The title of the album, Bathhouse Betty, refers to Midler‘s early career when she performed her cabaret shows at gay bathhouses like the Continental Baths in New York which led to her becoming a gay icon with a loyal LGBT following ever since. When Midler promoted the album she said in an interview “Despite the way things turned out [with the AIDS crisis], I’m still proud of those days [when I got my start singing at the gay bathhouses]. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help it move forward. So, I kind of wear the label of ‘Bathhouse Betty’ with pride.”
Released some twenty-five years after Midler’s breakthrough with the album The Divine Miss M, Bathhouse Betty was musically a comeback and a return to her roots and her high camp Mae-West-meets-the-Andrews-Sisters stage persona of the same name. The second single “I’m Beautiful Dammitt!“â€”in fact not an original but a remake of a song by house music group Uncanny Allianceâ€”even opens with the spoken line “This is the Divine Miss M and I’m here to share with you some rare and stimulating insight about my cosmic fabulosity!” and effectively set the tone for the following album.
“Ukulele Lady”, a tribute to Midler’s native Hawaii which she had first performed live in the 1997 TV special Diva Las Vegas, is an old evergreen written by Gus Kahn and Richard A. Whiting, published in 1925 and first made famous by Vaughn De Leathâ€”and later covered by among others Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show. Other cover versions on Bathhouse Betty include early girl group classics like Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles‘ debut single “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” and 1950’s R&B chanteuse Big Maybelle’s “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show”, the latter featuring swing-rock band Royal Crown Revue. Contemporary covers include Ben Folds’ tragicomic “Boxing”, an imagined monologue by Muhammad Ali, originally featured on Ben Folds Five’s 1995 self-titled debut album, Dave Frishberg’s “I’m Hip” and Dick Gallagher and Mark Waldrop’s “Laughing Matters”, taken from Howard Crabtree’s 1996 gay musical revue When Pigs Fly. “Big Socks“, an original written and produced by Chuckii Booker, is a tongue-in-cheek contemporary R&B track whose lyrics debate the supposed correlation between the size of men’s feet and other body parts; “Don’t brag about your body, baby, and say that you’re packin’ a lot, ’cause all I see besides your big feet is that you got big socks.”
Bathhouse Betty was not all campiness and laughs; the album opens with the ballad “Song of Bernadette” written by Leonard Cohen, Bill Elliott and Jennifer Warnes, and first recorded by Warnes on her 1987 album Famous Blue Raincoat. The title and the lyrics of the song refer to Bernadette Soubirous, a young French girl in the mid-19th century who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary on several occasions. Bernadette was subsequently declared insane by the villagers of Lourdes, but canonized by the Catholic Church and proclaimed Saint Bernadette after her death. “Lullaby in Blue”, which Midler described as her personal favourite on the album, was co-written by Leonard Cohen’s son Adam and is a song about a woman who gave up a child for adoption: “I’ve never heard a pop song about a person who gives their child up and is missing the child… The first time I heard that song, I burst into tears.” The first single released from the album was the melancholy “My One True Friend”, composed by David Foster, Carole King and Carole Bayer Sager and the lead song from the movie One True Thing which starred Meryl Streep and William Hurt.
One track from the Bathhouse Betty sessions, Julie Gold’s “Heaven”, was only released as a single B-side and featured as a bonus track on the Japanese edition of the album. Gold had previously written Midler’s 1990 hit single “From a Distance”.
Bathhouse Betty reached number 32 on the Billboard 200; “My One True Friend” reached number 16 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Meanwhile, “I’m Beautiful”, which featured dance remixes by among others Victor Calderone, Danny Tenaglia and composer Brinsley Evans himself, was a major dance-floor hit, becoming a number 1 on the Hot Dance Club Play chart and number 8 on Hot Dance Music/Maxi Singles Sales.