Hippo Manchester
November 17, 2005

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Bette Midler

Bette Midler Sings The Peggy Lee Songbook

Columbia

***

On this follow-up to her Grammy-nominated album, Bette Midler Sings The Rosemary Clooney Songbook, the Divine Miss M figures if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Producer/arranger and longtime friend Barry Manilow is back as well, as Midler interprets the songs of pop songstress Peggy Lee.

At first glance, the sultry Lee seems like an awkward fit for the ribald Midler. But Midler actually wraps herself around Lee’s music, shining on ballads like “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe,” and shimmying on finger-snapping tracks like Lee’s hot and bothered classic, “Fever.”

In fact, Midler actually seems more comfortable in this zone than she did on the Clooney concept album. Whereas the previous disc gave her and Manilow a chance to crack open some jazz chestnuts, this time around Midler gets to camp and vamp a bit – something she’s been known to do on occasion. On cuts like “Big Spender,” which was also a hit for Shirley Bassey, Midler plays coy,  practically sweet-talking the orchestra from crescendo to climax as she oohs and aahs her way through each verse before blurting out the chorus.

And love him or hate him for his schmaltz, it doesn’t hurt that Manilow knows his way around a studio. On his arrangement for “Alright, Okay, You Win,” Manilow punches the song with a bluesy renovation. And on “He’s A Tramp,” a song that Lee co-wrote in 1954 for the Disney classic, Lady and The Tramp, Manilow takes the jazz cabaret approach as Midler gently sways along.

Fans have complained that at barely over thirty minutes, Midler skimps on material. But as an introduction to the genre, or Lee’s legacy for that matter, Songbook is just what it should be – a tribute album to a gifted pop songstress. And ironically, in Lee’s later day concerts, she often closed with one of Midler’s songs.  Maybe this is just Bette returning the compliment.

— George Pelletier