The Divine Miss M: 11 Little Known Facts About Bette Midler’s Early Days!

The Divine Miss M: 11 Little Known Facts About Bette Midler’s Early Days!



This week, to coincide with the release of a superb deluxe edition of The Divine Miss M,  we celebrate the debut album by one of American music’s most feted figures – the Divine Bette Midler!

With her massive later hits in the ‘80s and 90s and a high profile acting career, Bette has been an ubiquitous mainstream figure for decades. What a lot of people don’t realise though is that Bette’s roots lie in musical theatre (no real surprise there I guess), and also in the early ‘70s lower Manhattan arts scene.  Not many other singers can claim close connections with both Barry Manilow and Andy Warhol, but as her recording career was taking off, Bette could!

Certainly The Divine Miss M shows a strong female figure taking a musical and cultural stand far removed from any sort of norm in 1972. The album was also a Top 10 success, later awarded a Platinum Disc, spawning three Top 40 hits – ‘Do You Want to Dance?’, ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ and ‘Friends’ – and subsequently winning Midler a Grammy Award for Best New Artist. She may have got a bit closer to the middle of the road later on, but in the early years of her recording career Bette was not only a genuine sensation, but also someone who wrote their own rules. Indeed, we reckon she was pretty much out where the buses don’t run, as Kinky Friedman would say! Go Bette!  

Here are a few things you might not know about Miss M and her early days!

1. Bette came to prominence on the lower Manhattan scene via performances at the Continental Bathhouse, a legendary gay venue (and a genuine bathhouse!). This was obviously the beginning of Bette’s becoming the massive gay icon that she became. Others who performed at the Continental Bathhouse included Warhol ‘Superstars’ Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn (Bette was interviewed by Andy in ’72 for his Interview magazine) as well as Manhattan Transfer, Patti LaBelle, the iconic 30s/40s Cotton Club bandleader Cab Calloway, and pre-punks the New York Dolls!


Andy & Bette

2. In the very early ‘70s, Bette dated New York Dolls drummer Jerry Nolan (of later Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers infamy and subsequently a friend of Sid Vicious!). Jerry & Bette’s relationship preceded Jerry’s involvement with the Dolls, but Bette was known to have attended some of their legendary shows at such venues as the Mercer Arts Centre. Indeed, the Dolls  and Bette could be said to share a number of the same influences in those days, including early R&B, ‘60s girl group pop and an excessive sense of camp!


New York Dolls – Jerry Nolan second from left.

3. In her ‘bathhouse’ days, Bette – or Bathhouse Betty as she was sometimes known – had Barry Manilow as her pianist and MD. Indeed Barry was the regular piano player there before she first appeared there. Barry Manilow produced The Divine Miss M and Bette’s second album, using her success as a stepping stone to his own massively successful career.


Barry Manilow & Bathhouse Betty!

4. Prior to her bathhouse days, Bette co-starred in a Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof in the late 60s and can be seen in footage from the 1968 Toni Awards performing a piece from that show.


5. Bette also co-starred in the first professional production of The Who's rock opera Tommy in 1971!


Bette as ‘The Acid Queen’ in Tommy in 1971!

6. In addition the likes of the Andrews Sisters’ "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and the Dixie Cups’ "Chapel of Love", The Divine Miss M also featured the song "Hello in There", written and first recorded by Chicago folkie/singer-songwriter John Prine, who had released his debut album on Atlantic a year or so before Bette did, and was known early on as "the new Bob Dylan".

Bette sings John Prine’s Hello In There at the UJA Thelethon 1973

7. After covering the ‘new Bob Dylan’ on her first album, Bette had the original one on her third album, 1976’s Songs for The New Depression. Bob and Bette dueted on Bob’s song "Buckets of Rain". A later bootleg of the recording providing half an hour of insight into the re-recording of the "Blood On The Tracks" song. The banter between the two stars highlights the rapport between the folk hero and the cabaret chanteuse. Flirting with each other and having a smoke, Bette mock tries her pick-up lines on Dylan “Whatcha doin’ in town? D’ya live around here?” before cheekily asking “Are you a one take guy?”. “I can last all night,” Dylan knowingly answers… Bob had previously wanted Bette as part of his legendary Rolling Thunder tour, and Bette had shared a table with both Bob and David Bowie at the release party for Blood On The Tracks.


Bob & Bette

8. In 1977, Bette duetted with Tom Waits on the song "I Never Talk to Strangers", which featured on Tom’s fourth album, Foreign Affairs.


Tom & Bette

9. Bette was good friends with late Australian singer Peter Allen. He was the support act on her 1972 tour, with Billboard’s review praising his “sensitive autobiographical songs” in their review of a five-show stint at LA’s Troubadour headlined ‘Bouncy Bette Today’s Bra-less Barbra’. In the same review, Midler was described as “spellbinding true entertainer” with dialogue that combined “the campiest of Carmen Miranda and Phyllis Diller”. Allen would soon become a leading figure in New York’s cabaret revival of the ‘70s.


10. Bette’s The Divine Miss M Tour finally reached Australia in 1978, with the singer performing 34 sold out shows around the country between October and November. When she eventually made it back Down Under in 2005, she didn’t recognise the place, telling The Sydney Morning Herald “there is not one stick of anything that is the same”. Midler suggested the Australia she first encountered in the ‘70s “was a pit”. “It was a loveable pit,” she quickly added, “It was a thrilling pit. It was like a homey pit and I loved it so much." The performances included an appearance by her beached mermaid character Delores Delago, who would get around stage in an electric wheelchair. (Midler later claimed Lady Gaga ripped off the character for her own OTT performances.)


Bette at the State Theatre Sydney, 1978

11. Backing vocals on The Divine Miss M were supplied by Melissa Manchester, who won a Grammy in 1982 for Best Pop Female Vocal Performance with You Should Hear How She Talks About You. She was also the first artist to be nominated for two Academy Awards for separate movie themes in the one year. In 1980 her tracks Through The Eyes Of Love (from Ice Castles) and I’ll Never Say Goodbye (from The Promise) were nominated for Best Original Song but lost to Jennifer Warnes’ It Goes Like It Goes from the Norma Rae soundtrack.

- DL & SM


Related Posts