In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Oh, no. Bette Midler.
It’s going to be a long, long time before anyone has a career like Bette Midler’s. Midler arrived in public life as a fully-formed multi-hyphenate, a singer and actor and energetically brassy public presence. She distinguished herself onstage and on record and in movies and on TV, and she got opportunities to thrive at all of them. It would be weird to call Bette Midler a pop star. She’s more of an all-around entertainer. It’s what she’s always been.
When Midler made her first and only #1 hit, she was 43 years old, and she’d already been in show business for a couple of decades. She’d won an Emmy, two Grammys, a couple of Golden Globes, and a special-recognition Tony, and she’d been nominated for an Oscar. (She’s since won another Tony in competition, and if she ever gets an Oscar, she’ll have the full EGOT.) Midler’s #1 hit was a grand, majestic old-school ballad, the type of thing that Barbra Streisand might’ve sung 10 or 15 years earlier. The song had been around for a few years when Midler got to it, and plenty of other singers had already recorded it. But none of those singers had sung “Wind Beneath My Wings” in a hit tearjerker melodrama. Midler did that, and as a result, “Wind Beneath My Wings” is now her song.
Bette Midler was born in Honolulu just after the end of World War II; her working-class Jewish parents named her after Bette Davis. As you would probably imagine, Midler was a loud, confident young theater kid, and she studied drama for a couple of years at the University Of Hawaii. In 1966, she got a bit part in Hawaii, the grand-scale Julie Andrews drama, and she used the money that she made from that role to pack up and move to New York.
In New York, Midler studied theater and started out on Off-Broadway plays. Eventually, she got cast in Broadway productions like Fiddler On The Roof and Salvation. She was also in the first-ever production of the Who’s rock opera Tommy. More importantly, though, Midler found an after-hours gig. In 1970, she started singing in the Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse. A not-yet-famous Barry Manilow accompanied her on piano. That’s where Midler really developed her cabaret chops and found her audience.
In 1972, Midler released her debut album The Divine Miss M, which Manilow co-produced. The album made Midler. It went platinum, and Midler’s version of the Andrews Sisters oldie “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” became her first top-10 hit, peaking at #8. (It’s a 2.) Midler won the Best New Artist Grammy, beating Barry White. In the ’70s, Midler cranked out albums, appeared on The Tonight Show a bunch of times, and made a TV special that featured Dustin Hoffman and won Midler that Emmy. In 1979, Midler got her first leading role in a movie, playing a Janis Joplin-esque rock star in The Rose. She got nominated for Best Actress that year, losing that award to Sally Field in Norma Rae. Her song “The Rose,” from the movie’s soundtrack, became her second top-10 hit, peaking at #3. (It’s a 7.) Midler wouldn’t make the top 10 again until “Wind Beneath My Wings.”
In the mid-’80s, Midler sang in the chorus on “We Are The World” and performed at Live Aid, but she really hit her stride in studio comedies like Down And Out In Beverly Hills, Ruthless People, and Big Business. She also made Beaches. I’ve never seen Beaches, and I probably never will. (It does not look like my kind of movie. That’s fine. Not everything has to be for me.) Beaches is a weeper about two old friends reconnecting just as one of them is dying of heart disease. Barbara Hershey plays the friend who dies; Midler is the singer and actor who has to adopt her late friend’s daughter.
Midler was one of the producers of Beaches, and the movie’s soundtrack is pretty much just a Bette Midler album. It’s mostly a collection of standards that Midler recorded with Arif Mardin, the veteran producer whose work has appeared in this column a bunch of times. Midler’s arranger Marc Shaiman, who worked as the film’s music supervisor, suggested “Wind Beneath My Wings,” a song that had been kicking around for a few years. Shaiman had to talk Midler into it. Years later, she said, “When I first heard it, I said, ‘I’m not singing that song,’ but the friend who gave it to me said, ‘If you don’t sing it I’ll never speak to you again,’ so of course I had to sing the damned song. Whatever reservations I might have had I certainly don’t have any more.”
