Barry Manilow - the reluctant pop star

Singer Barry Manilow is an unlikely star who has always been at odds with pop culture.
Singer Barry Manilow is an unlikely star who has always been at odds with pop culture. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • What if "we did I Write The Songs In E?", Barry Manilow asked.

He was rehearsing in a nearly empty Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in Manhattan for his fifth Broadway run since 1977, a hit-packed show called Manilow Broadway.

The goal was to ease a transition from Somewhere In The Night to the Grammy-winning Songs.

Manilow's manner was unhurried, even though - and this seems like it should cause some urgency - the show was opening in two days and seven hours in late July.

But Manilow, who turned 76 this summer, is an unlikely star.

From his debut album in 1973 to 1981, when he had nine top 10 singles, he was always at odds with pop culture.

He was not just knocked but pilloried by music critics. With his feathered hair and sparkling jumpsuits, Manilow is the least rock 'n' roll singer to grow up in the rock era.

But even non-fans admit that his music has adhesive properties. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails once complained: "I had Copacabana stuck in my head for a year."

The day after rehearsal, Manilow sat in a piano karaoke bar in Manhattan and explained why he was making last-minute changes to his songs. "I'm nuts," he said simply.

His voice has grown huskier, but up close, his face is as smooth as an ironed sheet.

Many current pop singers leave him baffled and in despair. "I mean, some artists these days, they just stop at the end of the song. I've never done that. I like big endings."

In truth, performing was the part of music that least interested him. When his mum took him to a Broadway musical, he stared at the orchestra, not the actors.

When he heard The Beatles, he listened for what producer George Martin was doing. He idolised not stars, but arrangers, such as George Gershwin and Nelson Riddle.

For three years, in his 20s, he wrote commercial jingles, which was great training. If you can pack a hook into a 30-second ad, imagine what you can do with a three-minute song.

To please his mother, who had a history of alcohol problems, he overcame his reluctance and began to perform. He became Bette Midler's pianist, music director and producer, and began singing his own songs in her show, not because he liked what he called the "pear-shaped tones" in his singing, but so the songs would be heard.

And then disaster struck. Mr Clive Davis, head of Arista Records, offered him a contract.

"I wasn't really excited about it," Manilow said. "I know it sounds crazy, but I didn't want to be a singer. I was on my way to becoming Nelson Riddle. I signed and said: 'Well, it'll never work.'"

For his second Arista album, Davis brought him Brandy, a minor British hit that Manilow first hated ("I fought Clive constantly because I didn't want to do outside material"), but then transformed it into Mandy, a career-launching hit.

He and Mr Davis reached a bankable compromise. Each album, the latter could bring in two songs he wanted Manilow to record.

"And those two songs were the hits," the singer said with a rueful chuckle. "Clive pushed my career into top 40 radio and everything went haywire."

Though he had never paid attention to pop music, he was suddenly its human incarnation. "When I found myself on the radio next to Kung Fu Fighting and Boogie Oogie Oogie, I was humiliated. Believe it or not, I was hoping it would stop," he said.

In the 1980s, top 40 radio became more modern and Manilow stopped striving for hits. For many years, he has recorded themed albums that look back to previous eras or bygone styles, including a "duets" album with 11 singers, all of them now dead.

His 2017 album This Is My Town: Songs Of New York included six new songs he wrote or co-wrote, but many fans would like a new album with nothing but new songs.

"I'm in the middle of recording one," he said.

"Just give me a minute," he deadpanned.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2019, with the headline 'Barry Manilow - the reluctant pop star'. Print Edition | Subscribe