Bette Midler reconnecting with old friends with deluxe re-release of her signature album
NEW YORK >> Bette Midler is going back to the beginning of her career — the divine beginning.
The Grammy- and Emmy Award-winner is re-releasing a deluxe version of "The Divine Miss M," her 1972 debut album that included the hits "Do You Want to Dance," "Chapel of Love," "Friends" and "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."
"They were the songs that launched me, really. They were the foundation on which I built my career," Midler said. "I'm always happy to sing them because they're friends. They're old friends."
Midler made a name for herself in the early 1970s singing high-energy concerts downtown with Barry Manilow as her pianist. In vintage clothing and with her bawdy personality, she breathed new life into old songs and made torch songs scalding.
"She was, and is, the most brilliant performer we have in my lifetime," Manilow said. "When it came to the music, her taste in songs and her choices were so odd — what was on the radio those days was nothing like what she wanted to do. Her taste was very much my taste."
Midler and Manilow put together a solid hour of music and one night lured Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun to a swanky midtown nightclub to hear it. "The audience was so crazy that at the end of the show they carried her out on their shoulders," Manilow recalled.
Midler soon signed with Atlantic and released "The Divine Miss M" based on her act. She won a best new artist Grammy in 1973 and went on to get two more, plus four Golden Globes and three Emmys. This spring she returns to Broadway in a revival of the musical "Hello, Dolly!"
She admitted to being a little shocked revisiting the platinum-selling album that made it all possible 44 years later: "It's just unbelievable the way that time passes. And yet I still look fabulous. What can I say?"
Midler was hands-on with the re-release by Rhino Records, including selecting the bonus disc of singles, outtakes and demos. There are five unreleased recordings, including "Mr. Freedom And I," and an alternate version of "Superstar."
She recalled that recording the album was stressful because co-producers Joel Dorn and Manilow didn't get along: "In those days, I was really caught between a rock and a hard place. I couldn't really stand up for myself."
Dorn, who had produced Roberta Flack, was the first to take a crack at it. He threw out Manilow's tried-and-true arrangements and started from scratch. When it was finished, Midler stopped by to play it for Manilow.
"Sure enough, she sounded like Roberta Flack. She sounded beautiful and professional and boring," said Manilow. "She was never boring. That's the last word you would ever describe Bette Midler, especially in those days."
Manilow vowed to not let that album out — "I was this young, punk musician but I believed so much in her," he said — and lobbied Ertegun to let him produce a handful of the songs his way. It was a bluff: He'd never produced an album.
Manilow tried to re-create a live vibe in the studio, inviting an audience and stringing some lights. "I wanted to get that wonderful personality on this record," he said. "No, she didn't sound like Roberta Flack." His tracks were melded with Dorn's for the final album.
"Over the years she has sounded much better on other albums. But this album was so special and so unique and so individual and the performances are so brilliant — they're funny and they're moving, just the way it should be," said Manilow. "I was glad that I fought for her."
The power and pizazz of "The Divine Miss M" was one reason Midler was asked by Blake Shelton to mentor his picks on "The Voice" this season. In a segment already taped, she advised them to take the stage with authority.
"They get really brilliant voices but they're very self-effacing people. They're not personality-driven. They don't come fully charged. That's a piece of the puzzle that they sometimes miss," Midler said. "The old school is to be able to do it all and to be a compelling presence on the stage."
Midler's next project will show off all those skills — Broadway's revival of "Hello, Dolly!" Demand for her is big — the box office took in $9 million the day tickets went on sale.
"I'm in training. I can honestly say that. I know there's a lot of expectations and people are looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to it, too, but I have a lot of weight on my shoulders," she said. "I want to make sure my i's are dotted and my t's are crossed."
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