(Photo: Denise Truscello)
"My life has been one big miracle."
Reflecting on a career in which he been a regular presence on Billboard charts for close to 40 years, Barry Manilow has never taken his extraordinary success for granted. Two weeks ago, his new album, Live in London (Stiletto), with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, bowed on the Billboard 200 at No. 24. The launch marked Manilow's highest-charting live release since Barry Manilow/Live became his first No. 1 on the survey in 1977.
The arrival of London gave Manilow his seventh top 40 set in the last six years alone, a run that began with the No. 1 covers collection The Greatest Songs of the Fifties in 2006. Last July, he debuted at No. 7 with 15 Minutes: Fame... Can You Take It?, an album of original material.
Manilow first charted on the Billboard 200 with the No. 9-peaking Barry Manilow II in 1974. On the Billboard Hot 100, he's tallied 25 top 40 hits, including 11 top 10s and three No. 1s: "Mandy" (1975), "I Write the Songs" (1976) and "Looks Like We Made It" (1977).
"It is the pinnacle of how the public feels about what I'm doing," Manilow says of a coveted chart ranking. "It gets down to the Billboard charts. To, 'does the public like this work?'
"The charts tell you whether you will be allowed to continue to do the work that you love to do."
DICK CLARK: A 'FRIEND FOR LIFE'
Count Manilow among the many legendary acts whose career the late Dick Clark helped foster.
"My first national television appearance ever was on 'American Bandstand' at the end of 1974, when 'Mandy' came out," Manilow recalls. "I sang 'Mandy' on the show. The next week, it went to No. 1 and I had a pop career and a friend for life.
"Dick and I … I don't know … he connected with what I do. He just got me, even in those early days. I didn't even know what I was doing. But, he got me.
"He just was so supportive of what I was trying to do: sing something that told a story, a lyric that would make the public feel something. A melody, a beautiful production," Manilow says.
"Every record that I released from then on, he would let me do it on 'Bandstand,' whether it was a hit or not. Then, when I wrote 'It's Just Another New Year's Eve' (in 1977), he loved the song and allowed me to sing it every year on 'New Year's Rockin' Eve' at midnight for about 10 years."
The pair continued to collaborate and expand their media platforms together.
"When I came up with the idea of making a movie out of 'Copacabana' (Manilow's famed No. 8-peaking Hot 100 disco hit in 1978), (Clark) liked the idea and put his company behind it. We made the first made-for-television musical movie ever for ABC. It won an Emmy.
"He was just the most supportive guy that I can think of, other than (longtime Arista label head) Clive Davis," Manilow says. "Dick Clark was always behind me."
HOW TO WRITE A HIT SONG
Is there a secret to a lengthy, legendary career as a music icon?
Manilow partially attributes his lasting success to listening to top 40 radio and keeping tabs with ever-evolving trends. Above all, more important than any song's production or vocals?
A memorable hook, Manilow says.
"You give the public a good song, they'll tell you … 'yeah!'"
While Manilow has, for four decades, made it look so easy, is there any way to teach the art of writing a classic pop hit?
"Nobody knows how to do it," Manilow counters modestly. "If you're going to go into that world, you've got to listen to the radio, all day long.
"But, if you just want to be a creator, then you shouldn't. Just do what feels good for you."
Inspiration, Manilow says, perhaps trumps any songwriter's plans for chart success. In the end, a song's heart has to come from a true place.
"You know, there's a part of me that thinks that the best way to be commercial ... is to not (try to) be commercial."
Manilow is currently touring to support his new live album, playing at London's O2 Arena last night (May 15), with four more UK dates lined up this month. He returns to the U.S. for 25 scheduled dates from June 7 through September 16.
Earlier this month, the Brooklyn-raised Manilow played three shows at New York's Radio City Music Hall. "I speak faster there. I go into my 'New York energy'," he says.
Still, despite his seemingly ever-full schedule, Manilow is passionate about more than his music.
In response to the depletion of music programs in public schools, he formed the Manilow Music Project as part of his non-profit Manilow Health and Hope Fund.
"Music classes are disappearing from schools, which is just killing me and every musician I know," he says.
"When I talk to principals and teachers, they tell me that music classes are so important to kids. Their grades go up. They (learn how to better) interact with other students in an orchestra class or in a choir.
"It's not just playtime. It makes kids better students and better people."
AFTER MORE THAN '15 MINUTES' OF FAME … WHAT'S NEXT?
From his philanthropic efforts to performing - and still adding to - his revered catalog, Manilow remains dedicated to the fans that helped him rank as Billboard's fourth-biggest Adult Contemporary act of the chart's first 50 years last year. (He's scored 13 No. 1s on the tally)
At this point, is there a list of achievements that Manilow has yet to attain? "It's getting thin, I gotta tell you," he laughs. "I've been so fortunate to be able to do every style of music that I've ever loved."
Still, there must be one? "A Broadway musical, which is already written," Manilow reveals, referring to his 2003 musical "Harmony," co-written with Bruce Sussman. "Every pop songwriter thinks they can write a Broadway musical, but it's not true. You really have to know your way around it.
"But, that's where I come from. Living in Brooklyn, I loved the Broadway musical world, songs moving the story along. I just loved it when I was growing up. It's my dream to do one of those."
For now, though, writing, recording, touring and performing his charity work take center stage over the bright lights of Broadway and the work involved in bringing such a show to life.
"These Broadway musicals, they're like pulling a boulder up a mountain. But, maybe one of these days, it'll happen," Manilow muses.
Ultimately, Manilow says that while arranging music is his favorite career aspect (and that, "Singing is my least favorite thing to do, although I think I've gotten better at it …"), he considers his songwriting his greatest artistic contribution.
"I come from the world of trying to write a song that will outlive me. That's every composer's goal: to write such a wonderful a song that will live forever."