As with any live performer it takes a great crew and on stage performers to make the show a hit.
From the road crew that drive the trucks and buses, to the stage crew that set up the show in every city and tear it down after the show, to the lights and sound people, to the musical directer and the band, to the backup singers that are always a big part of all of Bette’s stage show. That’s what it takes to make a show a hit.
Bette has always made sure that she has the best crew combination in every aspect of her live shows. She has done this time and time again over the years. Her live shows have some of the best costumes, staging, lighting, music, sound and on stage performers to complete Bette’s live shows.
Bette has always been a perfectionist and it shows every time you see one of her shows. Bette and crew always rehearse the show many, many times before the show goes on the road. When they are on the road they go down to the venue in the early afternoon and run through that show sometimes a couple of times before the curtain goes up that night.
This story is about those backup singers known as The Harlettes. Bette has had many Harlettes over the years and it has always been three girls that become a very big part of the shows. From singing, comedy, and those great dance routines that Bette and the Harlettes have been known for over the years.
Some of the most famous Harlettes are, Katey Sagal, Melissa Manchester, and Jenifer Lewis.
Katey Sagal has had a few albums out and has starred in “Married With Children,” “8 Simple Rules,” and the new series, “Sons Of Anarchy, plus numerous other TV shows and movies.
Next is singer/songwriter, Melissa Manchester, who has released ten albums and has won a Grammy. Melissa is still touring around the world. I met Melissa back in those early days, and like many people observed, Melissa reminded them of Bette.
Jenifer Lewis has appeared in many TV shows and specials over the years. She’s also been in many movies. She even had a small part in one of Bette’s movies, “Beaches,” and she’s toured Europe a few times.
My all time favorite group of Harlettes were, Sharon Redd, Charlotte Crossley and Ula Hedwig.
The reason I say that is not just because they were the ones I know the most, but they were the best Staggering Harlettes of all time and in my mind they were the only ones that should be called “The Staggering Harlettes.”
These three girls on stage were the best at acting and they were the campiest of them all. They could add a little sleaze when they had to, and most people believed they really were like that even off stage. But off stage they were not at all like they were on stage. They were a lot of fun and very nice.
When the three of them were no longer Harlettes and wanted to release an album under the name “The Staggering Harlettes”, Aaron Russo stepped in and said, “NO,” they could not use that name and if they did he would sue them. Finally, they ended up using the name for the group, “Formerly of the Harlettes” and the album was released in 1978. It was not a big selling album when it was released, but it grew in sales when many fans of the girls discovered the album. It did well in the marketplace. Today, you may find it on EBay, sometimes for big bucks.
Please, enjoy some of the great photos from their album jacket, “Formerly of the Harlettes”.
When Sharon left the group to go on her own as a recording artist, she had many releases, but her biggest records were club dance hits in the early 80’s. She started off recording a club hit under the name “Front Page” and the song was “Love Insurance.” It was realeased in 1979 and was a very big hit, but most people did not know that it was Sharon Redd on lead vocals. Then she signed a record deal with Prelude Records, and had three major club hits – “Beat The Street,” “Never Give You Up,” and her biggest hit, “In The Name Of Love,” in 1982.
This is a promo photo of Sharon when she was on Prelude and the other photo was at a club in Dallas when she performed there in 1983.
I had not seen Sharon since 1976 in Vegas when we hung out a couple nights, so that night at the club in 83 she was so happy to see me and wanted to take this photo together.
Sharon Redd and I were both born the same year as Bette, 1945, and had a lot in common.
Sharon passed away on May 1, 1992 of pneumonia. She was a great person, a great singer, and a wonderful performer. At one time was known as “The Black Bette Midler.”
I did not know Charlotte Crossley as well, but we did speak a few times in those days and hung out together one night in Vegas with Sharon in 1976.
Charlotte has done backup on many records over the years and had a part in “Sister Act” along with Jenifer Lewis another Harlette. Currently she performs in the Broadway smash, “Hairspray.”
Charlotte has had a couple of nicknames, but my favorite one is “Crossfire,” because she was on fire always on stage.
The last time I saw Charlotte was one night at the taping of “Diva Las Vegas” at the MGM Grand Hotel in 1997. Bruce Vilanch and I were talking during the intermission and he said, I’ve got someone that you have not seen or spoken to in years over here and we walked over to where Charlotte was and she said, with that look like “you sure look different” , Oh My God, how have you been and so, I see you are still coming to see Bette after all these years, Wow! It was wonderful to see and speak to her that night in Vegas.
Ula was the one I knew the least. Bette has had Ula do backup singing when she performs at her Hulaween benefits sometimes.
A fan and friend of mine had been keeping up with what Ula was doing all these years. I was going to New York on business in May of 2000 and my friend asked me if I would like to go to lunch with Ula.
I said, yes, and we met Ula for lunch at a restaurant around 8th. Avenue and 45th. Street. Ula, kind of remembered me and we had some great stories to exchange and had lots of laughs that day at lunch.
The next time I saw Ula was the next year when Bette asked her to do backup for her benefit in 2001.
That was the year that Bette changed the name of her benefit to “New York, New York.” Bette did not think she should call it Hulaween being it was just a few weeks after 9/11.
Please, enjoy the photo of Ula and me taken that night in 2001.
The only other Harlette that I knew was Jocelyn Brown, who was in the movie “Divine Madness” .
Jocelyn also was a recording artist and has had many club hits. Her biggest hit was “Somebody Else’s Guy” in 1984.
The group that Dave and I produced and managed, The Uptown Girls, and Jocelyn did a couple of shows together in Florida in the late 80’s.
