Thursday, July 3, 2008
Calling All Fanilows
With a career spanning four decades and sales of 80 million albums, there are few artists who can match Barry Manilow’s megastar status. As The Mail on Sunday prepares to give away a brilliant 12-track CD of some of his greatest songs, we meet the legend who is attracting a whole new generation of ‘fanilows’
By Lina Das
Last updated at 3:20 PM on 03rd July 2008
It’s a swelteringly hot day in Palm Springs, California, and guests at the luxury Hotel Zoso are quietly wilting into their cappuccinos when Barry Manilow strides in looking cool and crisp in a black shirt, grey trousers and black shoes buffed to a T. He’s slim as a whippet, his trademark blond hair is bristling with energy and, at 65, he has the zest of a man half his age. He is just back from a series of sellout dates in Canada, where, instead of the ageing audience you might expect, he was amazed by the ‘young, vibrant’ reception he got. ‘Every year I think to myself, this is it, it’s all going to stop. But,’ he shrugs, looking incredulous, ‘it just keeps going.’
It does indeed. In December, Manilow will be playing two dates at London’s O2 arena. His songs have been covered by the likes of Take That and Westlife, and though the critics have been savage at times, frankly, what do they know?
Sinatra, who knew a thing or two about a good tune, heard Manilow sing back in the 70s and declared, ‘He’s next.’ Bob Dylan cornered him at a party in the 80s when the critics were being particularly ferocious, and implored Manilow, ‘Don’t stop what you’re doing, man. We’re all inspired by you.’ And now the man we love to call King of Kitsch is winning a whole new generation of fans through shows such as American Idol, on which he has made guest appearances to coach the contestants.
Two years ago, he made headlines when his new album debuted at number one in the US charts. It would have been labelled a comeback but for the simple fact that Manilow had never actually gone away. And it forced even his harshest critics to concede that the man who had sold almost 80 million records worldwide was worthy of legend status. As legends go, though, Manilow is surprisingly modest. ‘I come from nowhere and since none of my family or friends had a career in this business, I never took any success I had for granted,’ he says. ‘I was just happy being a musician and was hoping to get out of the poverty [he grew up in Brooklyn, the son of Russian immigrants]. I never cared about having hits or money or fame – I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.’
Certainly no one could accuse Manilow of not singing from his heart. He was the inventor of the power ballad, and the last decade in particular has seen him accorded due respect for his writing talents in his native America. His fan club is thought to be the largest in the world.
And it is really only in Britain that he has suffered both from juvenile cracks about his famously beaky nose (‘No, that doesn’t bother me at all’) and from the perception that his fan base consists almost entirely of females of the screaming persuasion. His most ardent followers have been dubbed ‘fanilows’, but Manilow shudders at the expression. ‘I don’t like the word fan. The people who come to see me are loyal and some of them come to so many shows that they feel like friends now.’
An intensely private man normally, Manilow has always preferred to let his music rather than his personal life do the talking. Music, he says, provided him with a means of communication and an escape from the difficulties of his upbringing. Born Barry Alan Pincus (Manilow is his mother’s maiden name), he experienced poverty and abandonment in his formative years.
The only child of Harold and Edna, who divorced when he was two, he rarely got to see his father. Instead, he and his mother shared their household with Edna’s parents, Esther and Joseph. ‘My mother worked as a secretary, supporting the family, and my grandparents worked in a hat factory. It was a struggle at times. My playgrounds were alleys lined with rubbish bins. But I knew there was a better life out there. And what I had in abundance while I was growing up was love, and that can really take you far. Whatever I did, I was told I was great. My family were like, “Oh my God, he blew his nose! Isn’t he amazing?” And when you’re told you’re great as a child, you believe it. Because of that I’ve never felt like a failure.’
His grandparents encouraged him to take up the accordion, and when he started singing tunes for his family, they soon realised they had a huge talent on their hands. ‘My whole family knew I was musical,’ he says. ‘They were unsophisticated and didn’t know anything about the music business, but they never stopped encouraging me.’
