In pop music these days, the word diva is often flung around. Sell a million, overdo the hair, makeup and attitude and suddenly everyone is supposed to revere you. But there are actually few true pop divas still on the scene - performers with long, amazing track records, brains, abundant talent, a magnificent presence. Female artists who grandly re-invent themselves and refreshen the stuff of yesterday, pulling us in again and again. Aretha Franklin. Barbra Streisand. Diana Ross. Cher. Madonna.
You can add, perhaps, a few more names to the list: Patti LaBelle, Liza Minnelli, Whitney Houston. But one you definitely can't leave off is Bette Midler. Of all the true pop divas, the Hawaii-born performer, whose "Kiss My Brass" tour stops at 1st Mariner Arena tonight, has been the most accessible over the years.
"Personality plays a lot in her career," says Michael Paoletta, senior writer and reviews editor at Billboard magazine. "You can say, `I can hang out with her for dinner and drinks.' She can be the diva who belts the song and she knows how to pull the heart strings. She's always real. She's not afraid to speak her mind."
And stretch her talent. Midler, who's 58, long ago established herself as an accomplished actress on stage and, especially, in film, with such blockbusters as The Rose, Beaches and The First Wives Club. Her 32-year recording career has seen more peaks than valleys with four Grammys and 24 gold, platinum or multiplatinum records. The performer's latest album, Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook, came out last September. The tribute to the jazz-pop legend, who died of lung cancer two years ago at age 74, sold gold (more than 500,000 copies) in a month.
"I knew [Clooney] from the middle '80s until she died," says Midler, who's calling from Hartford, Conn., where she's rehearsing for a show. "She was so warm, so gracious, so hospitable. A big, big soul with a beautiful voice. I had no intention of recording her material, though, until Barry Manilow called me and said he had a dream that we recorded this tribute. I was a little apprehensive at first because she hasn't been gone that long."
The recording process was a reunion of sorts. As many Midler fans know, Manilow, who produced and arranged the Clooney set, was Midler's pianist in the early '70s, before she signed with Atlantic Records and became an immediate recording star. Those were her New York cabaret days, when she mixed campy show tunes and ribald routines, amassing a solid fan base that supports her today.
"Barry made [recording the tribute album] so easy," Midler says. "We recorded it live, the tracks and my vocals. It was done in a week. I never made a record like that before. Usually, I'm in such a fog on my records. I'd never done an album of standards."
Midler's sincerity flows throughout the tribute and, as usual, she embodies each song. "Hey There" and "Tenderly" are standouts - well-executed, fluid and tasteful. Manilow adds daring textures to the arrangements: shades of bluegrass ("This Ole House") and "lite" pop-dance elements ("Come On-A My House" and "Mambo Italiano"). But Midler's charm is never overwhelmed.
"I've known Rosemary's music since I was 3 years old," the artist says. "So it's in me. But when I do these songs, I try to add some sense of refreshment."
Midler has dipped into a variety of material over the years, from Broadway tunes to Southern blues. And she always leaves an indelible mark on a song.
The Divine Miss M, the singer's platinum-selling 1972 debut and finest album to date, was a potpourri of swingin' '40s-style pop, '60s girl group confections and jazzy balladry. It featured a vibrant cover of the Andrew Sisters' "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," Midler's first Top 10 hit and a mainstay in her live show. She revisits that classic and many others in "Kiss My Brass," whose theme and set evoke an old-style boardwalk and carnival-like atmosphere. The tour, which stopped at Washington's MCI Center in January, is on its second leg, ending Dec. 10 in Denver.
"I'm traveling with a brass section for the first time," Midler says. "I figured that since I have that, I may as well advertise it. And [the title] was like saying something naughty. With the set, you know, I wanted it to have a feeling that you're gonna romp around and change your clothes - your mental clothes - and just have fun."
Paoletta, who's been with Billboard for six years, caught the first leg of "Kiss of My Brass" when it stopped at Madison Square Garden earlier this year.
"It's signature Bette," he says. "She kinda takes you to Betteland and you forget what's going on in the world. But she makes pointed comments and jokes about the current administration."
Midler says she feels a need to create some kind of elaborate escape to counter the heaviness of the Iraq war, the election, the debates.