” says Sandler. “But of course no movie is
definite until it’s shot. They’re still editing the script.” The
working title was “The Florence Greenberg Story.” Now, its “Mama Rock.”
Greenberg groans at this one. “Not dignified,” she says. “It’ll change a
million times,” Sandler says. “The marketing people will decide.”

“Bette Midler. It’s very exciting,” Greenberg says. “I only hope
there’s a hit song for her.”

Reeves giggles.

“Oh, Florence,” chimes in the singer, who once attempted — without
success — to jazz up her boss’ matronly black-and-navy wardrobe, to
tease her straight brown hair. “We tried to teach you to dance. But you
could never really sing.”

What matters is that her artists could. From 1959 to 1977, a hefty
chunk of AM radio airtime belonged to Scepter. The Isley Brothers
created a rumpus with “Twist and Shout.” Thomas sang “Raindrops Keep
Falling on My Head.” Chuck Jackson — who in the Scepter heyday packed
“30 suits and 40 pairs of shoes” on tour — crooned “Any Day Now.”
Warwick did “Walk on By.” Maxine Brown introduced “Since I Found You.”

“Scepter is really sort of a microcosm of the way American pop
music evolved in those days,” says Pucci, who grew up in Woodbridge.
“The label went from soul to pop to straight rock-and-roll. They handled
a little psychedelic music, this group from Texas called The Moving
Sidewalks. There was even a little country.”

It was a time when the indies, the independent record labels,
thrived. “Now, the music business is controlled by a half-dozen giant
corporations, most not even in the United States,” says Pucci. “Back
then, all these colorful people who loved music gave their labels the
stamp of originality. The business was different. You could make a
record, get it on the radio, and have a hit. Today, it would take
hundreds of thousands of dollars to do the same thing.”

Greenberg claims no sixth-sense for pegging a hit.

“A hit song sparks a new feeling,” she says. “Did I know
`Raindrops’ would be a hit? Not really. Did I know `Will You Love Me
Tomorrow’ would? Yes. Did I know `Louie Louie’ would be a hit? No way.”

In fact, the governor of Michigan banned “Louie.” The FBI
investigated rumors of obscenities hidden in its grooves. “But they
found nothing,” Greenberg said. “This is a Cajun song about a guy
getting off the shrimp boats and meeting his girlfriend. The beat made
it popular.” It sold 10 million copies.

Last year, Greenberg and Reeves wrote a song for Greenberg’s quiet,
upscale apartment house — the Classic Residence retirement community.
“First time we ever collaborated,” Greenberg says. “And it was about a

The phone rings. The receptionist has sent the liner notes for the
new release. “I love you,” Greenberg tells her, leaning back in the deep
cushions of an immaculate white sofa. “I love you, and I’ll show you.”

“That’s how we do things in the music business,” she says, once off
the phone. “She helped me, and now I owe her a favor.”

She misses the give and take.

“Without the business, my life is empty,” she continues. “I love it
so much.”

Share A little Divinity

2 thoughts on “BetteBack May 28, 1992: Walt Disney Announces New Bette Midler Movie “Mama Rock”

  1. I remember reading and being excited at the time. And then a couple years back, I saw the Broadway based on the Shirelles and Greenberg and Bette would have been perfect for this role!

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