The Interviews: Barry Manilow
In an in-depth discussion with the Television Academy's The Interviews, Barry Manilow reflects on his long and varied career.
Singer-songwriter, arranger, musician, music producer: that's how most people would describe Barry Manilow.
But television star and producer? Those monikers also apply. The first of his television specials for ABC, which aired in 1977, was seen by 37 million people, or roughly twice the viewers of the Big Bang Theory, the most-watched show of this past season. That special was named the year's outstanding variety music or comedy special, earning Manilow the first of his two Emmy awards.
In 1979, a concert from Manilow's sold-out dates at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles aired on HBO's Standing Room Only, the first pay-television show to threaten the ratings earned by broadcast-network specials. And in 2004, when Manilow made his third appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Winfrey announced that the singer was one of her most-requested guests of all time.
In fact, Manilow is responsible for many more cultural touchstones than people imagine. He embodied the soft-rock '70s sound with hits like "I Write the Songs" and "Can't Smile Without You," but those represent only a small portion of his body of work. As an arranger and producer, Manilow collaborated with top artists of the era, while also creating those hugely popular specials.
Perhaps less well-known: Manilow is responsible for some of the catchiest advertising jingles of all time. He devised the melody for "Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there," and was paid just $500 for the job, with no subsequent residuals. But he's fine with that. "Five hundred dollars was great for me at that point," he says.
A Brooklyn native, Manilow got an early boost when Arista Records president Clive Davis brought him a song that he thought had potential. Once Manilow put his own spin on it, "Mandy" was born, along with his solo career. Besides his Emmys, he has earned a Grammy along the way and is still touring.
Manilow was interviewed in January 2019 by producer Adrienne Faillace of The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, a program of the Television Academy Foundation. The following is an edited excerpt of their conversation. The entire interview can be seen at TelevisionAcademy.com/ Interviews.
Q: What were some of your interests when you were young?
A: I was a real musical kid. Every Jewish and Italian kid in Brooklyn had to play the accordion. They wouldn't let you go over the Brooklyn Bridge if you didn't. So they stuck an accordion in my 11-year-old hands, and I was good at it. It's a squeaky, old-fashioned instrument, but I got a lot of good things out of playing that accordion.
Q: Were you in any bands?
A: When I was 15 or 16, I got into a band. I was the arranger. I had great ideas for the songs that every band plays — I made them sound different. We played bar mitzvahs and weddings. We were called The Jazz Partners.
Q: Did you listen to a lot of jazz at that time?
A: Yeah. When my mother remarried, to a man named Willie Murphy, we moved from my grandparents' house to a little apartment, and he brought with him a little record player and a stack of records.
It may as well have been a stack of gold because I'd never heard music like that. Willie brought classical music, Broadway scores, and great singers and arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Don Costa. I memorized every note on these albums.
That's when I realized that there was a world of music out there that I couldn't wait to get to.
Q: On those records, were you listening more to the backgrounds than to the singers?
A: Yeah, I was more interested in what was going on behind the singers. That went for The Beatles, too. I was a fan of The Beatles' songwriting and how they were singing, but I was also interested in [producer] George Martin. How did he come up with the strings behind "Eleanor Rigby"? I was much more interested in the arrangements and the orchestration. So I went to school for orchestration.
Q: Where did you go to school?
A: Well, I couldn't afford anything. I got a job as a mail boy at CBS. That's where I discovered my first grand piano. After delivering the mail, I'd go into the rehearsal room. Willie had gotten me a little spinet piano, which was great in our apartment. But at CBS, they had these wonderful Yamaha grand pianos.
I became known as the piano-playing mail boy. I worked at CBS from nine till four. Then I went to the twilight classes at Juilliard, and I played in piano bars in the evening. That was how I survived.
Q: Were you thinking of a career in music at that time?
A: It was terrifying to think of leaving a job with that Friday paycheck. But the music was coming out of my ears. I had gotten promoted to film clerk, and I was working as an accompanist for a load of people. One of the girls I was playing for got an offer to go on the road and asked me to go with her. That meant I'd have to leave my day job. I went to my boss and asked him, "Should I quit?"
He said, "Quit. You'll always have a job here." So I quit and we went on the road.
When the gig was over, I came back to New York and my old boss had gotten fired. But I got a call from a producer. They were putting together a local TV show called Callback, a showcase for young talent in New York, and they wanted me to be music director.
So back I went to CBS as the music director of this show. We would decide who was going to be on the show that week, then I would do the arrangements. It was a great learning experience.
