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Midler’s Surprise ‘Beaches’ Hit

Bette Midler’s “Beaches” sound-track album is the biggest LP of her career--and she owes it all to her hairdresser.

The singer-actress, who has released 11 albums since 1972, wasn’t even planning to release an album of music from the film until she was midway through shooting the musical-drama last year.

“I was singing ‘Under the Boardwalk’ during a scene we shot at the Hollywood Bowl and it seemed like everybody on the set really liked it,” Midler said by phone last week from Toronto, where she is working on a new film.

“I went back to get touched up, and Barbara said I should make a record,” she continued, referring to her hair stylist Barbara Lorenz. “I didn’t think people were chomping at the bit for a sound track. Even when we put it out, I really didn’t have any expectations for it.”

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But the sound-track LP is the sleeper hit of the year. It’s No. 3--and climbing--on Billboard magazine’s list of the nation’s best-selling albums. “Wind Beneath My Wings,” a sweeping ballad from the album, is No. 3 on the singles chart.

The success is the high point of Midler’s checkered recording career. And no one is more surprised than she.

“I’m flabbergasted,” Midler exclaimed. “It’s close to the biggest shock of my career.”

The main reason for Midler’s initial skepticism was the disappointing response to her last studio album, “No Frills.” She toiled for nine months on the 1983 album, only to watch it peak at a tepid No. 60 on the national chart.

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“It wasn’t a pleasant experience,” she said. “Who wants to be in an ugly, dark room for nine months? I was bitter about the music business at that point, so I wasn’t really looking forward to coming back into it.”

The “Beaches” sessions--supervised by veteran producer Arif Mardin--were much more relaxed.

“That’s why I don’t understand it,” Midler said. “If you’re beating yourself up you expect some reward, but if you’re having fun why would anybody reward you?”

Though it took the movies to make Midler a superstar, she became a recording star with the 1972 release of her debut album, “The Divine Miss M.” The collection went Top 10 and yielded a Top 10 single, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” It also brought Midler a Grammy for best new artist.

Despite this fast start, Midler failed in the middle and late ‘70s to seriously challenge such top female recording stars as Donna Summer and Linda Ronstadt. The problem, she said last week, may be that she tried too hard to copy their styles.

“When disco was happening, I’d look at Donna and at Debbie Harry, and I’d think, ‘Oh, I can do that,’ ” she said. “So you wind up doing a little bit of everybody’s act and you’re not yourself.

“You have to listen to your instincts and avoid looking at the competition, avoid chasing the charts and saying, ‘If so-and-so can have a hit why can’t I?’ Back then, I didn’t have the courage of my convictions. I did a lot for expediency’s sake. I had a couple of years there where I was very hot and then I got frightened and sort of backed off, and so I wasn’t able to sustain it.”

The low point, Midler said, was her 1979 album “Thighs and Whispers.”

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“By that point, I was just grabbing at straws,” she acknowledged. She described one of the songs on the album, the disco novelty “Nights in Black Leather,” as the nadir of her recording career. “I still cringe when I even think of it, much less hear it,” she said.

Though Midler has been a star for close to two decades, “Wind Beneath My Wings” is only her third Top 10 hit. Industry insiders point to several factors for her relative lack of pop success over the years.

Ron Weisner, who manages Steve Winwood and is the U.S. management representative for Paul McCartney, noted that Midler wasn’t focused on music.

“Her energies were a little scattered,” he said. “She would focus on music for a while and then she’d focus on something else. You have to have a concentrated focus to get that major success.”

Another reason cited by industry observers: Midler’s appeal may owe more to the force of her personality--and to her comic abilities--than to her singing skills. As with such other multimedia stars as Liza Minnelli, Dolly Parton and Cher, records capture only a portion of her talent.

David Geffen, head of the Geffen recording and film companies, noted that Midler’s two biggest albums, excluding the debut, are both sound-track LPs. “The Rose” was a million-seller in 1980.

Geffen said that it helps an artist such as Midler to have a movie behind a song--even if the movie isn’t a blockbuster. “In the world of MTV, the movie is like one big video for all these songs,” he said.

The smash success of the “Beaches” sound track album is surprising because the film, which opened nationally on Jan. 13, was only a modest hit and has long since disappeared from movie screens.

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Despite the sound track’s success, Midler is in no hurry to rush back into the recording studio.

“I do miss singing in front of an audience, but the recording career I can take or leave,” she said. “Because I haven’t had that kind of long, sustained success over years and years, it’s not a life-or-death proposition to me.”

The main reason for the success of the “Beaches” album has been the heavy radio play for “Wind Beneath My Wings,” which has been recorded many times since it was introduced in 1983 by country singer Gary Morris. Among the artists who have previously recorded the Larry Henley-Jeff Silbar composition: Willie Nelson, Sheena Easton, Lou Rawls and Gladys Knight & the Pips.

But Midler wasn’t familiar with the song when it was brought to her by Marc Shaiman, the music supervisor on the movie. And she thought it was a little too obvious for the scene where it was to be used.

“I thought, ‘Gosh, it’s kind of on-the-nose isn’t it?,’ ” she said. “It’s a big song and I felt that perhaps it was too big for the moment. I’ve always tried to be a bit more hard-edged about things. Instead of adding a layer of sentiment to a scene I would prefer to undercut it. I try to stay away from things that are maudlin. But once I saw it in the picture I really felt it was the way to go.”

Both of Midler’s biggest hits--"Wind Beneath My Wings” and “The Rose"--are highly emotional ballads.

“It seems that what people most like to hear me sing is something with heart,” Midler said. “It’s taken a long time for me to see that, and I’m surprised at myself because I don’t consider myself dim.

“But I think when I have a mix of songs that have good melodies and have heart and a little bit of humor, my audience will respond. That’s gratifying, because it’s truer to myself than a lot of my old stuff.”


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