If she doesn’t already, Bette Midler, soon to be the new Dolly on Broadway, should know what a deep influence she has had on her fellow entertainers. In three interviews this past week — including with Kathy Griffin — very talented and very different ladies each, coincidentally, found serious reason to mention Midler as a vital influence on their lives.
For singer Darlene Love, her friendship with Midler is a beacon in a life that has had its hard knocks. Things once got so low for her that she had to work as a maid. Now set to appear this weekend at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts at Brooklyn College (2900 Ave. H, Apr. 2, 8 p.m.; BrooklynCenter.org), the agelessly ebullient and juicy rock legend laughed in her deliciously hearty way, “You know, I don’t feel sorry for people for who say they can’t find a job. There is always something you can do. I started cleaning houses because it was something I could do. I only had a 12th-grade education and couldn’t be a secretary or a doctor. I knew it wasn’t going to be forever, not with the talent that God has given me and I think I needed to be in that space for a time to get new life in me, and new blood.
“There’s nothing wrong with being down, as long as you don’t stay down. I could have called a lot of people for help but I had to pull myself out of it by myself: ‘This is between you and me, God.’ It worked, and all these years later I am in the prime of my life with great jobs and wonderful TV shows ! I am booked solid through 2017, turning down jobs, me, without a hit record since 1962!”
In the Noh: Darlene Love, Vivian Reed come alive on New York stages
That record was, of course, Phil Spector’s “He’s a Rebel,” but the first time Love heard it, “I didn’t like it, at all! I kept saying, ‘Oh Lord, this song ain’t gonna sell one copy,’ and to my amazement, it sold over three million. It sounded stupid to me, and that’s why, a lot of times, you gotta let the producers make the choices, and you just give it your all.”
Another song, indelibly associated with Love is Ellie Greenwich’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” which she performed while in the show “Leader of the Pack” in 1984. David Letterman’s music director Paul Shaffer played the piano in the play, and when Letterman came to see it, he was particularly struck by the tune, saying it was the best Christmas song ever. Fast forward some 30 years later and there Love was, singing it for the last Christmas on Letterman’s show.
“That last show was heartbreaking especially with him, because you don’t get to see him be emotional. All the people who worked for him at NBC came to CBS. People stop me on the street all the time — in Australia even! — saying ‘Christmas isn’t Christmas until we see you on “David.”’ I told him, ‘I don’t know whether you realize you had a whole lot to do with keeping my career going.’ I really thank God for my talent, but if it wasn’t for David, thousands wouldn’t know who I was, like the young people.”
These two signature songs helped get Love, who cheerfully admits to being a very healthy 75, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011: “Omigod, other than going to the White House…! The wonderful thing is that your peers elect you and it’s really an honor for them to say, ‘You’ve done enough for the business. You were there when it started and are still alive and doing well.’”
Bruce Springsteen, Stevie van Zandt, and Elton John helped Love secure the award, but beyond those angels, she recalls that it was Midler who formally inducted her.
“I don’t think they even knew how close Bette and I are,” she explained. “I can count on her for anything and vice versa. I was in California and we were both leaving at the same time, so I said, ‘We’ll probably be on the same flight.’ She said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I said, ‘I’m leaving tomorrow around one. What flight are you on?’ ‘Oh no, no, no, honey I have my own plane, and what you need to do is come and go home with me.’ That’s the type of person she is. When I got on the plane with my son, she said, ‘Oh, is he going with us?’ [Laughs.]
“She’s been to a couple shows of mine, and I didn’t even know she was there. She’ll come and sit at the bar, see the show, and go home. She doesn’t want any fuss — her car drops her off and picks her up. We had fun in California when she took me to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for dinner. She was driving one of those little mini things and I said, ‘That’s not a car!’ She said, ‘I just need something to drive to the grocery store, nothing big.’ She’s a big homebody and loves her daughter ad husband, a very calm person. She’s very normal: ‘Oh, come in and sit down!’ I don’t have her private number but I have her assistant Jill’s number. I’ll leave her a message that way, and within 10 minutes, she calls me back, one of the very few superstars I can call and get in touch with right away.”
