Barry Manilow says he likes being middle-of-the-road king
By Mary Campbell
“I seem to be the king of the middle of the road,” Barry Manilow says. “And that’s a very fine place to be these days!”
Manilow is right. More record buyers seem to favor romantic ballads like his “Mandy” than buy records by “heavy metal” rock groups.
The tall, thin, 30-year-old singer goes on: “Five years ago, people who were middle of the road were like Perry Como — older and not hip. Rock’n’roll was the place to be.
“Now I’m middle of the road, and I’m young and contemporary. Now it is much easier to go from a middle-of-the-road hit record to a giant smash overall hit record than it is from any other kind of music. It’s understood by a wider audience.”
Right now, Manilow has a romantic ballad on the bestselling pop chart. It’s “Weekend in New England,” No. 60 and climbing on December 11. His fourth and latest album. “This One’s for You.” on Arista, was No. 55 on the December 11 album chart of best sellers.
A thank you tour
And right now also Manilow is on a 98-city tour — not a singer’s usual 20-city city tour of America’s biggest cities — but a 98-city tour, August to April.
“Don’t ask me why I’m doing it,” Manilow smiles.
“Actually, I know why. You’ve got to do it once. I decided I would undertake this tour to show my face to all those people who have bought so many of my records. I should say thank you to the country once. The only way is actually going on the road.
“I’m going to towns that don’t usually get top names. They’re so grateful. It is like the circus comes to town. Everybody turns out.”
Manilow took time out to perform in a Broadway theater, his first solo stint on Broadway, December 21 – January 2. “Going to work every night and then going home, just like a real person.”
And he also shot a TV special to be shown February 23. “If I do say so myself, it’s a real winner. I like it. I showed it to my friends from high school and people who work for me, and they all react the same way.
“You really do it for your friends and your mother. I’m glad radio disc jockeys like my stuff, but if your mother says it’s okay, then it’s all right.”
People who know his ballad records may be surprised at the energy in his live and TV shows, Manilow says. He may have picked some of that up from comedienne Joan Rivers, for whom he has been the opening act, and from singer Bette Midler, whom he later accompanied on piano.
He started life in Brooklyn, started smoking at 9, gave it up 15 years later to improve his health for the rigors of a show-business life. “Growing up in slums like I did, it’s not uncommon to find kids smoking like that.”
His parents’ marriage broke up early and his mother, at 20, and he, age 1, moved in with his mother’s parents. “They continued to raise her and me at the same time. It was more like having a sister than a mother. It was an interesting way of being raised. They’d tell both of us to go to sleep; we were up too late.”
His mother was the first singer Manilow ever accompanied, but she never tried singing professionally, being the family breadwinner “until Willie Murphy came on the scene.”
Murphy, Manilow’s stepfather, bought him his first piano when he was 13. Piano lessons replaced accordion lessons. Murphy, a beer truck driver, took Manilow to hear jazz players Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis, encouraged him in music, and set him an example of a well-read man.
“I was serious about the piano,” Manilow says. “I never had any intentions about becoming a singer. It wasn’t even a closet dream. I wanted to be Henry Mancini or Nelson Riddle. I would buy singers’ albums and never listen to the singers. I’d listen to what the music was doing behind them.
“I was going to be an arranger and bandleader; the piano player most of the time gets the jobs of being the leader.”
Manilow played piano for singers trying out for Broadway shows and coached them. When they told him they needed arrangements for a band when they got jobs in resort hotels, he went to Juilliard School night classes to learn to arrange for orchestra.
“I was really after a singer I could play piano and arrange for,” he says. “When I met Bette Midler, I stayed with her, because she was better than anybody I had ever worked with.”
They met and rehearsed for two hours for a show at New York’s Continental Baths. “I thought she sang terrible, and she thought I played lousy. Two Jews with egos, you know. She opened that night, and I freaked out. She had energy you could feel. I just played my fingers off at the piano.”
Manilow co-produced her first two albums “The Divine Miss M” and “Bette Midler.” He also made his own first album “Barry Manilow,” on Bell Records in 1973, working on her album in the afternoons and his in the evenings. That year, he also had a solo spot on Midler’s big American tour.
After that, he made his second album, “Barry Manilow II,” which he thought would inspire buyers to look for a previous album with his name on it, but which made many of them think his name was Barry Manilow Jr.
“Included on that album was ‘Mandy’ and — kaboom!” Manilow had his first hit record followed by “It’s a Miracle,” then by “Could it Be Magic,” his favorite, from the first album, then “Trying To Get the Feeling,” then “I Write the Songs.”
Clive Davis, who took over Bell Records, changed it to Arista and kept Manilow on the label, brought both “Mandy” and “I Write the Songs” to Manilow’s attention.
Until just before he made his first record, Manilow says he never sang or took the “star turn” at all. “The strangest part of the whole thing now isn’t the hit records. It’s being a top-draw, name concert attraction, selling out because people want to come see me perform live.
“I wouldn’t say I’d never go back to being a piano player and arranger. I liked that role. But I must admit I’m getting very spoiled with this one.”