Barry Manilow spent a decade running singles up the Billboard Hot 100, from his chart-topping breakthrough with “Mandy” through “Looks Like We Made It” to “Read ‘Em and Weep.”
But having hits was never his intention.
“I never even listened to pop radio when I was growing up,” he says. “And then I found myself on the radio between ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ and ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie.’”
Manilow laughs, then adds, “I’m so embarrassed. That’s probably why my records sounded so original. I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Even if his heart was more in jazz, Manilow is grateful for the hits. That’s why he plays them every night when he performs.
“I’ve stopped performing album cuts and medleys of big bands and stuff,” he says. “I know what the audience wants. They want the hits. And I am happy to give that to them. I’m one of those lucky guys who has a catalog of hits that can fill up 90 minutes.
“I don’t know how that happened, but I’m very grateful. And I want to give them every song they know. So it’s a very happy audience out there.”
A few years back, he says, he realized his audience wasn’t as sick of hearing him sing “I Write the Songs” or “Can’t Smile Without You” as he once assumed they were.
“I could see the difference,” he says. “When I would do something they didn’t know, they would be very polite. And then when I would do ‘Looks Like We Made It,’ the roof would cave in.”
He laughs, then adds, “They were telling me what they wanted. And it’s my pleasure, honestly. It’s theirs. They gave these hits to me. So I’m happy to do it. I don’t mind it. I really don’t.
“You would think that I’d be sick of them by now. But I really am not because they make it brand new for me. It’s as if they’ve never heard these songs before.”
He’ll be playing the hits every night of a residency at Westgate Las Vegas that runs through June 14, as well as his headlining set at Celebrity Fight Night in Phoenix on March 23.
“There’s a very young audience that has appeared for me in Vegas,” he says. “Everybody is shocked at the age that is showing up every night, so that’s fun, too, because I feel like Justin Bieber up there with all the screaming.”
He laughs, then, “You know, I was the Justin Bieber of the ‘70s.”
Manilow is what he calls a “reluctant performer” who never craved the spotlight like so many others do.
“I wound up having to go on the road to promote my first album, which was a shock in itself because I never really wanted to sing or perform or anything,” he says. “All I wanted to do was write songs, arrange songs for other people, maybe produce records, play the piano for people, conduct, anything in the background. That’s where I was happy.
“But I wound up with a record deal and it was ridiculous. So I had to put together a band and lights and sound and go out and promote an album. That’s how I wound up standing on a stage in front of these strangers, making an idiot of himself.”
He’d sent out demos of his songs but couldn’t afford to hire “a real singer,” as he puts it with a self-effacing laugh. “And I got an offer to make an album of my own from a company called Bell Records, which turned into Arista Records. And I said, ‘Yeah. Sure.’ I mean, I never really thought that anything would happen with my record career. It was a joke.”
He was Bette Midler’s musical director and piano player at the time.
“When I told Bette ‘I think I got a record deal,’ she said, ‘Doing what?!’ I said, ‘Singing.’ She said, ‘Well, you don’t sing.’”
It took “many, many years later,” he says, to make his peace with live performance.
“As the albums kept becoming bigger and bigger, and Clive Davis came into my life and between the two of us, we started to create hit singles over and over, part of me was hoping it would go away already because I was so uncomfortable being on the stage,” he says. “And there’s so many people who just love that. They dream of standing on a stage.
“I played for all those singers. I was the piano player for everybody in New York. And they would kill to have had a career like mine. I don’t know what they must think of me, because I was their piano player and I got the record deal.”
Looking back on his earliest days as a performer, he says, “I was terrible. I was just terrible. But the audiences didn’t think so… They liked this guy up there. And they applauded. Sometimes they applauded very loud.”
Over time, he was was about to figure out what he was doing.
“I did figure out, kind of, the rules of how you put together a show and what do you say in between songs,” he says. “And I have a good sense of humor so I could do that. But I was still just very uncomfortable for many years.”
Two things helped, he says. The first was acting lessons, because he “finally had some rules on how to do a show every night without thinking that I was gonna faint or something.”
The second thing was more of an epiphany.
“I was playing a long run in one of the Broadway houses in New York, and I can never see the audiences very clearly because the lights are always on me, not on the audience,” Manilow says. “This was probably eight years into this career. And the lights went on the audience during, I don’t know, ‘Can’t Smile Without You’ or something. And I saw thousands of people so happy, smiling, singing, swaying back and forth. I hadn’t ever seen it.
“And it hit me like a ton of bricks. Wait a minute. It’s not about me. It’s about them. And everything changed right then because that I could do. I could make them feel good. That was a great job.”
That great job had one other major downside – the abuse he suffered at the hands of music critics.
“They were killing me,” he says. “But you know, they do that. The press does that … But you know, young performers come up and they become very successful and the press just rips them down. They did it to everybody. And I got a lot of it, because I was annoyingly successful. A lot of these people get one or two hit records and then they kind of disappear. I was there for 10 years of hits, so I kept getting killed. They couldn’t get rid of me.”
Asked how he learned to cope with the abuse, he says, “I haven’t. I didn’t. I’m a human being. I hate it. But you know, I had a great support system. I had a record company. I had a band. I had my family and my friends.
“And most of all, I had the audiences. They would stand up for me more than anybody. I’d get the usual terrible review in a city, and then the next day, that newspaper would get, like, dozens and dozens of people writing in saying that the reviewer was nuts and ‘We love Barry,’ stuff like that. So they stood up for me all the time.”
It didn’t bother Manilow to see his streak on the pop charts end after “Read ‘Em and Weep” in 1983.
“Frankly I was the one that told Clive, ‘I’ve gotta stop making these singles; I don’t know how to make any more that sound original,'” he says. “Because I was starting to copy myself. I said, ‘You’ve gotta let me do something for myself.’
“So the next album after ‘Read ‘Em and Weep’ was an album called ‘2:00 a.m. Paradise Café’ And it was my first jazz album. I got Mel Torme, Sarah Vaughan, Gerry Mulligan, a whole bunch of jazz musicians, and it got me the best reviews of my career. People magazine said, ‘Hey, everybody, there’s a new singer in town. And they were kind of apologizing for killing me for 10 straight years.'”
Almost every album Manilow has done since then has been a concept album of some sort.
“I didn’t want to go back to doing 12 love songs,” he says. “So I came up with these cockamamie ideas.”
His latest concept is a tribute to his hometown, 2017’s “This Is My Town: Songs of New York.”
Although he’s been in California longer than he ever lived in New York City, as Manilow says, “I know the subways better than the freeways.”
There are no hits on “This is My Town,” nothing you could picture coming out of Drake or Ariana Grande on the radio. And that’s how Manilow prefers to do things.
“I’ve got my own little world,” he says. “I stay in my world and I don’t look up. I just try to stay true to what I like and what I believe in. I think if you’re songwriter the worst thing you can do is listen to the radio. You’ve gotta stay true to yourself and I’ve always done that.”
He’s happy to play his old hits at Celebrity Fight Night.
“I did the first Celebrity Fight Night,” he says. “Muhammad Ali was there. I just sat at the piano and played and sang my stuff.”
He’s not sure how he got involved with the organization.
“I say yes to any benefit,” he says. “I’m so grateful for my career that I say yes to anyone who needs me.”
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.
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When: 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 23.
Where: JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa, 5350 E Marriott Drive, Phoenix.
Details: 602-956-1121, celebrityfightnight.org.
Published 8:00 AM EDT Mar 17, 2019