In certain circles it’s still cool to bash Barry Manilow. Those circles must feel awfully small as the years go by and everybody admits they like “Mandy” (which, by the way, Manilow didn’t write—thus quashing the urban legend that he wrote it about his dog). The man who topped the charts telling us he wrote the songs that made the whole world sing began headlining at the Las Vegas Hilton in 2005 and still sells millions of records more than 35 years after he entered the scene. He knows a pop hook, that’s for sure—he even wrote some famous songs for commercials (“I am stuck on a Band-Aid / And Band-Aid’s stuck on me”; “Like a good neighbor / State Farm is there…”). A professional relationship with Clive Davis, founder and president of Arista Records, continues to prove both Davis’s savvy and Manilow’s vocal adventurousness: The Greatest Songs of the Eighties finds the singer launching into hits like Journey’s “Open Arms”; it’s the latest in a collection of cover tunes that began in 2006 with a hugely successful tribute album to the 1950s.
Over the years, Manilow found time to salute Ol’ Blue Eyes (Manilow Sings Sinatra) and Broadway (Showstoppers), and, perhaps more importantly, lend his name to various fundraisers. He’s in Everett on Sunday, March 15, for Ultimate Manilow: The Hits…and then some, a benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
When Manilow agreed to a brief phone interview, I requested that people email me what they’d most like to ask him (well, I made that request after I bragged that I’d be speaking to Barry Manilow). Many of those questions are here and led to some surprising answers—unless you’ve always known Barry’s affinity for electronica…
You’ve done concerts for a lot of charitable causes. Why cystic fibrosis? This one kind of affected me because the daughter of the guy that runs the Hilton entertainment unit has cystic fibrosis and I’ve met her. Once you’ve put a face on people who have diseases of one sort or another you are never the same. Cystic fibrosis was two words that didn’t mean very much to me until I met Alexa and then it meant a lot. And then there’s this guy in your area named Harvey Platt—this is his passion. In all these benefits that I do there are usually one or two people who kill themselves to raise money and get famous people there. And Harvey is one of those for this. He’s really something else.
You’re going to be singing all of your famous hits—but what’s the “…and then some”? It depends on what they want. Amazingly enough, I’m actually able to fill between 90 minutes and two hours with songs that everybody recognizes.
Well, that doesn’t surprise me at all. It does me. It’s an amazing statement.
You’ve been releasing these albums featuring each decade of song. What’s your favorite decade for popular music? Well, the one I had the most fun with, believe it or not, was the ’50s because they were far away. As the decades got closer and closer they became too well known. By the time I got to the ’80s—“Careless Whisper,” how are you gonna top that? It’s a perfect record the way it is. All I can do is a karaoke version of it. But the ’50s are so far away that I could actually play around with them. So I had the most fun with them.
Who, from any decade, would you have liked to have heard cover your songs? I don’t know. Sinatra tried. He tried and he wasn’t good at it because it didn’t swing. Pop music has a strict eighth-note groove and he was a swinger so he couldn’t feel comfortable with this pop stuff.
What songs did Sinatra record? He did “I Write the Songs” and he made the thing even more complicated because he sang, “I sing the songs,” and, of course, “I Write the Songs” has nothing to do with singing. I fought that all of my career—people thinking that I’m singing about how I wrote every song in the history of the world. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the spirit of music: I write through this songwriter. It was very clumsily written by Bruce Johnston—but a great idea and a fantastic melody—and Sinatra made it even worse by singing, “I sing the songs that make the whole world sing.”
How did you feel about Donna Summer’s cover of “Could It Be Magic”? I loved it! What a great idea. I would never have thought about that. I wrote it as a big ballad, you know, based on that Chopin Prelude [in C Minor]. When they played me Donna’s rendition of it I thought it was just great.
Was it true that you didn’t originally want to record “Mandy” because you didn’t write it? True. “I’m a songwriter,” I said to Clive Davis. And he said, “But you’re not a hit songwriter.”
But even when you were a hit songwriter you recorded a lot of songs that are now among your most popular. If I don’t write them I’m always resistant. When I did the Sinatra tribute, well, then I put my arranger’s hat on and I had a great time. Or when I did that Broadway album and did 17 of the greatest Broadway show tunes—that’s right up my alley, I’m happy to do that. When it comes to pop songs, I’d always much rather tackle them myself. But like we said, nobody could have a concert of 90 minutes’ to two hours’ worth of your own songs, except for a genius like Elton John. Even Sting, as brilliant as he is, or McCartney—they’re not all number one records. For somebody like me…you need help. So I have Clive.
Do you have any royalty checks still coming in for any of the commercial jingles you wrote? You don’t get paid for the writing. They buy you out.
They’re still using the State Farm Insurance one you wrote. Yeah, but I got 500 bucks for that one—35 years ago! But I’m getting some sort of a Clio Award for that, for the commercials that I’ve had something to do with, so that’ll be fun.
Your stepfather, Willie Murphy, was a big influence on you—he gave you a piano and introduced you to jazz and other music—but who else was a major influence on your musical development? Willie was the key to the lock. He was the one. Other than that I was just like you: It was the people on the radio. But Willie was the one in my personal life that actually did it.
When my friend and I go on a road trip we put on Ultimate Manilow and sing out loud the whole time. Who do you put on? My favorite is electronica, believe it or not. Groove Armada and stuff like that seem to be more inventive than anybody else out there. Pop music—well, I’ve never really connected to pop music.
You’ve never connected to pop?! No, I never did. Isn’t that interesting? The first time I ever listened to a pop radio station was when “Mandy” was on it. And you know what I heard? “Boogie Oogie Oogie”! I said, Oh, my god, these people need me! [laughs]
A lot of people have confessed to being huge fans of yours. Who surprised you the most? There’s been a handful. I went to the Clive Davis Grammys party last month and I think the biggest surprise—and he was so beautiful and said the most beautiful things—was Sly Stone. I was just so taken aback that he would be so kind.
What did he say? Just beautiful things—beautiful things about my work, about what I’ve done, how I helped him and impressed him.