BetteBack September 23, 1973: Bette Midler Sings In Berkley

San Francisco Chronicle
September 23, 1973


Bette Midler, “The Divine Miss M.,” returns to the Bay Area this week. The first truly big star of the ’70s who describes herself as “the last of the truly tacky women,” will sing Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Berkeley Community Theater at 8 p.m. each night.

Bette Midler became a star the best way possible. She did it as no one had done it before. In an era of superstar overflow, where every branch of every medium has its celebrities, even hamburger stands, Bette Midler exercised real class. She was the one who did take-offs on the Shangri-La’s, one of the 1960’s silliest female groups. They sang “Leader of the Pack.”

But what was silly in the 60s is suddenly chic a few years later. And what’s chic today stirs up a lot of interest.

Bette Midler did not approach stardom in a conventional manner. Like many other aspiring young girls, she came to New York to be discovered, but not from any backwater town. Midler was raised in Honolulu and described her formative years as being “the only poor, white, Jewish family in a neighborhood of Eurasians.”

She spent her early New York years typing and filing at Columbia University. Later she sold gloves at a department store. Then came work in revues at resorts in the Catskills, a part in the chorus of “Fiddler On The Roof” which led to a bigger role, that of Tevye’s daughter, Tzeitel and the Off Broadway musical, “Salvation.”

Then, “after listening to Aretha Franklin a lot,” she said she decided to try singing herself, in clubs. She put together an act of ’40s, ’50s and ’60s songs, a good rap, a frenzied style of delivery and costumes no one could believe. Her first engagement was the Continental Baths, a Turkish bath establishment in New York where the toweled patrons grew to love her.

Soon after, Johnny Carson got wind of her and booked her on his show. It wasn’t long before she became a regular guest on other popular host shows, such as Merv Griffin‘s, Mike Douglas’ and David Frost’s. Last year, after the release of her first album and a nationwide tour, the rest of the country got to meet her. There hasn’t been such public adoration bestowed on anyone in a long time.

What is her appeal? She’s kooky and campy and unconventional. There’s a little bit of tainted lady behind the wholesome smile. She’s no beauty, but she does have charm and she certainly sings in an arresting fashion.

Her repertoire is as big a catchall as her style of dress. It shows a great affection for many types of music, from the Andrews Sisters to Frankie Lyman, from Leon Russell to the Contours. How many singers can do “Old Cape Cod” and “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance?”) in the same set?

She brought the music-hall setting back to rock. She established the leading lady as singing star once more. She revived some great old songs and reinterpreted some not-so-old ones in a style you couldn’t help but like. She’s Bette Midler and she’s coming back.

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