“My love life? Omigod, I’ve been married to the same man for 31 years. The love of my life, he helps with my career, and we just got back from Jamaica for two weeks, which we do every year, right after the Super Bowl. On vacation, we are not tourists, looking at places. We stay at an all-inclusive hotel, and have Darlene and Albert Time — and you can read between the lines! [Laughs.]”
As for her acting career, Love said she loved doing the “Lethal Weapon” movies, as Danny Glover’s wife, and thought she’d be offered good films after that, “but then I got nothing. Director Clive Donner told me that producers and directors want to cast you for who you are. They want Darlene Love.”
What about the Broadway musical “Carrie?”
“Isn’t it amazing that my career has taken me to all these places. Who would have thought I would be in one of the greatest flops of all time? People actually have recordings they made when it was going on and these fans are wonderful, sending them to me. But we all knew it was going to be a train wreck when they wouldn’t let us have anything to say. They knew everything, and we just did what they told us to.”
Like Love, another blazing talent, Vivian Reed — a two-time Tony nominee who is opening a residency at the Metropolitan on April 2 with her show, “Standards & More” (34 W. 22nd St., through Jul. 21; MetropolitanRoom.com) — has also not had such a smooth and steady go of it. After the big splash she made in the 1970s, I always wondered why she wasn’t around more. Every time I’d see her in the random, special venues where she’d pop up — the plays “The Second Tosca” and “Invisible Life,” or Daniel Nardicio’s recently produced Piaf tribute concert — she invariably brought the house down with her amazingly healthy soaring pipes and riveting charisma.
The answers are various, including her taking a major break to look after her mother in hometown Pittsburgh, who died a year ago, and the fact that, following her Tony-nominated success in the all-black musical revue “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” she went with the show to Europe and may have stayed there too long. A la Josephine Baker, she took Paris by storm and was known as La Panthere Noir. A besotted Pierre Cardin took her under his wing and, when she opened in his theater, all of the chairs were suddenly red, to match one of her gowns. She performed at all the Maxim’s restaurants he opened around the world, and he produced a big TV special for her, which, per his request, cannot be reshown.
When Reed finally returned to America, she could not get into auditions. Bill Bartheimer, who produced ‘Sophisticated Ladies,” which Reed was going to take to Europe, finally revealed the answer, telling her, “There are rumors out on you that you are difficult to work with, even a bitch. Unbelievable because I’d heard these things before I hired you, but you didn’t know it. You were unaware, but I watched you very carefully a lot and saw that you were the kindest, sweetest person along with being a complete professional.”
Today, Reed realizes that those rumors came partly from cast members jealous of the reviews that would spotlight her (in “Bubbling,” and also Miki Grant’s ground-breaking African American revue, “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope”). At the same time, she acknowledges that she is more than a little driven. The “Sweet Georgia Brown” number in “Bubbling Brown Sugar” featured her with two male backup dancers: “So there’s those three parts and if one part falters, it affects the whole number. I was a perfectionist and I didn’t party, and I would definitely complain if there was something happening in any of my numbers. I would go straight to management. Today I would handle things differently — I was so young then, remember.”
Bette Midler’s appearance on Phil Donahue’s show at the time she was making a comeback after not getting work for four years struck a deep chord in Reed, who teared up as she described watching it. Midler told Donahue that all the knowledge and craft she’d acquired actually led her astray when she would, for example, tell a cameraman which side of her face was more photogenic. She would subsequently be labeled a controlling bitch who wanted to tell everyone how to do their job.
“That moment was me, on a smaller scale! That show was so fascinating, and Bette will never know what she did for me that day.”
Romance has not been an entire stranger to the career-obsessed Reed, but she is cautious in love.
“I’ve had some great loves in my life and been proposed to twice. But both of those men wanted me out of show business and that wasn’t going to happen. I’m not going to say that I haven’t entertained the thought of someone coming along who really understands my career and the fact that it comes first. But they have to bring something to the table, too, and I have to see how they are as an individual, how giving they are in terms of their niceness and how they treat people.”