“Wind Beneath My Wings” came from the Nashville songwriting team of Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar. Henley had been the squeaky-voiced lead singer for the ’60s vocal group the Newbeats. (The Newbeats’ highest-charting single, 1964’s infernally catchy “Bread And Butter,” peaked at #2. It’s a 6.) The Newbeats broke up in the early ’70s, and Henley started writing songs with Silbar, a manager at the publishing company that signed Henley. During one writing session, Silbar, who’d been learning how to fly planes, saw that Henley had written down the phrase “wind beneath my wings” on a legal pad. Henley had used it in a poem that he’d written for his ex-wife a few years earlier. Silbar liked the sound of that, so he and Henley wrote the song together in a day, with Henley writing the lyrics and Silbar writing the music.
“Wind Beneath My Wings” started off as a regular romantic love song, but as Henley and Silbar worked on it, it became a sort of hymn to friendship. The song’s narrator is offering up an ode to someone who’s been supportive and who hasn’t always gotten their due. That narrator comes off a little big egotistical right from the song’s opening line: “It must have been cold there in my shadow/ To never have sunlight on your face/ You were content to let me shine, that’s your way/ You always walked a step behind.” That’s kind of a dick thing to say when you’re trying to offer up a heartfelt dedication to someone, and it comes off even more dickish in Beaches, with Midler’s character presumably singing to a dead friend. But the whole point of the song is that the narrator would be nothing without this friend, and the grand-uplift chorus is the part that everyone remembers.
Bob Montgomery, the duo’s publisher, recorded a demo, making the decision to slow the song down and turn it into a ballad. For a year, Henley and Silbar couldn’t find anyone to record “Wind Beneath My Wings”; Kenny Rogers and Barry Manilow both turned the song down. But the British singer Roger Whittaker cut a sleepy version of the song and made it the title track of his 1982 album. (Whittaker’s highest-charting single, 1975’s “The Last Farewell,” peaked at #19.) After that, a whole lot of people recorded “Wind Beneath My Wings”: Sheena Easton, BJ Thomas, Lee Greenwood. Gary Morris had a #4 country hit with his version of “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and Gladys Knight & The Pips made the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts with theirs. In 1983, Lou Rawls’ version of “Wind Beneath My Wings” made it onto the Hot 100, peaking at #65. (Rawls’ highest-charting single, 1976’s “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)
For her version of the song, Midler sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” as a grand, sincere show-stopper, which is exactly what the song should be. Oddly, Midler’s take isn’t that showy. She hits big notes, but she never seems like she’s trying to use the song to show what she can do. Instead, she mostly stays out of the song’s way, really nailing that central melody and never going too crazy with the ad-libs other than the “thank you, thank god for you” bit at the end. Maybe that’s why Midler’s version of the song is the definitive one. She makes it sound simple.
Unfortunately, Arif Mardin’s syrupy soft-rock production isn’t even remotely interested in staying out of the song’s way. Instead, Mardin fills the song up with tinny electric-piano gloop and soul-crushing synth-whistles. That hacky, middle-of-the-road ’80s pop production has aged horribly, and it makes the song a chore. A stately ballad like this should be the easiest thing in the world to record, especially when you’ve got a big-voiced diva like Midler singing it. Nope! “Wind Beneath My Wings” would be a whole lot more moving if it was recorded with just voice and piano and maybe some strings — or, failing that, if the arrangement just didn’t stink like hot, sweat-pickled summertime ass.
It ultimately didn’t matter that “Wind Beneath My Wings” sounded like pigshit, since the song had Beaches working for it. Critics weren’t into Beaches, but the movie was a hit anyway. Beaches reached theaters in December of 1988, and it ended up making $57 million, which puts it at #15 on the year’s box-office list. (It’s right between Willow and Rambo III.) In Beaches, “Wind Beneath My Wings” plays during the emotional-climax montage, when Barbara Hershey dies and Midler holds her daughter’s hand at the funeral.
