Bette Midler grew up in Hawaii, where her parents Fred and Ruth had moved in the early 1940s from Paterson, New Jersey. The family subsisted on the modest income Mr Midler made painting houses and doing civilian work for the US Navy.
Ruth, meanwhile, escaped their threadbare circumstances through a consuming interest in Hollywood films and movie fanzines. She went so far as to name all three of her daughters after her favourite screen stars: Judy (after Garland), Susan (as in Hayward) and Bette (in tribute to Davis).
By the time Bette graduated from high school (she was class president and valedictorian), she had earned a reputation as a first-rate clown, a second-rate amateur shoplifter and a fledgeling folk singer as part of a female vocal trio called The Pieridine Three.
A bit-part in a production of Michener’s Hawaii strengthened her hunger for the spotlight, and she departed Hawaii in 1965 with $1,000 in savings.
At length, she arrived in New York and took a room in the Broadway Central Hotel, begged for bit parts on and off the Great White Way and survived by doing filing at Columbia University, selling glove at Stern’s department store and go-go dancing at a bar in Union City, New Jersey.
Through a series of breaks, she ended up with a three-year run in the Broadway production of Fiddler On The Roof, first as a member of the chorus, then as the eldest daughter Tzeitel.
Deciding to concentrate on her singing, she made her solo debut at Hilly Kristal’s old club, Hilly’s (before he opened CBGB‘s). She was booked on The David Frost Show and The Tonight Show and engaged at Manhattan’s Continental Baths for sixteen weeks.
In the space of only two years, she went from a camp curiosity at the Continental Baths to breaking it big with her debut album, The Divine Miss M (1972).
Manilow was the pianist on most of the tracks, and he was Midler’s accompanist and musical director for three years in the early 1970s.
Bette became the brightest new star in the music industry. It should have lasted – but it didn’t.
Tackling contemporary classics (Beast Of Burden), soul standards (When A Man Loves A Woman) and – most famously – show tunes, Midler demonstrated that an irrepressible personality does not guarantee musical prowess.
With interpretations ranging from the ersatz to the toe-curling, Miss M often demonstrated that unshackled from her brassy stage persona, her actual vocal talent is quite limited.