Thursday, June 5, 2008

'A lovely accident'

Barry Manilow owes his entire career to mentor Clive Davis, who suggested his latest musical venture: covering classic songs

The Gazette

Monday, June 02, 2008

Scoffers, repent: the story about Bob Dylan and Barry Manilow is true. The oft-repeated anecdote, at first, seems too good to be anything but an urban legend: Dylan stops Manilow at a party in 1988, hugs him and says "Don't stop what you're doing, man. We're all inspired by you."

But Manilow, who performs at the Bell Centre Thursday night, confirmed it during a recent telephone interview. "At first I thought (Dylan) was kidding around - or drunk. Or stoned," the singer said. "But I looked at him - and I think he was sincere. I hope he was sincere. It meant a lot to me."

Another surprise for dismissive critics? Well, let's just say that Shelby Lynne's ultra-cool decision to pay tribute to the magnificent Dusty Springfield on her latest album, Just a Little Lovin', didn't come out of the blue: it was her friend Manilow's idea.

Manilow, it seems, is currently on a commercial roll because he, too, took a career-boosting suggestion. His producer and mentor Clive Davis came up with the concept of the singer doing cover albums featuring No. 1 hits from each decade, starting with the 1950s. The first release, The Greatest Songs of the Fifties (2006), topped the Billboard charts, while its sequel, The Greatest Songs of the Sixties, from the same year, reached No. 2. The Greatest Songs of the Seventies, issued last fall, hit No. 4. No points for guessing the title of his next album, which he said he's working on now.

"The whole concept of decades is all around Clive Davis," Manilow said. "Actually, my record career is really all about Clive Davis." Davis, who discovered Manilow, suggested he record a little thing called Brandy in 1974. A quick title change - to Mandy - and a star was born.

"I probably would never have gone into the commercial singles (without Davis)," Manilow said. "I never even listened to the radio. I was on my way to doing everything else but singing and making pop records. I had no desire to do it. I was a musician."

Indeed, Manilow's original connections to music came from listening to and playing jazz when he was growing up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. "I was raised by my mother and my grandmother and my grandfather," he said. "They noticed that I had music in me, but they didn't know very much about music, so they threw an accordion in my hands when I was very young. Every Jewish and Italian kid had to play the accordion. It was the law. You had to play the accordion before they allowed you to leave Brooklyn."

When Manilow's mother married for the second time and stepfather Willie Murphy came into his life, everything changed. "His love was jazz," Manilow said. "He brought into my life a stack of LPs that were a stack of gold to me. These records opened the door to my life: people like Bill Evans, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, big band stuff, Coltrane. And then there were loads of Broadway scores, like The Most Happy Fella, Kismet and Gypsy. His taste was impeccable."

Out went the accordion and in came a budget-priced spinet piano, courtesy of Murphy. In spite of the instrument's dubious sound quality, it might as well have been a Steinway. "It was the key out of poverty to me," Manilow said. "I hit the piano and listened to these jazz records and I knew where I needed to be."

That key is currently unlocking arenas like the Bell Centre, where he will perform an adapted, expanded version of his Las Vegas Hilton show.

The Vegas element in Manilow's shows might have conspired with his easy-listening records to provide some easy punch lines over the years. Comic writer Dave Barry famously used him as an analogy to denounce the weakness of American beer: "All the other nations are drinking Ray Charles beer, and we are drinking Barry Manilow beer," the humourist once wrote.

And yet Manilow's sales - 75 million records worldwide, ranking him as Billboard's top Adult Contemporary chart artist of all time - seem to make debate a bit academic. Those sales figures also made it awkward to leave Manilow songs off The Greatest Songs of the Seventies. That is, after all, the decade that made him a chart fixture. To resolve the problem, Manilow added a special unplugged selection of his own hits. The Manilow remakes follow the 12 evergreens by the likes of Frankie Valli, the Bee Gees, the Hollies and the Carpenters that make up the album proper.

"This whole career of mine is a lovely accident, and I give the credit to Clive Davis for the whole thing," Manilow said. "Of course, I had my part of it. I've made some great records and I'm very proud of all of it."

Barry Manilow performs Thursday night at 8 at the Bell Centre. Tickets cost $64.50 to $149.50. Call 514-790-1245 or go to