Over the years, Bette Midler’s music has often been dismissed for being too schmaltzy or because she tends to go way, way old school with her cover choices, and while the former might be relative, as to the latter, she tackled the Rosemary Clooney songbook in 2003, then followed it in 2005 by covering the Peggy Lee songbook. Not that there’s anything wrong with tackling standards, but there was a time not so long ago when Midler was turning in versions of some pretty awesome contemporary tunes.
1. 1. Tom Waits, “Shiver My Timbers”
Midler originally covered this song – which featured on Waits’ 1974 album, The Heart of Saturday Night – on Songs for the New Depression (1976), where it was paired with “Samedi et Vendredi,” an original co-written by Midler and longtime Utopia member Moogy Klingman.
The following year, she covered it all by its lonesome on her concert album, Live at Last. Possibly not by coincidence, she and Waits recorded a duet that same year: “I Never Talk to Strangers,” which can be found both on her Broken Blossom album and his Foreign Affairs album.
(Midler also recorded a cover of Waits’ “Martha” that didn’t make the cut for Broken Blossom, but she performed it beautifully on Saturday Night Live.)
3. 2. Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain”
Midler’s cover of “Buckets of Rain” was actually performed with the man who composed it. According to Aaron Russo, Midler’s manager at the time, “Dylan wanted [Bette] to be in his Rolling Thunder Revue movie. They were talking about it and she said, ‘Well, there’s a possibility I’ll do it, but I would like you to sing a song with me.’ He came to the studio one night, and they just went out and did this piece.”
“Buckets of Rain” wasn’t the first song Dylan suggested, however: per the website Bette on the Boards, “When Bob Dylan was first approached to do a duet with Bette on this album, he wanted to record a version of ‘Friends.’ Moogy Klingman reluctantly rehearsed Bette and Bob doing this song, but it became quite clear that it was a bad choice.”
5. 3. Neil Young, “Birds”
6. 4. Sammy Hagar, “Red”
The more casual Midler fans are likely aware of her second Sammy Hagar cover, “Keep On Rockin’,” since it appeared on the multi-platinum-selling soundtrack to her 1980 film, The Rose. The diehards, however, will recall that she tackled the song that helped secure the Red Rocker his longtime nickname on 1977’s Broken Blossom.
7. 5. Bob Seger, “Fire Down Below”
Video available at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=6IhmOrfx0fA.
Speaking of The Rose, Midler can be heard covering Bob Seger’s “Fire Down Below” in the film, yet the track never actually made its way onto the soundtrack. Fortunately, she decided to add the song to her setlist, resulting in its appearance on her 1980 concert album, Divine Madness.
8. 6. Marshall Crenshaw, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time”
9. 7. Bruce Springsteen, “Pink Cadillac”
Video available at: http://youtube.com/watch?v=LTOttPpQD4U.
Years before Natalie Cole had a hit with it, Midler recorded her own take on “Pink Cadillac,” ostensibly for inclusion on 1983’s No Frills, but it’s said that Springsteen decided that the song wasn’t appropriate for a woman to sing. Obviously, he changed his mind at some point, but even if he didn’t want Midler to release her studio version, it didn’t stop her from continuing to sing the song in concert: you can find “Pink Cadillac” opening her 1984 concert video, Art or Bust.
10. 8. Ben Folds Five, “Boxing”
11. 9. Kirsty MacColl, “In These Shoes?”
12. 10. David Bowie, “Young Americans”
This really shouldn’t count, since it was never officially released, but it’s worth including – if only at the very end – because the story behind it is so cool. After David Bowie finished recording his Young Americans album, he played it for various folks, including John Lennon, Paul and Linda McCartney, Bob Dylan, and…you guessed it…Bette Midler. As such, Midler was in the position to start covering the title track very early on, putting it into the setlist of her Clams on the Half Shell Revue, where she combined it with the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” by tying the two tracks together with their shared line, “I read the news today, oh boy.” Unfortunately, she never recorded a studio version of the cover, but if you do a bit of hunting…well, let’s just say it’s not inconceivable that you could stumble upon a live recording somewhere on the ‘net.
Oh, and just for fun, there’s one other interesting tie between Bowie and Midler that’ll bring this whole thing full circle: he introduced her to one of the backup singers on his Young Americans album, a young up-and-comer by the name of Luther Vandross, after which she invited Vandross to sing backup for her next album, Songs for the New Depression, which featured the aforementioned Waits and Dylan covers.