Manilow: He Sings The Songs (Part 1) - July 24, 1980


Staff member
Manilow: He Sings The Songs

By Tony Kornheiser
July 24, 1980

After three days of negotiations, Manilow's people said he would be available on Friday, at 2, for what was said to be his first print interview in four years. Manilow's people wanted to make sure that whoever did the interview would not be looking to kill Barry in the story. The reporter would get one hour with Manilow -- absolutely no more. There were to be no photographs. The word was, "If a photographer shows up, Barry will walk out, and you'll get nothing." When Manilow's people were convinced they had it all covered they made the delivery. There were two soft drinks, one dark and one light, waiting in the hotel suite, and there was even a uniformed guard in the hall outside the door. Nothing was left to chance.

Manilow enters on cat's feet.

He is nearly six feet tall and thin, though not quite skinny. He wears blue jeans, a white polo shirt with one horizontal red stripe, white socks and white shoes with orange tinted plastic heels. The strawberry blond color of his hair is a near match for the deep tan on his arms.

He introduces himself with a handshake and a smile, moves to his special chair, comments about how hot it is outside and takes off his red sunglasses, laying them on a table next to the lightsoft drink, which is obviously his, since it is so close to his chair.

"Ask me anything you want," he says.

This is no joke.

"Go ahead. Whaddya wanna know?"

For the next 75 minutes -- he knew nothing of the "one hour" rule, never heard of the "no photographs" rule and laughed at the "don't kill" rule -- he answers questions thoughtfully and sensitively in a Noo Yawk accent as thick as a slab of cream cheese on an onion bagel; questions ranging from his feelings about severe press criticism to his sexual image; tough questions, and not once does he raise his voice in anger, not once is he anything other than pleasant and affable. He smiles often,even makes clever, self-deprecating jokes.

After 75 minutes it is impossible not to like him.

Engaging doesn't go far enough; his gift for disarmament belongs at a negotiating table.

The audiences have always been kinder to Manilow than the critics who have called him "talentless" and "syrupy" and "monumentally mediocre." Despite many wonderful up-beat tunes like "Avenue C" and "It's a Miracle" and "Copacabana," his trademark, the big sentimental ballad, has made him the closest thing to instant Muzak in pop, and even he -- sticking a pin into his lighter-than-air image -- labels one part of his stage show "The Oy Veh Segment." But the records sell in the millions, and taken one by one they are subconsciously compelling, and the four television specials have been highly rated: The first won an Emmy. You can call him an overachiever, tell him that he takes all that ritzy-titzy stuff one step too far, but the numbers are on his side. At 34 years old, Manilow is a star. First team.

Wayne Robins, the pop music critic of Newsday, has said about Manilow, "No matter how negative you feel going into a Manilow concert, he can win you over. He's an amazingly uplifting performer. He throws out a rush of energy and makes you ride with him."

"He appeals to the widest audience of anybody in the business," said Dick Fox, Manilow's former agent. "The appeal is, Mr. Nice Guy. You see him perform and you think you know him. Nobody cares more about the audience. Nobody works harder. The type of music he does, the hip people take shots at him, they say he has no substance -- the only people who like him, are the people."

Manilow on Manilow (Part I): "Sometimes I wish more people would know that I'm not that square, that I'm hipper than they think. My musical tastes are much more sophisticated than I get credit for."

Manilow on Manilow (Part II): "Sometimes in my show, I talk too much. I blab. I try stoppin' myself, but when I'm out there it's like I'm sittin' in my living room talkin' to friends. I worked real hard at making my personality as big a part of my act as the records, so I wouldn't have to always depend on my last three minutes and 45 seconds. I didn't want to just be a sound on a record."

Manilow on risks: "I love to take 'em. What's life without risks? But I'm not gonna kill this thing just so the critics'll like me. What's the point of that?"

Manilow on sameness of singles: "When I'm making them they don't sound the same, but when I hear them back-to-back they begin to. Maybe it's because I'm the same singer with the same voice. I really like the records I make.They're great records. I hear'em on the radio and I say, 'Awwright, that sounds good. That sounds like someone put a lot of work into it.' The only thing I might change is the order in which they're released. They tell me 'Ships' will go top 5, and I tell them, but we just did three ballads in a row. Sure enough, 'Ships' goes top 5. What am I supposed to say? The singles come out because they tell me the album will fail if I don't release it. So the choice is failure or success -- I don't want to fail. I want my albums to succeed because there's great stuff on them. If the single takes off, it catapults the album and the good stuff gets out there."

Manilow on reviews: "I read them all." (Laughs.) "I shouldn't. If I didn't, I wouldn't get so upset. But I do..." (Laughs.) "I must have some kind of masochistic streak."

Manilow on Manilow (Part III): "I'm not a great singer.I'm not Caruso." (Laughs.) "These reviewers think they're insulting me by saying I don't sing that well. I know I don't. I don't sing badly, but I'm not giving any major singer any real competition. What I do is, I arrange, I compose, I perform. I entertain. I pull it as hard as I can every time I go out there."

Manilow on critics: "They just don't like what I represent. I honestly think they can't write good things about me because they're afraid they'll come off looking uncool. This is the beginning of my tour, and by the end of it I'll show you 7 million bad reviews. That's what's supposed to happen this year. Now it's, YAAAAHHH, GET HIM, KILL HIM. Next year, after I'm MEATBALLED on the ground -- splatttt -- they'll say, 'He wasn't THAT bad.'...If they only knew how fabulous I was, how musical I was, how hard I work. I give my audience my privacy, my life, my honesty" (laughs) "my days, my years -- all the stuff they see on stage is me. I give 'em everything I have."

Manilow on the public: "That's my life. And they ain't nailin' me for nothin'. They like what I do, and they're on my side. They're my reviewers. Every night. And when they don't applaud, when I don't feel that surge of emotional reaction after 'Even Now' or 'Weekend in New England,' when they stop doing that, then I'll know I'm doing something wrong. I won't stop doing it for the critics, because they're not comin' from the same place my audience is comin' from."

You can find jazz and Broadway on every album Manilow makes. It's where his heart is. From the time he was 13 until he was 18 he "OD'd on jazz and Broadway." He made the trip from his mother's house in Brooklyn into Manhattan almost nightly. He was never a child of rock; he was so much more sophisticated than four chords and set your bass on fire. HOW CAN THEY CALL ME UNHIP? He has spent hours and days analyzing a Stephen Sondheim score, analyzing a Bill Evans piano line. HOW CAN THEY CALL ME UNHIP?

All through Eastern District High School he was playing piano, arranging and composing. He enrolled at City College in advertising, got a job delivering mail at CBS -- to people like Dr. Frank Stanton and Fred Silverman. "I was gonna be a big executive at CBS. I was gonna end up like those guys. But it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. I just didn't fit."

City was "boring."

CBS was the wrong fit.

"I had the music in me."

On the same night he was to enroll for his sophomore year at City he opted to take the entrance exam for New York College of Music. He got in, attended classes, then went on to Julliard. But at 21 he was still hedging between what he wanted to do and what he was expected to do. He was married then. Susan. Still at CBS. Film editing. He thought they might move to Long Island, get a house with a picket fence, make some babies.

"I wanted a career in music, but I never thought I'd make it happen. It was just too risky. Coming where I come from, you didn't take risks. You got your Friday afternoon paycheck and you went home. You didn't take risks."

The hell with it.

He got divorced. He quit CBS.

He took the risk.

Part 2