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Bette Midler

Jackpot: The Best Bette

(Rhino; US: 23 Sep 2008; UK: 22 Sep 2008)

I wonder how many people realize just how important it is that Bette Midler exists. For those to whom The Divine Miss M (1972) and Bette Midler (1973) are a mystery, I’ll forgive the looks of bewilderment, but just for a moment. For the generation that grew up with sudsy treacle like “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “From a Distance” rotating constantly on the radio, please recondition your ears. There is a whole lot more to Bette Midler than those tracks might lead you to believe.


There was no one quite like Bette Midler when she emerged from the New York cabaret scene in the early ‘70s. She was her own mad and beautiful creation, armed with torch songs, a genuine camp sensibility, and a young music arranger named Barry Manilow. Within months of becoming a staple at the Continental Baths, the infamous gay bathhouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the Hawaiian-born Midler landed on Johnny Carson’s couch and introduced her immense, intense, and unclassifiable talent to the mainstream. If any of the above information is foreign to you, Jackpot: The Best Bette, a sparkling testament to how and why Bette Midler matters, is an essential primer.


The first three tracks delineate Midler’s assorted musical personas. “In the Mood”, from her self-titled ‘73 set, presents the Bette Midler of half-shell clams and mermaids (look the reference up, it’s more fun than me telling you). She swings and jives on the cut like three Andrews Sisters in one. Next up is Midler, the nuanced interpreter who cloaks popular material in a soft dusky light. “This Old House”, one of the newer cuts on the collection culled from Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook (2003), is given a warm, folksy treatment. Under a completely different guise is Midler, the strutting rocker. With the panache of a panther, she steals “Beast of Burden” from Mick Jagger on her memorable, venomous take that originally appeared on No Frills (1983). Each of these tracks couldn’t be more stylistically dissimilar, yet Midler is equally adept within each milieu.


Jackpot builds on these three different performance identities, if somewhat unevenly. Least accounted for is the rocker persona, which only really surfaces again on “When a Man Loves a Woman”, from Midler’s film debut, The Rose (1979). Midler delivered some hair-raising performances in her portrayal of a Janis Joplin-like character who self-destructs from the pressures of the business and an overwhelming feeling of loneliness. The film bursts with a heart-wrenching version of “Stay With Me” and a heart-stopping version of “Whose Side Are You On”, both wildly different from the gossamer weight of the popular Top 5 title track hit. 


In fact, the collection is oriented most towards the pop and jazz ballads in Midler’s repertoire. “Tenderly”, “Baby Mine”, “The Glory of Love”, and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” ebb delicately against lush orchestration and underscore why Bette Midler is one of the few singers who can really bring something personal and original to well-known pop standards.


Midler is at her most “divine” on the cuts that conjure both the sparkling lights of Broadway and dimly lit lanterns of cabarets alike. The foot-stomping “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”, Midler’s first Top 10 hit, is here along with Cole Porter’s “I’ve Still Got My Health”, from Beaches (1988). She belts out “Friends” con gusto. “You’ve got to have friends”, she intones like it’s the last five words she’ll ever sing. It’s an arresting song, and it’s arguably Midler’s finest moment.


Of only passing interest is “Something Your Heart Has Been Telling Me”, a five-minute demo from 1984 that has no place on an album subtitled “The Best Bette”. While certainly of interest to Midler completists, it’s the kind of track that would fit better as a bonus cut on a more comprehensive collection. The unfinished qualities of the demo are even more glaring here among beloved and expertly produced material. Even though it’s the penultimate song, it throws the dynamic off of a “hits” collection.


In fact, the major misstep here is that Rhino seems to have completely underestimated Bette Midler’s discography, ignoring ten of her albums altogether. Jackpot should really be a two-disc set, grouping the hits with deep cuts that deserve to be dusted off and appreciated.  Of the 19 songs here, less than half cover the glorious 1970s and most of those are culled from The Divine Miss M. Her transcendent performance of “Skylark”, the trashy disco of “Married Men”, and her sizzling take on Bob Seger’s “Fire Down Below” are but a few of the missing tracks that would have provided a more complete portrait of Bette Midler.


In its favor, Jackpot has rendered the 15-year-old Experience the Divine (1993) compilation obsolete. The remastering on this collection is superb and the cuts from the ‘70s and ‘80s have never sounded this good. (Midler’s allegedly “remastered” Atlantic solo albums sound anything but.) Hopefully, Rhino has a more expansive collection in the works, if only to give the rest of Midler’s 35-year old discography a long overdue wash and rinse.


The release of Jackpot is also timed with Midler’s two-year Las Vegas residency, illustrated by the “Vegas or Bust”-type theme of the cover art.  While Jackpot is no substitute for witnessing the spectacle of Bette Midler in person, it approximates what you might expect to see and hear. For the already converted, this collection confirms Midler’s greatness, but for those who only know the Bette Midler of feature films and adult contemporary radio, Jackpot is something of a revelation.

Rating:

Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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