A Q&A With Barry Manilow
Excerpted from the magazine for bb.com.Barry Manilow has a busy fall. On Sept. 28, Concord Records releases "Scores: Songs from 'Copacabana' and 'Harmony,'" Manilow's 43rd album. The CD is a collection of tunes from two musicals penned by Manilow, as performed by him.
Two days later, the superstar opens his One Night Live! One Last Time! tour at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J. The two-month arena outing will be his last major concert tour, Manilow says.
But he will hardly be idle once the tour wraps. Manilow already has plans for his next album and is busy bringing "Harmony" to Broadway. The musical (which he co-wrote with Bruce Sussman) tells the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, a German boy band that the Nazis forced to disband.
Much to his surprise, Manilow has found a new audience of younger fans whom, he believes, must have learned about him from their parents and his appearance last season on "American Idol."
"At the [Sept. 13] 'Oprah' taping, there were all these belly-button girls requesting songs," he says with a laugh. "I finally said, 'How do you know these songs? They're older than you.' And they said, 'No, they're not. This is what I grew up with: My parents loved it and now we're loving it.'"
Others say Manilow's durability is just a matter of talent.
"The thing that amazes me most about Barry is his musicianship," says saxophonist Dave Koz, who appeared on Manilow's 2001 album "Here at the Mayflower." "It's very deep, and his knowledge and sensitivity to different musical styles is, to me, why he has remained so relevant all these years. That, and the fact that the man is sheer energy!"
Manilow talked to Billboard during a break at rehearsals for his tour.
Q: You're so well-known for your songwriting. Assess today's songcraft.
A: What songcraft? That's the part that makes me sad, because I don't hear craft; it's dying. The [records] sound great and certainly the singers-because they have no lyric to act any more-have learned to sing rings around anything I could ever imagine.
But the craft of writing a song seems to have taken a vacation. And when I listen to the radio, I don't feel anything. And I miss it. I've joined the old-fart club. In the car, I play old CDs where people make me feel something, because 30 years ago they were still doing it.
Q: What was your "American Idol" experience like?
A: I had a good time. I got to know all these kids. I turned it down [at first] because I don't watch TV. Ever since "Laverne & Shirley" went off the air, there is nothing to listen to and watch.
When they asked me, I watched it and I said ... "Hmm, they're going to do this to my hits? And I'm supposed to judge them?" I'm going to be sliding under the table if I don't help them. It didn't seem like they had enough time to give to these kids [to develop the songs]. So I called them and said, "Thank you very much, but unless you give me some time on the show to rearrange my songs so that they are tailor-made for each performer, I [pass. So] they let me work with them for two weeks, [and then] I could actually judge their interpretation of the songs they picked. I thought they did a damn good job, all of them.
Q: Why are you quitting the road?
A: It's not that I don't like performing, I just don't like leaving home. But it's not like I'm giving up and retiring. I'll probably still wind up at the Pantages or Universal Amphitheater now and again.
I just don't want to do these big tours where they keep me away from my life . . . 35 years of no life. [He laughs.] I've decided that I need my life back: to play with my dogs, go to the movies, visit with friends. I need that.
I've never been able to sell out arenas before. Neil Diamond has sold out arenas all of his life. I always felt that I do better in a small house. I communicate much deeper and much more easily. But I guess I'm to the point of once before I croak or something [imitates ticket buyer]: "Is he still alive? We'll see him before he croaks."
Q: "Scores" includes songs from "Harmony," which has been edging its way toward Broadway in a series of fits and starts. What is its status?
A: We just finished a very successful workshop on it [two weeks ago] in New York for 90 rich people, potential investors and theater owners at each [of the two] performances. I now think it really is only a matter of a theater opening up and "Harmony" going in. It's been worth the effort, but it's been very difficult.
Q: You immersed yourself in German classical and pop music of the late '30s to prepare for "Harmony." What drives you to educate yourself in this way?
A: My mission is to pass it down. My next album I'd love to have Concord release is the Johnny Mercer collection that I've written [music] to. Ginger Mercer, his widow, gave me the stack of lyrics. There were about 35 of them in there, and over the years I've musicalized all of them.
And I'm going to ask everyone I've ever known to do one. I'm going to ask Bette [Midler], Norah Jones and Gillian Welch and Willie Nelson and just send them all one and say, "You do your version of this and see if you can stick close to what he wanted." That would be my dream, just to keep this kind of stuff alive, because this kind of stuff is dying.
Q: Why don't we hear more of your music in commercials?
A: I [almost] always turn them down, because they're going to hurt them. I remember they asked me if they could do "This One's for You" for a Budweiser commercial years ago. I said, "No, no!" So they wrote their own song, "This Bud's for You."
They used my recording of "I Can't Smile Without You" for a car commercial. That one doesn't bother me. As long as they leave my arrangement alone or they leave the feel alone or they leave what I did alone. But I couldn't let them do a beer commercial with "This One's for You." They would have ruined the emotion of the song, and that was just too important to me.
Excerpted from the Oct. 2, 2004, issue of Billboard. The full original text is available to Billboard.com subscribers.
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