A Conversation With Barry Manilow
Barry Manilow is my all-time favorite musician. He’s a Grammy, Tony and Emmy award-winning icon who has 50 Top 40 hits, including 12 #1 singles and more than 85 million albums sold worldwide. With credentials like this, it’s no wonder Barry Manilow is the #1 Adult Contemporary Artist of all time, according to Billboard and R&R magazines, and that Rolling Stone referred to him as “the showman of our generation.” Simply put, he’s fantastic, and I’ve wanted to interview him for the past three years. Yesterday, that dream came true. Barry and I discussed his new album, This is My Town: Songs of New York, which is available April 21, his nearly-40-year relationship with his husband Garry Kief and much more. I hope you enjoy reading this interview. And don’t forget to pick up Barry’s new album – it’s spectacular!
Your new album, This Is My Town: Songs of New York, is comprised of original material and cover songs – and it’s fantastic! What made you want to record this album at this point in your career?
I come from New York. I was born and raised in the slums of Brooklyn, New York. Once you’re a New Yorker, you’re always a New Yorker. Even though I’ve lived in California for more years than I’ve spent in New York, I still consider myself a New Yorker. I still talk fast, I walk fast – I think fast. Still, I feel like I may as well live in New York. It’s always in my blood.
Over the years, I’ve loved albums that have an idea to it, instead of just albums filled with love songs or pop songs. I’ve loved doing albums that have had some kind of an angle to it. I did an album that paid tribute to the big band era. Then I did one that paid tribute to Broadway called Showstoppers, and on and on and on. Every album always had some kind of an idea to it.
Songs of New York is an idea I’ve always had and I always wanted to do. Now that I’m on Verve and we were looking for what would be the next album, this one seemed like a good one to do right now. That’s why I finally did an album that’s a love letter to my hometown.You’re the most successful adult contemporary artist of all time. However, your immense success has resulted in some people simply seeing you as a hit machine. They don’t realize that you’re a consummate singer, producer, composer, and lyricist who studied at Juilliard. How do you overcome this misconception?
I don’t think it’s a misconception. There were those 10 years – those first 10 years were really about those hit singles. I was a very lucky guy because they always said a good pop career would last five years. I had 10 years of pop hits, from ‘75 to ‘85. Maybe, ‘74 to ‘84. It was a fantastic run, just a fantastic run. That’s probably where I got the reputation of just doing big pop hits. But that ended in ‘84 when radio changed. Radio stopped playing my kind of ballads and the white-boy pop records. They went to the R&B world. It was Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. They just stopped playing the kind of stuff I was producing and releasing. That forced me to figure out, what else do I do? I didn’t feel like stopping making music, and that’s when I came up with ideas for albums.
As someone who has taken singing lessons, I’m astounded by the power and range of your voice. In your 70s you sound better than most singers in their 20s.
I think so. Knowing that so many singers have blown out their voices over time, how have you maintained yours for all these years?
Michael, I wish I could give you a great answer for a young person that is starting out. How do you take care of your voice? You see, the thing is I started out not really wanting to sing or perform. It never dawned on me to do that. I was going to be a musician, an arranger of music, a conductor, a composer. That’s really all I wanted to do. So, when I got the opportunity to make albums, I really didn’t know anything about singing – I really didn’t. I never took it seriously, and then suddenly the albums began to sell and I had to get up on the stage night after night after night and sing for two hours. Of course, the first thing I did was lose my voice. It was the first thing that happened. I lost my voice on the third song every night. I never really learned how to save my voice. I never really learned how to sing. I never took singing lessons. I didn’t know the art of singing.
The thing that saved me (laughs) is the monitor man. (laughs) The guy that’s in charge of what I hear on the stage. His job is a thankless job because he really can’t hear what I’m hearing. He has to guess. But those are the guys that every singer is going to rely on while on the stage to make their voice sound good. I have lucked into really talented guys that are in charge of my monitors and that’s what saves my voice. The years when I didn’t have a really great monitor man, that’s when I’d lose my voice immediately. It didn’t matter whether I had lessons or knew how to sing. It wouldn’t have mattered. I would have lost my voice. But because of a great guy in the wings that is taking care of what I hear on that stage – these are the guys I rely on to keep my voice.
