BootLeg Betty

BetteBack June 30, 1972: Singer From The Tubs’ Hits Nightclub Circuit (Interview)

Winnipeg Free Press
June 30, 1972

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bette Midler Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Bette Midler Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

N E W YORK (Special) — Nightclub singer Bette Midler has a knack for steaming up her audiences, so it’s fitting that her first big success came in a Turkish bath.

Miss M, as she likes to call herself, is that voluptuous five foot bundle of ungainly talent that has been knocking them dead for the last 18 months on the Johnny Carson show. Looking somewhat like a sawed-up version of Fanny Brice and belting out songs with the verve of Barbra Streisand laced with overtones of Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, she’s fast becoming an inimitable star.

And it wasn’t long ago that Bette was chirping away before a towel-clad audience at a combination Turkish bath-cabaret catering to homosexuals on Manhattan’s West Side. Nobody ever threw in the towel when she was singing and Bette says she loved every minute performing at what she calls “the tubs.”

“It encouraged me to explore satire,” she explains, patting a mop of reddish hair the texture of cotton candy. “The audience there wouldn’t settle for half-baked. If I’d kept my distance, they’d have lost interest because there were too many other things going on in the building that were more fun.”

How a nice Jewish girl from Hawaii wound up in a steamroom is a show business saga that began in the packing portion of a pineapple plant. Her father either owned the plant or was a painter for the Navy, depending on Miss M’s latest reminiscence.

Anyway, she liked to sing as she picked pineapple parts for the processor so one day decided to pack it all in and perform.

Bette— who says she’s at least 20 and looks it — is vague about precise dates but by the mid-1960s she had a small role in the Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“I considered myself mainly a comedienne,” says the singer. “But one day I heard an early Aretha Franklin record — mostly blues and torch songs. It was dynamite. I really felt I understood the essence of her art and so I was tempted to try it myself-”

The art of dressing apparently never Interested her and by her own admission she is “the last of the truly tacky women.”

She favors blowsy, shoulder-padded dresses that one critic said are the sort “women wore to meet sailors coming back from the Second World War.”

But when she sings, the kind of talent that is never out of fashion fills a room. She ranges from a serious country version of Alex Harvey’s “Delta Dawn” to a hard-driving “You Gotta Have Friends” with all stops in between.

Bette loves songs of the 1940s and ’50s like Chattanooga Choo Choo. Sometimes she does all three parts of the Andrews Sisters singing Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy or she’ll launch into a hip-swiveling, mind-boggling take-off of Carmen Miranda, the late Brazilian star who affected headgear that made it look as if fruit salad was growing
out of the top of her head.’

Somehow, it all works for Bette and her audiences at Manhattan clubs like The Bitter End and the Downstairs at the Upstairs. One critic began his review by saying “I was not p r e p a r e d for the grotesque creature that swaggered onto the tiny stage — it is a face that cries out for caricature.”

By mid-review he was marvelling at her “warmth, power, exhilaration.” And at the end he said flatly: “Bette Midler is gorgeous.”

“I just happen to like a lot of styles,” Bette says. “It’s not what you sing that matters. It’s the fact that you love whatever you do that makes you hot.”

She is enjoying every minute of her current success which includes a record contract and so many bookings that she never has to worry where her next can of pineapple is coming from. With all of it, Bette’s not sure whether she should do half-campy, half-sensual songs of the 1950s or groove on a more solid, serious style.

“The act I really want,” she concludes, “would be one-half straight singing and the other absolutely insane.”

Without a doubt, Bette Midler’s got the equipment for it.

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