Friday, October 3, 2008

Barry Manilow: Yes, He Still Writes the Songs

Published: October 13, 1991 (New York Times)

Barry Manilow is a divided soul. Part of him wants to be the hit machine that cranked out 25 Top-40 hits between 1974 and 1984. The other part yearns to transcend the formula.

"It had gotten to the point where it wasn't art, and it wasn't music -- it was business," Mr. Manilow said recently. "I had made it so big and so fast that I lost my balance, and a lot of artists to whom that happens never find their way back home. Unless you're somebody like Sting, the art takes a beating. I think I became a rat. I lost a lot of friends. I was very scared and very unsure of everything."

In an interview in his midtown Manhattan hotel room, the 45-year-old pop star took pains to distinguish between what he called "the pop world" of hit songs like "Mandy," "I Write the Songs" and "Copacabana" and his more recent, open-ended pop-jazz albums.

Since his last Top-40 hit, "Read 'Em and Weep," in 1984, Mr. Manilow has largely abandoned the pop world that, during his golden decade, earned him millions of dollars and a heap of critical abuse. His two latest projects, "Showstoppers," a collection of theater songs, and "With My Lover Beside Me," an album he produced for the veteran jazz singer Nancy Wilson, find him frolicking in less commercially pressured musical climes. Like "Swing Street" and "2 A.M. Paradise Cafe," his previous excursions into the pop-jazz realm, the new albums should earn him more critical approval than his pop records have.

"It was like being in golden handcuffs," he said of his years as the No. 1 pop balladeer on Top-40 radio. "It's only recently I've figured out how to have my cake and eat it -- by being honest about my own musical desires and not just being led around by what I think the audience wants to hear."

The singer shrugged off the critical drubbing he received for his string of lachrymose ballads, which sounded like extended luxury car commercials delivered with pleading sincerity. Contributing to the critical scorn was the fact that Mr. Manilow's audience has always been largely made up of adoring women. At the peak of his popularity, his concerts drew the same piercing shrieks as the latest teen pop sensations. Mr. Manilow -- like other romantic pop smoothies from Eddie Fisher and Johnny Mathis to Engelbert Humperdinck and Julio Iglesias -- has always been an easy target for primarily male music critics.

Stylistically, Mr. Fisher is Mr. Manilow's closest antecedent, although the younger singer's talents include songwriting, producing and arranging. In that sense, Mr. Manilow is a combination of Mr. Fisher and his 1950's arranger and conductor, Hugo Winterhalter. For despite the slogging rock rhythms of Mr. Manilow's hits, his songs are firmly rooted in pre-rock soil.

The artistic seeds for "Showstoppers" and Miss Wilson's album were sown in the late 1950's, when Mr. Manilow was taken to see his first Broadway show (a revival of "Carousel") and his first jazz concert (the saxophonist Gerry Mulligan).

"In 'Carousel' what really got me was 'You'll Never Walk Alone,' " Mr. Manilow recalled. "I knew the song, but it was the first time I had heard it in a dramatic situation, and I was knocked out."

Echoes of that childhood epiphany ripple through "Showstoppers" (Arista 18687; all three formats), in which he sings 17 theater songs, many with a 50-piece orchestra. Structured like an original cast album, "Showstoppers" has an overture that pieces together 18 well-known Broadway overtures and is divided into two "acts" whose songs roughly suggest a classic boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl musical comedy scenario.

Mr. Manilow is no Broadway belter, but his open-hearted, guy-next-door delivery infuses the songs with an amiable enthusiasm. The material spans nearly 90 years, from George M. Cohan's "Give My Regards to Broadway" to "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like," from the current hit show "The Will Rogers Follies," and includes a sparkling duet with Barbara Cook and a trio with Hinton Battle and Michael Crawford.

Mr. Manilow has already begun touring a concert version of the album with five singer-dancers and an ensemble of four synthesizers and a rhythm section. The show, which last month inaugurated the Paramount, the new 5,600-seat theater at Madison Square Garden, includes a segment in which Mr. Manilow reprises "Mandy" in the style of the barbershop quartet from "The Music Man."

