After four decades, his career is non-stop
He writes the songs that make the whole world sing, and after nearly four decades of hit making, Barry Manilow has no plans to settle down.
With 29 studio albums, countless greatest hits and live compilations, plus more than 57 singles that helped secure his place as one of the biggest selling recording artists of all-time, the tireless 69-year-old pop icon is about to embark on a new tour celebrating his rich body of work that includes a stop at the Rabobank Arena on Dec. 7, 2012.
From the infectious sing-along of “Copacabana (At the Copa)” and “Can’t Smile Without You” to the anthemic sweetness of “Looks Like We Made It,” “Mandy,” and countless others, few have been able to reach the level of Manilow’s success on the charts and as a pop culture icon. Through the ’70s and ’80s, he was a regular on radio and TV variety specials, and could even be heard as the voice of the theme song to “American Bandstand.”
Above: Barry Manilow
Today, Manilow stays busy with a variety of recording projects and his work as an advocate for the arts in public schools through his Manilow Music Project. His latest record, “The Classic Christmas Album,” a compilation of tracks from previously holiday releases just earned him his 50th Top 40 award, making him only the fifth artist to reach such a milestone on the Adult Contemporary music chart. Manilow took a few minutes for a phone interview to discuss his secret to crafting a holiday classic and the lasting effects of Manilow mania.
As the pop music landscape has changed, how do you maintain your popularity?
One of the ways of being commercial is to not try and be commercial. Every time I’ve tried to write a hit song, I’ve always bombed. Every time I’ve done stuff that just feels good, those are the ones that I have a shot with. Like “Copacabana,” for instance. Nobody believed in it. The record company thought it was a novelty cut that belonged on the “Sonny and Cher (Comedy) Hour.” Nobody believed in it, and I loved it. Bruce Sussman (Manilow’s longtime collaborator) and I had a ball writing it with his lyric and my melody. Ron Dante and I produced it and that was it. The record company didn’t promote it, they just let it go, and they promoted all of the other big ballads that were on that album and here came “Copacabana” out of nowhere and the public just liked it. It went up the charts little by little until it got to the Top 10. So, who knows how to write a good song? I don’t. I just do what feels good.
What’s the extent of your online presence?
I don’t use Facebook and I don’t use Twitter. I think it’s just a little too public for me. The people that run my management have a Barry Manilow Facebook page and I can go on there and check out what people are saying and see photos.
You just scored your 50th Top 40 hit with a cover of “Santa Claus is Coming To Town.” How does it feel to keep collecting those awards?
Isn’t that something? It’s just amazing. I just can’t get over it. I thought this would be over years ago, but the public is very kind to me and seem to be still interested in what the music I’m making. It’s just amazing to me.
Above: Barry Manilow performs at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla. in 2011. Photo by Jacob Langston / Orlando Sentinel
Your 1990 album “Because It’s Christmas” is a holiday best-seller. What draws you to the genre?
For a Jewish guy, having three Christmas albums? I just love that kind of songwriting. When you do the classic Christmas pop songs, you’re going back to that world of the ’30s and ’40s, and that’s the world I love. The stuff that comes out of the Great American Songbook, written by some of the great songwriters, they’re in that Christmas catalog of music. So, I love arranging, producing and performing songs like that. It’s right up my alley. I love the “Because It’s Christmas” album because it’s my first (Christmas) album.
Is it difficult to compose a new holiday song after so many have become established classics?
I got one that they keep going for, and it’s called “Christmas Is Just Around The Corner,” off the “In The Swing Of Christmas” album and they’ve played it a lot over the past four years. It is irresistible, and I think Bruce Sussman and I just nailed it. Bruce wrote a great lyric and I wrote one of those really catchy, commercial melodies. And the Christmas kinds of things are the only way you can get a song like that on the radio. Otherwise, it becomes old-fashioned. But you can get a song like that on the radio in the Christmas style.
“Christmas Around The Corner,” “Because It’s Christmas” and “It’s Just Another New Year’s Eve.” Those are three that they play that are my originals, but you only get a month of play, and it takes a long time for those songs to become classics. That’s why “Jingle Bells” is such a classic — it’s a billion years old.
Do you have any backstage rituals to prepare for your show?
I always put my clothes on and try and look my best. Then, before I got onstage, I do get together with the band. We don’t hold hands and sing “Kumbaya” but we do get together in a room and just talk or have a CD player blasting. I think it’s important for us to become a group and walk together down the hallway up to the stage. For me, I really need to feel all of us are together.
How do you pick a set list with such an extensive discography?
Every tour I’ve done, I always sit down and take a look at my life and say, “OK, what do I want to say? For this show, what do I want them to walk out feeling, remembering or understanding?” It used to be based on the latest album. The whole evening would be based on that. Every time I go out, I always try to figure out what the angle is to this year. So, this year I see what the audiences want. They want the songs that they grew up with. They want to hear these songs they love that I’ve done, and I’m happy to do it. It’s not a greatest hits show, but it includes more of the hits than I’ve ever done.
What kind of projects do you have lined up for the future?
I’ve got an idea for the next album, but it’s taking me a long time. It may be in the style of an album I made years ago called “Paradise Cafe.” It was my first jazz album. So, I’m kind of toying around with that style, then I’ve got this Broadway musical that I’ve been trying to mount for years now, that looks good for this (upcoming) year. So, we’ll all cross our fingers for that. It’s called “Harmony.”
Have you ever thought about recording a Manilow country album?
I think it would be a little crazy. For a guy like me from Brooklyn, are you kidding? I think the country audience would throw me off the stage, but I did do a cover of Garth Brooks’ “If Tomorrow Never Comes.” I did my pop version of it, slowed it down, and added a backbeat to it. When I do it, the public loves it. It’s a country record, but I did it my style, which goes to prove that if it’s a good song, it will work in any style, arrangement or take on it.
Manilow Music Project to offer free concert tickets
Barry Manilow fans who want to follow his philanthropic example can also score a pair of tickets to his Dec. 7 show in Bakersfield. Through his Manilow Music Project, the artist will donates a Yamaha piano to launch a local instrument drive for the Bakersfield public schools. According to a news release, anyone who donates a new or gently used musical instrument to the Rabobank Arena box office will receive two free tickets (valid for preselected seats) for the local show.
Manilow said he was inspired to jump into action after recalling the impact music had on his own childhood.
“Where I grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, my high school was a dump, but my high school had an orchestra class. It was the thing that grounded me and it pointed me in the direction I needed to be in.”
After launching in 2008, the Manilow Music Project has helped get instruments into the hands of middle school and high school students across the country, in areas where arts funding is low.
“There may be a baby Barry out there right now that is filled with music and doesn’t know what to do with it, and the schools are not going to help them along, and it just kills me.”
Manilow said the response from fans has been good so far.
“This last tour, I decided to ask the audiences to help me out. They drop off used instruments they’re not using or collecting dust in the attic or basement at the gig or at a music store, and it’s been working. ... Every city that we’ve played, we’ve collected 75 to 100 instruments. We give them to the school district and they give them to the schools that need it. It’s a small organization. I just do it because I wanted to do it, and it seems to be working.”
Rabobank Arena will be the base for the instrument drive in Bakersfield, from now through Dec. 7. They are able to accept the instruments in the Rabobank Arena Administration Office, Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 661-852-7300 or visit manilowmusicproject.org.
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 7th, 2012
Where: Rabobank Arena, 1001 Truxtun Ave.
Admission: $7.99 to $137.85 plus service charge
Information: 661-852-7777 or ticketmaster.com
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Also printed in the 11-29-12 issue of The Bakersfield Californian