Q: Were you also working on commercial jingles?
A: That came later. I'd gotten married, then unmarried. I moved to Manhattan. A lot of singers were wanting me to accompany them, and I started to write my own songs. That was a whole other world. I never thought of myself as a singer, but I couldn't afford to hire real singers, so I sang my own demos and sent them out.
I got this phone call from a commercial agency: Would I be interested in trying for a jingle for Dodge? They needed a melody. So they gave me their lyric, and I wrote this melody for Dodge. It got selected, so people kept calling me to do jingles.
Q: Were you given much instruction?
A: They just give you the lyric: "Whenever you're driving and wherever you're bound… like a good neighbor, State Farm is there."
That's it. Then you try to write a catchy melody, something that will stick in listeners' ears in 15 seconds. For television you get 15 seconds. If you're lucky, 30.
When I started, I did "You deserve a break today" [for McDonald's], Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, "Get a bucket of chicken" [for Kentucky Fried Chicken] — that one was all over the place. I did that Band-Aid commercial, "I am stuck on Band-Aid, 'cause Band-Aid's stuck on me."
You get residuals if you're singing or talking on the commercial, but as a composer you get a flat fee. For that State Farm commercial, I got $500. It's been going for 45 years. But nobody expected a jingle to last that long. Same thing with Band-Aid. And $500 was great for me at that point.
Then I started to get jobs as a background singer in commercials. That's when I started to make some big money. I never considered myself a solo singer. I was behind other singers playing piano, arranging, conducting, writing, but never did I think about performing or singing.
Q: So how did you become a singer?
A: One of the demos that I had made of my songs started to make a dent out there. I got a phone call from Bell Records. They were looking for a singer-songwriter and I fit the bill. They asked me if I wanted to make an album of my own stuff as a singer.
By then I'd already started to work with Bette Midler as a conductor. I called Bette and said, "I think I got a record deal."
She said, "Doing what?" I said, "Singing."
She said, "You don't sing." I said, "They think I do."
So I grabbed Ron Dante, a background singer in the jingle world, and we produced my first album. I loved doing it. I wasn't comfortable singing, but I did love producing 10 or 12 cuts that I had written or songs that I loved. It was a great experience.
I went back to work with Bette as her piano player, but I felt like I should promote my album. I made a deal with her that I would sing three songs from that album during intermission. I took my heart in my hands and said, "Hi, I hope you don't mind… I'm going to sing you three songs from my latest album."
The last song was "Could It Be Magic," and that was a real big ending. Bette's audiences were very nice to me during that tour.
Q: Then you made another album….
A: Bell Records wanted another album, so I made a second. And while I was finishing it, Clive Davis became president of Bell Records and changed the name to Arista Records.
Clive listened to it and said, "You need a hit single, a career-making record." Like I'd go home and write a career-making record, which is impossible! You luck into it. But I wrote a couple more wonderful songs with Hal David, Burt Bacharach's partner. Then I got a call from Clive. He had found a song that was a minor hit in England and thought it might be right for me.
I fought it because I was the songwriter. I didn't want somebody else's song. But I listened to it — it was "Brandy," a rock-and-roll song: "Oh, Brandy, you came and you gave without taking…." I thought, what am I going to do with this?
I went into the studio with Ronnie. I sang it as-is, and we invited Clive down.
He said, "What's that?"
I said, "That's what you just gave me."
He said, "That's terrible."
I said, "I know."
But during the afternoon, in order to learn "Brandy," I had slowed it down and — just because I wanted to — I'd changed the chords around and put in a key change. But then I forgot about it and played Clive the rock-and-roll song. But now I went to the piano and played him the ballad version of "Brandy" with my key and chord changes.
He said, "Do that. And we can't use Brandy. Sing Mandy ."
There had been a hit record called "Brandy" out two years earlier: "Brandy, you're a fine girl…." So we changed the name. I played the slow version, we put a small band behind it and added "Mandy" to that second album. And my life changed.
Q: What is arranging like for you, transforming an existing song?
A: What I had done was bring the emotion out of the song. Clive and I made a deal that I would write the whole album, and I did that kind of arranging to all of the songs he gave me.
There was a song called, "Can't Smile Without You." It was a terrible demo. I sat with it for weeks until I figured out, "Wait a minute — it's a vaudeville song. That's something I can get behind."
Same thing with "I Write the Songs." I struggled with that one. I thought the audience was going to think I was yelling about myself. Then I figured out that it was an anthem to the spirit of music.
I couldn't just take the songs the way they were presented. I have to find myself in all of these outside songs. That's what I did as an arranger.
