The Very Odd Couple
April 13, 1975
By Robert Wahls
AT FIRST, they seem an ill-matched combo, Bette Midler, the 32-year-old queen of camp, and Lionel Hampton, 70, for 40 years a great name in jazz, swing, bop, you name it. There they were in the vast, cluttered Act 48 rehearsal hall on W. 48th St.. Their joint package is a revue, which, for want of a better name, opens at the Minskoff tomorrow night as “Clams on the Half Shell.” Hamp, in blue jacket, red vest and white shirt, sits room center, tickling the ivories on a rehearsal grand, parked beside his trademark, the gleaming vibraharp: Bette bursts out of the powder room, blue jeans tucked into knee-high vinyl boots. She swaggers stage center, her smile a combination of Nancy Walker and Mona Lisa.
The last of the tacky ladies, as she dubbed herself, is 5 – foot – 1, her rust – red mop tilted to port. She turns a delicious grin on Hamp. He takes his place, lets his dental ivories return the gleam, picks up his sticks. They’re into “How High the Moon,” an old ’30s show tune that Hamp played with the Benny Goodman Quartet and Bette refurbished for her ’70s spaced out set. Vibes are great!
Director Joe Layton, whose job it is to integrate Hamp and the camp, remarks from the sidelines: “She’s one of those one-of-a-kind ladies who has always had a one-to-one audience relationship. People think she can do just one thing, concert. Bette can do anything, and she oozes warmth without end. They’re both stars who’ve never done a Broadway show. We’re combining concert and Broadway musical revue.
“Take Hampton. Now that’s a nice meeting of the minds. Bette does nostalgic stuff, music of the ’30s and ’40s as well as the ’60s and ’70s. We’re extending her, putting her with an all-time great who lived those years before she was born. They both love jazz, and he’s reaching forward, and she’s reaching back. They’re stretching.”
Hamp was stretching until it looked as though that red-haired woman was gonna make a freight train leave the track. The sweat is pouring off Hamp’s forehead, and Bette is swaying her butt and tossing that red mop like a buoy in a high sea.
Then they were into Hamp’s composition, “Flying’ Home,” one of Bette’s favorites. Where Hamp went on the vibes, Bette fol1owed. And where she went with her kaleidoscopic delivery, Hamp followed. They were a couple of pros, each hearing with the other’s ears.
Enjoying the Work
The set broke, and Ramp wiped his brow with an old Louis Armstrong sweep of handkerchief. He walked back to the piano bench. He looked like a musician who has enjoyed himself the way jazz people do.
“Bette does everything from blues to rock. It’s always the beat, has been since we were making it with ‘Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar.’ There’s nothing wrong with rock, nothing. So, together we’ll do it all. And I’m likely to teach her some authentic jive talk.”
Back in the early ’30s, Hamp, with Gene Krupa on the drums, Teddy Wilson at the piano, and Benny Goodman on clarinet were the original Benny Goodman Quartet. Hamp had adopted the new vibraharp and made it part of the jazz scene.
“Nobody wanted to play it. I mean the drummer would strike the vibes one note-bong-and thatÂ was it. But I had faith, and I pushed with Hite and with Armstrong. And those records we made! ‘Moonglow’ ‘Memories of You.’ Well, the vibes got to be my trademark and part of the jazz scene.”
Hamp, not long out of the hospital after an intestinal infection, has just completed a tour of the country. He has four new Brunswick albums going for him, “Please Sunrise,” “Them Changes,” “There It Is” and ‘Stop, I Don’t Need No Sympathy.”
“After my illness, I wanted to come back with a big bang,” he said with a chuckle. “Maybe this is the start of something big. When I was sick, it seemed to me God wanted me to slow down a little. But the doctors discharged me and said I was sound as a 20-year-old boy. I might not believe that, but then this come up. It’ll be nice to settle down at a theater for a month or more.”
Always the Unexpected
Across the studio the paparazzi were focusing on Midler, and, Midler-like, she was putting them off to bring them on. One minute she was Edith Piaf, and then she’d be Martha Raye. Midler’s a grab bag of everything corny, everything hokey, everything camp. Put through her computer, she emerges as a singing clown, funky, funny and touching.
The Divine Miss M walks over to a table clutching a cardboard container of coffee. Her nipples stand out under the black jersey shirt and her jeans define every curve of a well-formed body. She’s without her satins and sequins, reminiscent of Streisand rejects.
“What am I trying to do? Make a living, and this is all I know, alas. I have no trouble getting into jeans, the latest style. What do you think of Hamp? Wonderful. He hears things people don’t generally hear. He has ears.”
She planted herself into a rehearsed chair. “We wanted someone of his strength to work with me. He was willing, and he was available. He wants to open a new door, and here he is 70 years old opening new doors. He has more chops, more interest, more enthusiasm than most guys I know half his age. He just loves to work, and so do I.
This is a revue, a salute to Lionel and a salute to me. It’s not just me any more standing out there busting my butt. My girls are working, the Harlettes. And we have the Powell gospel group. We have a new dimension.”
The whole Midler syndrome began in Paterson, N.J. where she’s big on 8-track tapes now. She was born the daughter of a house painter who chased an improbable dream to Hawaii. The kid, one of six, grew up in a housing development with Orientals. She was an outsider. She was Jewish.
“My growing-up years weren’t especially happy. Better to grow up having a miserable childhood and a fabulous adulthood. Better than having a fabulous childhood and no adulthood at all. I just knew always that I’d be something specia1. There was something that told me I was different. And that was reinforced because people told me I was not special, not fabulous. Look, I’m just trying to keep from falling off the stage in my high heels. I used to think life is art and art is life. I know it sounds corny and pretentious, but I come from a pretentious art school.”
Portrait of the Artist
“In a way I still believe it. But you get kicked around enough and you find yourself scuffling around, and you don’t pay too much attention to art, because pretentious art hasn’t very much to do with life. I’m trying to concentrate on the kind of creativity I consider art.
“And art is illuminating life, mine and someone else’s. It’s not easy, believe me. Just projecting a little joy and a little sorrow, changing someone’s life just a quarter of an inch, that’s art. And learning. Stop learning and, I firmly believe, you are dead.
“Look at Lionel out there. He says doing this show is a learning experience for him. I say it is for me. Now I’ll tell you something. I have never dared to sing Hoagy Carmichael‘s ‘Stardust.’ Really it’s a dream of mine. But now with Lionel playing ‘Stardust’ behind me, I’m doing it. We sound real good together.
“Wherever I go, he goes right along. You’re really singing and it’s a big challenge for me to keep up with him because he knows a helluva lot more about music than I do. My ears are opening up. Look at the records, “Am I Blue’?” which was Ethel Waters, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” the Andrews Sisters. Oh, just look at the records!”
Raunchy, rowdy, vulgar, Bette has been all that to her clientele. But she has also been compared with Joplin, Garland, Helen Morgan and even Streisand. They have something in common. Their big noses. As with Streisand, when you get used to them, there’s a lush beauty that emerges and takes over. And they sing from their guts.
Teaming Bette and Lionel is careful programming for each of them. Bette wants to broaden her base and Hamp wants the kids to know him. Both are knowledgeable musicians as well as entertainers. “My people? I have all kinds. Sure I have gays and some freaky types and some spaced-out types, but I’m very big, too, in Columbia, Md.,” says Bette.
She grins. “Give me a break, will ya? I want to sound a little more glamorous.”