'Not Bad For a 76-Year-Old Guy': Highlights from Barry Manilow's Hollywood Bowl Show

Bruce Glikas/Getty Images
Barry Manilow performs at The Lunt Fontanne Theatre on July 30, 2019 in New York City. 

The real test of stardom isn't the ability to fill venues when you have a hit song on the radio every hour on the hour. It's the ability to fill venues when you don't.

Barry Manilow hasn't put a song on the Billboard Hot 100 since 1988, but you'd never know it from the size and enthusiasm of his audience at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday (Sept. 6). It was the first of two nights at the Bowl for Manilow, who was backed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and joined by special guest Lorna Luft.

"Mandy," Manilow's breakthrough smash, was released 45 years ago this October. Two main factors, his melodic forte and affinity for romantic ballads, explain his longevity. The latter allowed him to form a deep bond with his audience. He owned that lane, and because pop music shifted away from that sound soon after his heyday (1975-83), he largely still does. Manilow remains a funny, self-deprecating showman. (He learned a thing or two about putting on a show from his former boss, Bette Midler.)

Here are the six most memorable moments from Manilow's stop at one of America's most prestigious venues.

Manilow the music critic: Early in the show, Manilow noted that something is missing on pop radio today: "The rhythms, drum machines and loops are great, but where did the melodies go? Well, they're right here tonight!" Manilow delivered on that promise with "Looks Like We Made It," the touching 1977 ballad which was one of his best singles.

Self-deprecating humor: Manilow has always used self-deprecating humor to great effect. He introduced a long hits medley with a warning: "For those of you who were dragged here tonight, this is going to be agony." He has been using that line for decades, but it still works. He also noted that he never had any designs on being a singer or entertainer -- all he wanted to do was be a composer. "I wanted to compose songs like 'This One's For You' and 'Even Now.' This is the one that was played the most on radio." What was this gem, his most-played composition? He started singing the grating "I am stuck on Band-Aids…" one of the commercial jingles he wrote early in this career.

The ability to change it up: Manilow performed part of "Could It Be Magic," his 1975 hit that was inspired by Chopin's "Prelude in C Minor." After performing a minute or two of it, Manilow stopped and reminded the audience that Donna Summer recorded a disco version of the song (on her 1976 album A Love Trilogy). "I wasn't sure what I thought about that, but then it went to No. 1 and I loved it," he said. He performed the rest of the song in a pop-disco arrangement that provided a welcome surprise and gave the ballad-heavy setlist a jolt. And points to Barry for reminding us of another of pop radio's great artists of his era.

Honesty and candor: After "Could It Be Magic" got a huge response, Manilow noted, "Not bad for a 76-year-old guy." Not many artists in Manilow's age bracket would call attention to their age. Manilow did not, however, make any comment, even a coded one, about his recent coming out. No one expected him to change the pronouns in his hits, but a comment would have been welcome given his deep connection with his fans.

The variety of his hits: Manilow is best known for romantic ballads, but his most famous song, and the one that brought him his only Grammy, was the 1978 pop-disco confection "Copacabana (at the Copa)." That was the closer, on which he was joined by what appeared to be a high school choir. The kids, all of whom were born decades after Manilow's heyday, were beaming. Even they know "Copacabana" and "I Write the Songs," the other song on which they sang. Manilow also performed a bit of what he called "my one and only rock and roll single." He was referring to "Some Kind of Friend," his 1983 hit that had the synth-pop energy of such other smashes of the period as Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money."

The song that best summarizes his career: One of Manilow's best hits, "I Made It through the Rain," became his last top 10 achievement in 1981. Manilow co-wrote the song, which includes lines that really capture his career story: "I made it through the rain/I kept my world protected/I made it though the rain/I kept my point of view/I made it through the rain/And found myself respected/By the others who/Got rained on too/And made it through." Rock critics were merciless to Manilow in the '70s, but he has outlasted them all.

Luft, the daughter of Manilow's favorite female singer, Judy Garland, opened the show with a set that was entirely a tribute to her mother (who, she noted, played the Hollywood Bowl "58 years ago this month"). Luft's best performance was of Garland's 1954 torch classic "The Man That Got Away." Luft was very good, but her set didn't tell us much about her: We already knew that Garland was one of the best entertainers who ever lived, and Luft could have included a few songs that her mom didn't do in order to give a better sense of who she is outside of her mother's shadow.

Luft stayed around for a curtain call with Manilow, which begged the question of why they didn't perform together. She could have joined him in his set to sing "I Don't Want to Walk Without You," a Harry James classic that Manilow included in his medley, and/or "For Me And My Gal," the Garland/Gene Kelly classic that Luft performed in her set. A missed opportunity.

In lieu of publishing his set list, it would be easier just to tell you what Manilow didn't play. He performed all 25 of his top 40 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 except "When I Wanted You" and Shakin' Stevens' rockabilly-edged "Oh Julie." "When I Wanted You," though a striking single, was an uncharacteristically bitter song. As ever, Manilow knows what works for him.


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