Q: So if "Can't Smile Without You" was vaudeville and "I Write the Songs" was an anthem, what was "Mandy" to you?
A: "Mandy" was a love song. The original rock-and-roll record wasn't a love song. I found something in the song that I don't think the writer even knew was there. "I Write the Songs," "Can't Smile Without You" and all the rest were never presented to me the way I finally wound up doing them.
They were presented the way those writers heard them, but they didn't hear them like I did.
Q: So you recorded "Mandy," the album came out, and your life changed….
A: It's interesting having a hit record. Everything turns upside-down. It was the best of times and the worst of times. Clive had a party in San Diego because it was the first hit record on Arista. But I couldn't afford the plane ride from New York to San Diego.
I bounced a check at the grocery store, and I got on the plane. When I got there, he handed me a check for $1 million. I used it as a bookmark for a while because I didn't know what to do with it.
Q: Were you getting recognized more often?
A: No, I started to get recognized after my first TV special. That was another bump up. I had done a few shows, like The Midnight Special and Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, when "Mandy" came out. But people weren't approaching me in the street after those aired. That happened after the first special.
That got big, big ratings and was a surprise to everybody. At the airport the next morning, we needed security guards. That was when I realized, "This is what television can do."
Q: How did that first special come about? Were you approached by ABC?
A: Yeah, by [ABC Entertainment president] Fred Silverman. Those were the days when they were offering pop artists summer replacement shows. I said no. I told my manager to ask them if they would just give me one special a year. I didn't feel capable of handling a weekly variety show.
I loved that first special. [Producer-director] Steve Binder was great. Penny Marshall was the guest star and she was great. We did a little song and dance for "Bandstand Boogie."
Q: With "Bandstand Boogie," you added lyrics to what was already the music for American Bandstand ….
A: Right. One day Ronnie was singing the American Bandstand theme; I looked it up and found there'd never been any lyrics written for it. So my collaborator, Bruce Sussman, and I wrote lyrics to the orchestration and recorded it. Dick Clark loved it so much that he stopped using the original version of the Bandstand theme and used "Bandstand Boogie" for years after that.
Q: You made your second special the following year, in 1978….
A: I loved creating it. I got George Schaefer to do it. He's a wonderful director and very well known for drama; he'd never done a music special. He was great to work with.
The album Even Now was going to come out when the special aired, so no one had heard any of those songs before, like "Copacabana," "Can't Smile," "Looks Like We Made It." We produced the show as if they were already hit records.
The night before we started recording the second special, I won the Emmy for the first special. When I came in the next night, everybody was applauding.
Q: In the specials, sometimes you're singing on a stool and other times at the piano. What influences your decisions?
A: The song tells me what I should do.
Something that made a big difference in my performing career was taking acting lessons. I worked with [actress and longtime drama instructor] Nina Foch.
Nina taught me to break down the lyrics to the song the way she would break down a script. She taught me to think about things like, "Where am I when I'm singing? Who am I singing to?" Every night it's different. It could be to my grandfather. It could be to Garry [Kief, Manilow's husband]. It could be to my dog. But it's always to somebody that I love. That was from Nina. I'll always be grateful to her.
Q: In 1979, your third special came out, with guest John Denver….
A: John was a great friend. We had a great time doing it. And that was when I discovered makeup. I looked like an angel. The makeup and lighting guys were unbelievable.
Q: And in 1988 you did your fifth TV special, Barry Manilow: Big Fun on Swing Street.
A: We came up with a great idea for the special, to create a street called Swing Street. The guests I had were magnificent: Gerry Mulligan, baritone sax player; Carmen McRae, one of the great jazz singers of all time; [singer-actress] Phyllis Hyman. Charles Lisanby won an Emmy for the art direction. He created Swing Street with lampposts, cafés and the Savoy [Ballroom]. It was amazing.
Q: Over the years you've guest-starred on several series, including an episode of Will & Grace called "Fanilow."
A: That's where that nickname came from.
Q: Really? How do you feel about that term?
A: I didn't like it in the beginning. But when people meet me and say, "I'm a Fanilow," they're so sincere that I've gotten to like it.
Q: What advice would you give an aspiring songwriter or performer?
A: Learn to read music. If you're in a band or you're a singer, you'll always get work. If someone hands you a sheet of music, you'll be able to play it or sing it.
Q: What is your proudest career achievement?
A: I've remained the same guy. I made it through the rain, through that hurricane of success with my feet on the ground. I think I'm most proud of that.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2019
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