“Wind Beneath My Wings” isn’t a song about death, but thanks to the way it appears in the movie, it became one of those songs that reminds everyone of a dead friend or family member. It gets played at funerals, and Midler herself sang the song during the in-memoriam montage at the 2014 Oscars. “Wind Beneath My Wings” hit people in the right place, and it became Midler’s signature song. At the Grammys in 1990, it won both Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year, even though the song itself was almost a decade old by that point.
For Bette Midler, it must’ve felt random when “Wind Beneath My Wings” caught fire the way it did. “Wind Beneath My Wings” wasn’t even the first single from the Beaches soundtrack. That was Midler’s version of “On Broadway,” which missed the Hot 100 entirely. (The Drifters’ original “On Broadway” peaked at #9 in 1963. It’s a 10.) But Midler steered into the success of “Wind Beneath My Wings.” In 1990, she came close to equaling its success. Midler cut a similarly drippy Arif Mardin-produced version of “From A Distance,” a ballad that Nancy Griffith had released in 1987. Midler’s “From A Distance” peaked at #2. (It’s a 3.)
Bette Midler hasn’t had a top-10 hit since “From A Distance,” and she hasn’t been on the Hot 100 since 1991. But Midler has kept busy. In the ’90s, she starred in Hocus Pocus and The First Wives Club and Get Shorty. She got another Oscar nomination for For The Boys. She starred in one season of a sitcom called Bette in 2000. She had a Vegas residency for a while, and she won a Tony for her starring role in a 2017 Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly. In 2019, sitting president Donald Trump tweeted that Midler was both both a “washed up psycho” and a “sick scammer.” Midler was in a couple of movies last year, and she’s apparently about to be in a Hocus Pocus sequel. I will definitely take my kids to see that. (Shout out to Sarah Jessica Parker in Hocus Pocus. I know she’s an evil witch who’d been reawakened after hundreds of years and who is attempting to murder children, but I bet I could change her.)
“Wind Beneath My Wings” wasn’t exactly a blip in Bette Midler’s long career. The song will always be associated with her. But pop-chart dominance wasn’t really part of the long-term plan for Midler, and she seems to be doing just fine without it. We won’t see Bette Midler in this column again, but plenty of other people will sing plenty of other drippy ballads. We’ll have no shortage of those.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bette Midler and Krusty The Clown singing “Wind Beneath My Wings” together in a classic 1993 episode of The Simpsons:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the son-and-father duo of Gerald and Eddie Levert’s video for their awesomely overwrought 1995 R&B version of “Wind Beneath My Wings”:
(Eddie Levert has already been in this column as the leader of the O’Jays. As a solo artist, Gerald Levert’s highest-charting single is 1999’s “Taking Everything,” which peaked at #11. But Gerald Levert has made the top 10 as part of two different groups. The family act LeVert’s highest-charting single, 1987’s “Casanova,” peaked at #5. It’s a 7. LSG — the trio of Gerald Levert, Keith Sweat, and Johnny Gill — peaked at #4 with 1997’s “My Body.” That’s another 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the softball-game scene from a 1995 episode of Seinfeld, where George uses “Wind Beneath My Wings” to taunt Bette Midler and then Kramer sings it to her:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the bit from a 2003 Gilmore Girls episode where Lorelei sings “Wind Beneath My Wings” to Rory:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: When both Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell were auditioning for the 2013 Disney movie Frozen, they sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” together. Then, in 2017, Menzel starred in a Lifetime remake of Beaches, and she recorded her own version of “Wind Beneath My Wings.” Here’s Menzel’s video for her version:
(Idina Menzel’s highest-charting single, 2014’s “Let It Go,” peaked at #5. It’s a 9.)