A huge turning point came when Barry was 13 and his mother married for the second time. Her new husband, Willie Murphy, ‘was a truck driver for a beer company – quite a tough, scary guy for a boy who’d been raised largely by women up until then. Had I missed my father? Well, I didn’t know the difference at that age because it seemed so normal to me and I was just this happy little moron doing his own thing. But then [Willie] came along; he was the first real father figure I had. He had great taste in music and his stack of albums was like a stack of gold to me. Albums by Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Sinatra – that was like a real epiphany. He also threw out my accordion and got me a piano, and that, basically, changed my life.’
By 15, Barry had started writing his own music and had formed a jazz band. ‘I knew I was good at music, and I loved it, and to be young and to know what you want to do with your life is a great thing.’
Around this time, however, Barry’s home life began to suffer. His mother and stepfather had begun drinking heavily and, says Manilow, ‘they both had problems with alcoholism. I was older by then and able to deal with it, but it does affect you. You spend your life looking over your shoulder, wondering what’s going to happen next. I got through because of the music, but it wasn’t a fun time and I really feel for young kids raised by alcoholics. I made a decision not to go that way myself.’
Though his mother died in 1994, his stepfather is in his 80s and very much alive ‘and he still has the most incredible musical taste’. Manilow had no contact with his birth father when he was growing up, although when Barry had become famous, Harold turned up to visit his son backstage. ‘I was pretty stunned to see him,’ says Manilow. ‘My girlfriend at the time, Linda [Allen, a TV production assistant], was blubbing at the reunion, but to tell you the truth, I felt so distant from the entire subject and from him that I was more of an observer to the scene. Willie was the father figure in my life and we’re still in touch; he changed my life.’
Don't miss this brilliant CD: free in next week's Mail on Sunday
After leaving home, Manilow studied at the New York College of Music and the Juilliard School of Music, working in the CBS TV network’s post room to pay for his tuition. He began his career as a commercial jingle writer, also singing on adverts for KFC and Pepsi.
In 1971 he met Bette Midler and went on to become her pianist and music director; at Midler’s insistence, he helped produce her first two albums. In 1973, at the age of 30, he recorded his debut album, simply called Barry Manilow, and when the label he was signed to was taken over by Arista Records, its founder, the renowned impresario Clive Davis, insisted on keeping Manilow.
It was Davis who became Barry’s mentor and who gave him his big break by insisting he record a song that Manilow was initially reluctant to sing because he hadn’t written it himself. That song – ‘Mandy’ – went on to become his first number one, and he then enjoyed a string of hits through the 70s and the early 80s, including ‘Can’t Smile Without You’ and ‘Copacabana’.
Success, though, brought pressures of its own. As he says, ‘You can get books on grief and self-help, but there aren’t any books on how to handle success. Generally, you get it when you’re quite young, and you get it quickly, and that’s a difficult combination. After “Mandy” came out, I fell into the trap of thinking I was so great,’ he says. ‘About three or four years into my success, I looked around and realised that I didn’t have any friends left. Everyone around me I was paying, and they were “yes-sing” me to death.
'So I started calling up all my old friends and pulled myself together, because I wanted a real life. But it’s so tempting to give in to the success, and maybe that’s what we’re seeing with Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears. It’s hard because when you become successful the people around you are too scared of losing their jobs to say no to you; I’ve been there and I know that you have to want a real life and be firm about getting it.’
With a Grammy, an Emmy and a Tony to his name, there seems little left for the man to achieve. His songs are his ‘babies’ although real babies seem to have eluded him (‘Having children just doesn’t seem to have been on the cards for me’). His marriage to childhood sweetheart Susan Deixler was annulled in the 60s after less than two years, and since then he has remained tight-lipped about his private life. His relationship with Linda Allen lasted for more than two decades, but they have since split. ‘We’re still friends. I’m a bachelor, but I’m having fun,’ he says. To echo the words he sang, he writes the songs that make the whole world sing. And if that continues, millions of fans won’t be complaining.
Photographs: Retna Ltd
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