While I was picking up Halloween candy in mid-October of last year at Target, this CD (with its exclusive bonus track) called my name until I picked it up and nestled it between some Nestle's Crunch bars and Tony Bennett's Duets CD.
My first reaction was: "She finally did it. It was bound to happen!" I always had a hunch that one day Bette Midler would record a Christmas album.
Born in Honolulu, Hawaii, Midler grew up wanting to be a star and clearly stood out thanks to her Jewish Hawaiian descent. Midler stated later that "if she had known her differentness would have been an asset", her early life would have been more easier.
She graduated Radford High School in 1963, went to the University of Hawaii to study drama but dropped out early. Bette knew that New York City was the place to go to get noticed. Before she left, she made her film debut - she was an extra on a ship in an adaptation of James Michener's "Hawaii" in 1966.
Midler began acting on stage, winning the lead in the off-Broadway play "Miss Nefertiti Regrets" in 1966. The following year, she appeared in another play "Cinderella Revisited" where she caught the eye of the casting director of the long running Broadway musical "Fiddler On The Roof". Bette became the new Tzietel and stayed with the show from 1967 - 1969.
Thanks in large part to the films "Bonnie & Clyde" and "Thoroughly Modern Millie", America was having a nostalgia craze with the decades of the 1920s throught the 1940s. Midler knew this and began incorporating older songs into her song sets when she appeared in cabarets around New York City.
In 1970, Bette got a gig at The Continental Baths, the popular gay nightclub in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel. Midler and her new pianist (a chap named Barry Manilow - whatever happened to him?) appeared at the club frequently, earning her the nickname "Bathhouse Betty".
"The Divine Miss M" was born in this basement - campy, vulgar, and extremely sultry. Her entrance to the stage was memorable: Manilow would begin to play "SH-Boom" by the Crew Cuts ("SH-Boom, SH-Boom... la la la la la la la la la la la la"), Bette would walk to the stage through the audience singing "SH-Boom" while shaking her ample bosom wildly during the "la la la la la" part.
During the "Bathhouse" days, Midler began making the rounds of television shows, getting her some national attention. She made four visits in a three month span on "The David Frost Show" in 1970. This got her noticed by Johnny Carson, whose shows was in the last days of taping in New York City. Midler made her first appearance on the "Tonight Show" the same year and Carson saw her star potential.
At a nightclub performance in Chicago, she read got a glowing review from a local Chicago Tribune reporter who called her and suggested more jokes in her act. Midler asked for some on the spot and the writer - a chubby guy named Bruce Vilanch - took some jokes her remembered from Sophie Tucker's old act and made them new on the spot. It was the beginning of the Midler/Vilanch partnership that exists to this day.
1973 was the year Midler exploded onto the national scene with a trio of Top 40 hits ("Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", "Do You Want To Dance?", "Friends"), all released from her first two albums ("The Divine Miss M", "Bette Midler"). She won the Best New Artist Grammy for 1973, continued to tour, record, and make appearances on television.
However, in the back of Bette's mind was the vision of her becoming a movie star. She got her chance in 1979 when she appeared in "The Rose", playing a Janis Joplin-type rock singer. Her next movie was a concert film - the amazing "Divine Madness" in 1980 that captures Bette at the height of her 1970s popularity and at the top of her game onstage.
The early 1980s were a lost period for Bette as people began to push themselves away from anything that was too 1970s. Her 1982 film "Jinxed" laid an egg, her 1985 album "Mud Will Be Flung Tonight" reached its peak on the charts at #183, and it seemed like her only success would lay in concerts. Not quite.
In 1986, Bette signed a movie contract with Touchstone Pictures and rattled off a string of hit movies ("Down In Out In Beverly Hills", "Ruthless People", "Hocus Pocus", "The First Wives Club") over the next 10 years. Her 1989 film "Beaches" gave her the memorable (and highly annoying) song "Wind Beneath My Wings", her first and only #1 hit of her career. Midler's appearance as the final guest on Johnny Carson's next-to-last show singing "One For My Baby" is the stuff of legend.
Looking back on all of her career, Bette clearly loves the songs and the comedy of the past, making it brand new for newer generations of fans. This is probably why I had a hunch she would record a Christmas album at some point.
1.) Merry Christmas
A long lost Christmas song from the songwriting team of Fred Spielman and Janice Torre (who co-wrote "The Stingiest Man In Town"). It's a lovely surprise to start off the album.
2.) Cool Yule
The title track - Bette sings fine but the arrangement is too variety show for my tastes.
3.) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Nicely done that includes the seldom sung intro! Nice recovery.
4.) Winter Wonderland / Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (Duet with Johnny Mathis)
Campy at first but the vocal stylings of both "The King Of Christmas" (in Bette's words) and the Divine One make up for it.
5.) I'll Be Home For Christmas
Another long lost intro sung! Wistful and haunting, this is a great version of this song.
6.) What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?
I have a soft spot for this song and Bette does it justice. I'll play this one next New Year's at 12 midnight!
7.) I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm
A very good take of this old winter standard... Bette's ad-libs of "Baby It's Cold Outside" are charming!
8.) I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day
I thought this would be horrible but the bonus track turns out to be quite good! Well done Bette!
9.) O Come O Come Emmanuel
She's stretching a bit here... but pulls it off. Not the first song on the CD I'd choose.
10.) Mele Kalikimaka
Getting back to her roots... and it's the BEST track on the whole album.
11.) From A Distance (Christmas version)
This reworking of her 1991 hit is better with a Christmas arrangement - the war message remains the same.
12.) White Christmas
Any version of this song with the intro included will always get a positive vote from me. Add Bette's incredible voice = perfect!
I would have loved to hear what this album would have sounded like in her earlier "Bathhouse Betty" days with Manilow or Marc Shaiman at the producer's helm. However, Midler gives us a great Christmas album all around.
UP NEXT: O Come All Ye Faithful... no, we ain't gonna take it!