12-PACK: BETTE MIDLER
December 1, 2016
If you’ve noticed that we’ve upped our usual Six-Pack piece to a 12-Pack in this instance, well, what can we say? If you can’t double-up for the divine Miss M, then who can you double up for? As it happens, it was a pretty easy decision to make, not to mention a pretty easy piece to put together, as we decided to spotlight 12 songs that you may not have realized that Bette Midler cover.
Sure, she’s found quite a bit of success with other people’s material over the course of her career, and she’s spent years surprising the audiences at her concerts by offering them performances of songs that’ve never ended up on any of her albums, like – just to cite one at random – Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood.” But you don’t have to go to Midler’s shows to hear some of these interpretations. You can just check out her albums…or, if you really want to make it easy, you can spin this playlist we’ve put together!
CAVEAT: For each song, we’ve noted the artist who’s most often recognized as having recorded it, not necessarily the artist who recorded it first or recorded it best.
1. The Carpenters, “Superstar” (from THE DIVINE MISS M): Written by Bonnie Bramlett and Leon Russell, this song’s title was originally “Groupie,” with “Superstar” tacked on afterwards parenthetically, and its debut was as the B-side to the single “Comin’ Home,” by Delaney & Bonnie. When Midler’s version came out, The Carpenters’ version was already a hit, but dig this irony: the reason The Carpenters recorded the song was because Richard instantly fell in love with it when he heard Midler performing it on The Tonight Show.
2. Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain” (from SONGS FOR THE NEW DEPRESSION): Originally released on Dylan’s 1975 album BLOOD ON THE TRACKS, Midler’s cover actually features contributions from Dylan himself. Per a piece on Dangerous Minds, Dylan had actually wanted Midler to join his Rolling Thunder Revue, which didn’t pan out. There’s a 27-minute-long bootleg recording from the sessions for “Buckets of Rain” which might be worth hunting down if you’re an obsessive fan, but we’ll stick with the officially-released version, thanks.
3. Neil Young, “Birds” (from LIVE AT LAST): When covering this track from AFTER THE GOLD RUSH, Midler teases Young a bit, calling him “mellow and laid back,” then tries so hard to get into the same mindset that she can’t remember if she’s actually performed the song or not, asking the audience, “Did I sing the ballad yet? Was it wonderful?”
4. Billy Joel, “Say Goodbye To Hollywood” (from BROKEN BLOSSOM): Rock critic Robert Christgau once wrote of Midler’s choice of live covers, “Is the redemption of Billy Joel fit work for a culture heroine?” Fit or not, Midler took the studio and delivered her take on the song in 1977, and she wasn’t the only one: Ronnie Spector laid down a version the same year, with the E Street Band backing her. Funnily enough, it would be another four years before Joel himself actually scored a hit with the song himself, and only then with a newly-released live version.
5. Sammy Hagar, “Red” (from BROKEN BLOSSOM): After covering his song “Keep On Rockin’” for the soundtrack to her film The Rose, Midler was hankering for another Hagar track. “I said, ‘Hey, you being a redhead, how ‘bout ‘Red’?’” Hagar told The Virginian-Pilot. “I played it for her, she went nuts, and the producer of that album (Brooks Arthur), when I went into the studio, he was not down with it. He was, like, ‘Get this rock ‘n’ roll guy out of here! He’s ruining this record for me!’ But Bette, she was the coolest. She and I are cut from the same cloth, man. She’s like a female Sammy Hagar, and I’m a male Bette Midler. Our stage antics, our raps on stage, the shit we yak about on stage, our neurotic, jacked-up, nervous stage energy… I think we have a lot in common. She’s a very special lady.”
6. Dr. John, “Rain” (from THIGHS AND WHISPERS): Midler had known the good doctor for several years before she tackled one of his songs on one of her albums – in fact, he’s mentioned in past interviews that she composed one of the lines in his hit single “Right Place, Wrong Time” (“My head’s in a bad place / I don’t know what it’s there for”) – but she deserves extra-credit for selecting a song from his 1979 A&M Records debut, City Lights.
7. Bob Seger, “Fire Down Below” (from DIVINE MADNESS): Those who saw and loved The Rose were probably pretty annoyed when they went looking for this Seger song, which she performs in the film, and found it MIA from the soundtrack. Thankfully, it turned up the following year on a different soundtrack: the one to her concert film, Divine Madness.
8. Linda Ronstadt featuring Aaron Neville, “Don’t Know Much” (from NO FRILLS): If you go looking for this track on your copy of Midler’s 1983 album NO FRILLS, you won’t see it, but if you know the lyrics, then you’ll probably spot it under the title it had been given at the time. Don’t ask us the story behind why it was decided that “All I Need to Know” didn’t cut it as a title when Ronstadt and Neville recorded it, because all we can tell you is that we – wait for it – don’t know much.
9. Ben Folds Five, “Boxing” (from BATHOUSE BETTY): Of all the Ben Folds Five songs Midler could’ve selected to cover, one that details an imaginary conversation between Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell is surely one of the least likely, but in a 1998 interview with the Augusta Chronicle, Midler explained the decision, saying that the track reminded her of “a two-minute, hard-boiled movie.”
10. Kirsty MacColl, “In These Shoes?” (from BETTE): We don’t know the back story on how Midler came to record the late Ms. MacColl’s classic track, but we do know that it couldn’t match up with Midler’s onstage persona more perfectly.
11. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach, “God Give Me Strength” (from BETTE): There’s an Entertainment Weekly review of Midler’s 2000 sitcom, Bette, which suggests that the title of this song was what many viewers would be saying while watching, but it’s certainly not a phrase you’d hear uttered by anyone listening to her take on this moving track from the soundtrack of Alison Anders’ Grace of My Heart.
12. TLC, “Waterfalls” (from IT’S THE GIRLS): Didn’t see this one coming, did you? In an interview with Billboard around the time of the song’s release, Midler described the song as “a heartbreaker, especially if you were a mom,” and acknowledged the effect the song had on her when she first heard it. “I never thought I would have the nerve to sing it,” said Midler. “But we had an idea for it that works, and I am so glad I took the chance.”