By Randal C. Hill
The once-ubiquitous Andrews sisters – Patty, Maxine and Laverne – premiered “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” in the 1941 Abbott and Costello comedy film “Buck Privates.” For the beloved Minnesota trio, that perky ditty became their twenty-fourth consecutive Decca Records winner.
Written by Don Ray and Huey Prince, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” has always been associated with World War II, even though the song was recorded in January 1941— nearly one year before the Pearl Harbor attack.
The original cheerful tune featured a storyline – good for laughs but an obvious fantasy – about a hip Chicago street musician/army draftee: a boogie woogie bugle boy. Apparently, without his bandmates, the cat couldn’t do justice to “Reveille” when he was ordered to play it to announce the dawning. But his good-natured company leader (“the Cap”) saved the day by assembling a barracks-based band for the frustrated musician, who could then handily offer a spirited wake-up call for the snoozing soldiers.
In 1973, it would take a rising young star to bring the song to a contemporary audience.
Bette Midler, born in Honolulu in 1945, earned a bit part as an extra during the 1966 filming of “Hawaii.” Flushed with confidence, she moved to New York to try her luck in the entertainment world. She rose to Big Apple prominence in 1970 when she began singing in the Continental Baths, a Gotham gay bathhouse. There she built a loyal following, along the way growing close to her pianist, the then-unknown Barry Manilow. (Reflecting on her bathhouse times later, Midler professed, “I’m still proud of those days. I feel like I was at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, and I hope I did my part to help it move forward.”)
Manilow produced Bette’s future classic debut Atlantic Records offering, “The Divine Miss M,” which spent 76 weeks on Billboard’s album chart and featured the track that first brought her to national prominence. When Midler made “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” a summertime Top 10 single, a new generation of music fans came to embrace an iconic tune that had all but faded into the mists of history.
Recording hit songs new and old wasn’t the only pursuit for the versatile Midler. During her five-decade career, she earned a head-spinning three Grammy awards, three Emmy awards, two Tony awards, four Golden Globe awards, and a Kennedy Center honor, in addition to nominations for two Academy Awards.