For Barry Manilow’s self-titled 1989 album, he recorded a wistful ballad, “When the Good Times Come Again,” that was never released as a single. Now, 31 years later, it has become an unlikely hit and a balm as people deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and not being able to see their loved ones for extended periods of time.
This week, the song rose to No. 18 on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary chart, making Manilow the first artist to span reaching the top 20 of the chart from the ’70s to the ‘20s. It is his 36th top 20 hit on the chart.
The song’s resurrection started after an Israeli fan made a lyric video for the tune as the coronavirus spread. It came to Manilow’s attention and, in late April, he posted it on his Facebook page. His management company, Stiletto Entertainment, sent the song to adult contemporary radio and then RCA/Sony assisted with radio promotion.
The superstar celebrated another milestone earlier this year when Night Songs II debuted at No. 32 on the Billboard 200, marking his sixth consecutive decade of top 40-charting albums beginning with Barry Manilow II in 1975.
From his house in Palm Springs, Manilow spoke to Billboard about his delight in finding himself in the AC top 20 for the first time since 2012, his surprise at missing performing, his concern about the spike in coronavirus cases and when the good times will come again.
Billboard: How are you doing?
Barry Manilow: I get very nervous about people who are running outside and the protest marches. These helicopter shots of thousands of people marching. And I kept saying, “Wait a minute. What happened to the mask and staying six feet away from each other?” What’s going to happen with all these people in every city? In every state? Are they all going to get sick? I think we’re stuck with this. The numbers are beginning to go up all over the place. And me, with my career, I don’t know when it’ll ever be safe to go to a Broadway show or one of my things in Vegas. When will we all feel comfortable sitting next to somebody?
That’s what’s so remarkable about “When the Good Times Come Again.” Even though it wasn’t written for these times, it somehow fits into the anxious situation we find ourselves in and wondering when we can celebrate good times again together. What does it mean to you that so many people are finding comfort through the song?
The comfort part makes me feel real good. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do. That’s what I try to do anytime I’m making a record or anytime I’m performing, my focus is always on [the audience]. My arrows always point out, never back to me. So when you say that it’s giving comfort to people, that’s exactly what my goal is as an entertainer, as a songwriter, as a performer — to affect people, whether it’s to make them laugh or to make them feel good. I just feel very lucky. It’s a 30-year old record. I never thought, ever, I would end up on the top 20 ever again but I couldn’t be happier about it.
The song, brought to you by Clive Davis and written by Will Jennings and Richard Kerr, has the line “Hope we both survive the world out there.” Do you remember why the song appealed to you originally?
It’s a very moving idea. I used to end every concert with that song: “I’ll see you then when the good times come again.” I did it on a tour that lasted around two years and I ended every show with it. That’s what got me when Clive presented it to me and it moved me as a song and then it moved the audience every night.
You’d already had some success recording songs written by Will and Richard, like “Looks Like We Made It” and “Somewhere in the Night,” so you must have known their songs were a good match for you.
Yeah, and they’re great guys, too. Richard is a beautiful pop composer. I called Richard when this began to happen and said, “Do you have any kind of story you can tell me about how you wrote this?” He said, “All I can remember is that there was a close friend of Will’s and [mine] and he passed away and we were really grieving and that’s when we wrote that lyric.” Over the years I have been very proud to introduce songs by talented songwriters like Richard and Will. I think that’s my job. I’m very happy to write “Copacabana” and “This One’s for You,” but I’m very, very happy to be able to introduce great songs and great songwriters to the public. And this one is very gratifying.
Your history on the Adult Contemporary chart starts with “Mandy,” which hit No. 1 in 1974. Richard Kerr co-wrote the song, so this really brings it all full circle.
My life changed overnight with “Mandy.” Clive found my first album on his desk when he took over Bell Records and changed it to Arista Records. He came down to see me perform and he kept me on his label. I was in the middle of making my second album. He said, “I like it, but you need a hit record.” I had no experience with hit records at all. I said, “No problem. I’ll go home right now and write one.” It’s impossible [laughs]. A couple of days later he sent me a demo of a song called “Brandy,” which had been a minor hit in England for the co-writer Scott English. It was rock ‘n’ roll. I said “Really? You want me to do that?” So I did it just like the record. Clive came into the studio and said, “That’s terrible.” I said, “I know it’s terrible. That’s not what I do.”
But during the afternoon, when I was sitting at the piano, I changed the chords around. I found the love song in this rock ‘n’ roll song and slowed it down. I played him my version of “Brandy” and he said, “Do that! Just do that.” We changed the name to “Mandy.” And that’s the record. There were two takes of me playing the piano and singing it and the first take wasn’t good because I sang Brandy instead of Mandy. [For the second take], we added drums, guitar and strings.
You span six decades on this chart with a top 20 hit in every decade but the ‘90s, when the highest you reached was No. 26.
Damn it. Why don’t you just lie? [laughs]
What does that mean to you?
It’s amazing. I never started out wanting to do this, so it’s even more amazing because I was going to be an arranger. I was going to be a conductor. I was going to be a songwriter. I never thought about singing or performing or making records. So this kind of career continues to be the most amazing thing that I could ever imagine.
Speaking of performing, you were supposed to be playing your Las Vegas residency during this time and had to postpone the shows. You’ve said that performing is not your favorite thing, but now that you can’t do it, is there any part of it that you miss?
All of it. I’ve been kvetching for years about leaving home and going on the road, but, boy, you never miss the water ’til the well runs dry. Not only do I miss the audiences, I miss my band, I miss the crew. I miss the excitement of that life that I had. Now, and again, I ask Garry [Kief, Manilow’s longtime manager and husband] just to applaud so can I hear that sound again [laughs] … I never thought I’d miss it as deeply as I do. That was the big surprise for me.
You have a home studio. Are you putting it to good use while we’re shut down?
When the axe fell, I was in the middle of making an original album, so I can still do that. I’m working on it with Michael Lloyd [who produced “When the Good Times Come Again”]. And Clive gave me another one of his crazy ideas that could very well be another hit idea. So I’m working on two concepts with two albums and that definitely keeps me busy.
Is there anything else about “When The Good Times Come Again” you want to talk about?
Who knows where this is going to wind up? If it stopped right now, it’s been an unbelievable ride for me these last couple of months while we’re all going through this nightmare. I’m so glad a song like this can actually make people feel better. I couldn’t be more grateful.