By contrast, the Nancy Wilson album, "With My Lover Beside Me" (Columbia 48665; all three formats), due out next week, is a lush, low-keyed collection of 10 songs Mr. Manilow composed to accompany lyrics by the late Johnny Mercer.

Mercer, one of the more versatile American songwriters, was responsible for the lyrics for standards as wide ranging as "Accent-tchu-ate the Positive," "Laura," "One for My Baby" and "Skylark." When he died in 1976, he left behind a stack of lyrics, which his widow sent to Mr. Manilow eight years ago, hoping he might set some of them to music. They arrived out of the blue in the London office of Arista, Mr. Manilow's record company, while he was touring in England.

"There were about 50, and they came in a manila envelope with no note or anything," he said. "None of them had titles. Some were typed, but a lot were in Mercer's handwriting."
Intrigued, Mr. Manilow set three of them to music. One ballad, which he titled "When October Goes," was the best song on "Paradise Cafe," his 1984 pop-jazz album.

Last year a song set to a second Mercer lyric, "I Guess There Ain't No Santa Claus," landed on Mr. Manilow's surprisingly personal holiday album, "Because It's Christmas." Eventually, he set around 20 of the lyrics to music, put his favorites on a cassette and sent it to Columbia Records. The label was looking for material for Miss Wilson, who loved the songs. The match was made.

On "With My Lover Beside Me," Miss Wilson, who has moved toward ornate rhythm-and-blues singing in recent years, returns gracefully to her early-60's pop-jazz beginnings. Mr. Manilow and his talented collaborator, Eddie Arkin, have arranged the album's 10 songs into an elegiac suite for someone looking back nostalgically on youth and romance.
"When October Goes," with its wistful lyric, "It doesn't matter much how old I grow,/ I hate to see October go," reappears on "With My Lover Beside Me." The generalized sentimentality is similar to that of later Mercer lyrics, such as those for "The Days of Wine and Roses" and "Moon River." Miss Wilson's quiet, unadorned singing is stripped of the annoying affectations that mar her later albums, and Mr. Manilow's tunes, especially "Something Tells Me I'm Falling in Love" and "I Can't Teach My Old Heart New Tricks," have an effortless simplicity.

Setting the Mercer lyrics to music, Mr. Manilow discovered, was one of the easier tasks of his career. "The tunes came like that," he said, snapping his fingers. "I struggle with the pop stuff till I bleed, but this stuff . . . like that."

"Showstoppers" and "With My Lover Beside Me," along with his two earlier pop-jazz albums and the Christmas record, have led Mr. Manilow out of an artistic and personal cul-de-sac that he reached while at the height of his popularity.

"I wound up headlining at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas with a sold-out show, and I had never been so miserable," he said.

Mr. Manilow's lowest point came five years ago, after he ventured away from his longtime label, Arista, to a more lucrative deal with RCA. His one album for the label, "Manilow," was his first record not to produce a Top-40 hit. In leaving Arista, Mr. Manilow had temporarily left behind the counsel of Clive Davis, the label's commercially song-wise president, who had handpicked many of his hits.

"Since Arista was the only place I'd ever been, I didn't know any better," Mr. Manilow said. "It was a rude awakening to find that there was nobody out there like Clive. Until I lost it, I didn't realize I had become so attached to the popularity. I went down into a real deep depression." Psychotherapy, he said, brought him out of it.

Although Mr. Manilow went back to Arista, the hits never returned. He is still trying to recapture the top slot on pop radio. But whatever happens, he emphasized, he will never again limit himself to a narrow formula.

"In whatever I do, all I want is just to feel the passion," he said.
Both new albums have helped him realize the depth of his connection -- and the enormity of his debt -- to the past. Mr. Manilow's career is really a casebook study of how one pop tradition merges into another.

"When I was researching 'Showstoppers,' I was humbled by the amount of great material that comes from Broadway musicals," he said. "I had no idea how much those songs had influenced me. Every time I would listen to another cast album, I would see my own stuff coming back at me.

"In the way it starts low and builds and builds," he said, " 'You'll Never Walk Alone' is really the quintessential Barry Manilow record."

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