This photo is of all of us backstage at one of those shows. I love this photo, we all look so happy and we were having a lot of fun that night in Florida.
From the very first time that I met Bruce we have remained friends. A couple of times over the years we have lost track of each other, but always found each other again, usually by phone.
Bruce, worked in the newspaper business in the early days. He once worked at the Detroit Free Press, late 60’s, and says he may have come to one of the clubs that I DJ’d at back then.
When Bruce met Bette he worked at the Chicago Tribune and went to Mister Kelly’s to interview Bette.
They became friends back then and have worked together off and on for all these years.
Bruce was born in New Jersey and had been in a couple of plays in New York when he was a young boy. The Midler’s and the Vilanch’s knew each other in New Jersey until the big move to Hawaii where Bette was born in 1945.
This is picture of Bruce in the early days, when he started writing for Bette.
Bruce, is one of finest people I have ever known. He is a very kind and humble person, and as you all may know, very funny.
He is one person that has not changed over the years, he is still the same person today as he was when I met him in early 70’s.
He has written comedy lines for many of the big stars of music, movies and TV over the years.
He has been a main writer on most of the award shows also for many years and was a square and head writer on “Hollywood Squares” when Whoopi produced the show.
He has been involved with many AIDS projects and benefits since the epidemic started in the early 80’s.
In the early days we would talk via the phone and now we keep in contact via e-mails.
He would e-mail me sometimes from the road where ever Bette was performing around the country to let me know how the tour was going.
I would always let him know if I was going to come to a show in another city, and we would always see each other at those shows.
Most of the time Bette would come into the city the day before she had a show in order to have the afternoon for the rehearsal of the show.
So, when Bette was doing the “Millennium” tour, Bruce e-mailed me and said, let’s go out the night before the show in Dallas.
Bruce and I hadn’t gone out on the town in a few years, so I was ready for a fun night with Bruce.
I went down to the hotel to pick Bruce up and was waiting in the lobby for him to come down, when Bette, Martin and Sophie walked by on their way to dinner. I spoke to them for a few minutes and they told me that they had spent Thanksgiving in New Orleans.
Bruce and I had dinner at one of my favorite Mexican restaurants. At the time he was on Hollywood Squares, so people recognized him and kept coming to our table for an autograph. He was very nice to all of them.
After dinner I took him up to one of the gay areas of Dallas. It’s two blocks of bars, restaurants and a lot little shops.
I know that he loves t-shirts and a lot of the shops had many t-shirts with great sayings on them for him to look at.
I think he bought about $300.00 worth of t-shirts and we were up there for hours. People would say hi to him where ever we went.
Our final stop that night was at a bookstore. Bruce, wanted to find a book to buy for Bette’s birthday a few days later. I think they were in Denver on her birthday that year.
My store was two blocks from where we shopped so we stopped in for a few minutes.
This is one of the photos we took that night at my store.
The next night was the show and Dave and I had backstage passes for after the show.
All these years, Dave has never met Bette and was excited that this time he just might get to meet her.
So, after the show we went backstage and found out that Bette had to meet with someone and then she would be heading for the airport.
So, again Dave, did not get to met Bette.
This is a photo of the three of us (Bruce, me, Dave) that night in Dallas, when Bruce came to tell us that they would be leaving for the airport soon.
After Whoopi was no longer producing Hollywood Squares, Bruce went on the road to do his own comedy show. It was called, “Bruce Vilanch: Almost Famous” and one of his first stops was at a theatre in the Village in New York City.
I just had to see the show and went two nights. Bruce was so funny. I spoke to Bruce at the show and on the phone the next day. So, if you see that Bruce is coming to where you live, you must go see him, he is great and so very funny.
Bruce has been in a few movies over the years and as you know his own movie “Get Bruce”.
The last time I saw Bruce was at Hulaween in 2005, it was the 10th. Anniversary of the New York Restoration Project and Bette’s 60th. Birthday.
This is a photo of the two of us that night.
I know that Bruce and I will be friends forever and all I can say is, I LOVE HIM SO MUCH!!
3 thoughts on “A Fan’s Perspective: THE HARLETTES/BRUCE VILANCH”
Thank you so much for the recollections. I enjoyed the stories and loved looking at the pictures. You even gave me info that I was not aware of. I found your “perspectives” quite by accident. For the longest time I have been going on-line trying, in vain, to find a CD of the Harlettes. I had the LP when it first came out and loved it for many years. Unfortunately, it became water-damaged and that was the end of that. I have been a fan of these ladies for many, many years, even though their recorded body of work is small. I have found places that I can purchase a replacement LP, but really, in this day and age, I would prefer the CD. That way I can have their music in my car, on my computer and in my Ipod. I’ve been so frustrated in my quest, that now, I suppose I’ll just pay the big bucks for the replacement LP, just so I can listen to those beautiful voices, if only on a turntable. But while I’m writing,….. I dont want to impose, but….would you know how I can get a “Formerly Of The Harlettes” on CD? Any and all info you can share will be Greatly appreciated. Thanks. Ralph. P . S . Even if you dont have any info, please, write back and say hello. You’ve just got a new fan.
ALWAYS WAS A FAN OF THESE LADIES, SHARON, ULA, JENIFER, KATEY, MELISSA, AND CHARLOTTE WERE THE GREATEST. COMING FROM SAN FRANCISCO THESE WOMEN ALONG WITH THE DIVINE MISS ‘M’ WERE A PART OF HISTORY IN GAY SAN FRANCISCO OF THE 70’S 80’S ERA. GOD BLESS YOU BRUCE AND ALL OF THE GIRLS SO VERY MUCH AND OFCOURSE THE INCOMPARABLE BETTE MIDLER.