“The Divine Miss M: Deluxe,” Bette Midler (Rhino/Atlantic)
I know I’m not the only straight man in American who loves Bette Midler, but sometimes it seems like it. Midler’s musical ups and downs have been many in the past 40-plus years, but there has never been another singer quite like her.
When Midler’s debut album, “The Divine Miss M,” arrived in 1972, it was a welcome blast of nostalgia and musical bravado. Midler, whose most dedicated audiences at the time were the attendees of The Continental Baths, a gay bath house in New York City, was an irrepressible entertainer with a powerhouse voice and sense of history. She drew from swing, 1950s and ‘60s R&B and pop, she gave a breathy and emotional take of Leon Russell’s “Superstar,” which has since become a standard, and she even threw in a cover of John Prine’s folk tearjerker “Hello In There.”
The original album is an essential. Opening with “Do You Wanna Dance?” and a spirited cover of “Chapel of Love,” Midler covers every emotion she can muster in less than 40 minutes. Her version of “Delta Dawn” is particularly notable as possibly the song’s best version. It was, in fact, Midler who country producer Billy Sherrill had heard performing the song on “The Tonight Show” when he decided to have his young country protégé Tanya Tucker cover the tune. It became a huge hit (and was also covered by Helen Reddy) and launched Tucker’s career.
This two-disc set includes a pristine version of the original album on the first disc and fills in some gaps on the second one.
For the original album, the disc’s veteran producer Joel Dorn was at odds with Midler’s bandleader, Barry Manilow, who had yet to launch his successful solo career and had created arrangements for Midler’s songs. The disagreements probably led to a better overall album as the disc ended up being a composite of solid studio recordings produced solely by Dorn and live-in-the-studio recordings overseen by Manilow and producers Geoffrey Haslam and Ahmet Ertegun.
The biggest find on the second disc is the extremely rare original single version of Midler’s first hit, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” a cover of the 1940s hit by The Andrews Sisters. While the album version of the song is more subdued, the single version, produced solely by Manilow, was far more upbeat and brassy. It’s also good to hear early versions of the songs “Old Cape Cod” and “Marahuana,” which were re-recorded for Midler’s third album “Songs for the New Depression,” and Midler’s demos for The Eagles’ song “Saturday Night” and Mark Klingman’s “Mr. Freedom.” The latter was actually recorded in 1971, before the “M” sessions. The rest of the disc features single versions of songs from the album.
If you don’t have a copy of “The Divine Miss M,” this is definitely the copy to pick up, but even if you do, it might be worth replacing it with this new edition.