As far as keeping my voice while making records, it’s the same thing. What I’m hearing is in my headphones, so I’m relying on the guy in the control room. You tell the guy in the control room, “Can you make it a little brighter? Can you turn up the volume? Can you turn down the volume?” It’s all about what the guys are giving the singer in his headset. That’s what has saved my voice.
I was raised by two Dads: my father and his husband. So, when I read your interview with People magazine, where you opened up about being gay for the first time, I was proud of you. What was it like discussing something that has been kept private for so long?
Nothing changed. Garry and I have been together going on 40 years, and we raised a daughter, probably, like you were raised. Garry had a daughter when we met and she was only one-year-old, and we raised her. She turned out to be a great, beautiful girl, just like you turned out to be a successful guy. Our relationship and my being gay – I’ve always been a proud gay man. I’ve always been very proud of Garry and I. Nothing really changed. When I read the article, it was no big deal. I frankly think it’s no big deal to the readers either. Thank goodness, these days being gay or being married or raising kids – these days it’s no big deal. I don’t think it’s explosive anymore. Now, if you tried to do that back in the ‘70s or ‘80s, yeah, that would be a whole different story. But these days I don’t really think it’s a big deal. Reading about it, well, I think they did a really good job. I think they were very respectful. I think they were very affectionate. Garry and I were very happy with what we read.
In the song “Shadow Man” you sing, “No one knows you but they all love you. Just don’t let them get too much of you. Careful man. Don’t forget you’re the Shadow Man.” Is this song autobiographical?
(laughs) If you want it to be, it could be. Bruce and Jack, my collaborators, wrote that lyric. I didn’t write that lyric. I don’t know what they meant. I think what they’re talking about is a pop star keeping secrets. There are a lot of straight guys who could sing that song and still have things they didn’t want people to know about. Right? So, I don’t think it was a particular event that they were writing about. Certainly, when I sing it, it’s the last thing on my mind – hiding that I’m gay – because I’ve never hidden. I swear, Michael, I’ve never hidden that I am a gay man. Garry and I are so proud of our relationship. We never, never hide it. Maybe to the mass public, maybe they might have been surprised. But we’ve never hidden it. And as far as “Shadow Man” goes, that’s the last thing I would think of.
Your first autobiography, Sweet Life: Adventures on the Way to Paradise, covered a good portion of your career, but so much has happened since then. When can fans expect another autobiography from you? And what would you like it to include?
(laughs) If I were to write another autobiography, I certainly would include more about Garry and I. In this day and age, there would be no reason not to talk about my relationship with Garry. If I were to do one, of course, there would be a lot about the two of us.
Actually, I started to work on a part two to Sweet Life. I did it over the summer. My problem with my life is that I’m so fucking boring! (laughs) I bored myself when I was writing about what happened over the last 20 years. I’ll take a stab at it again. (laughs)
You played a key role in reviving the career of Dionne Warwick at a time when she wasn’t sure if she should continue singing. What was that like?
People warned me that Dionne might be difficult to work with and that was the farthest thing from what happened. We had a ball making that record. It was a party every afternoon. It’s one of my favorite memories. She was in great voice that entire album, as you might be able to hear. On every song of that album she was hitting notes in her range that I didn’t know she had. It was a great, wonderful experience. If you talk to her about making that album, she will say the same thing. It was a great creative experience for the two of us.
You first gained notoriety working with Bette Midler. What was it like performing live with The Divine Miss M and producing her music?
Bette is one of the most talented human beings that we have on the planet. When she started off and I was her musical director and arranger and all, it was thrilling. I had started with her before she exploded. I had a small band that I had hired to back her up and we all knew, oh boy, this is big. This girl is going to go far. For the first year, we worked in small clubs in the middle of nowhere and the audiences would go crazy in the small clubs. We all knew that any minute that she was going to explode. And during the second year she exploded, and it was exactly what I expected. She did The Tonight Show and everything changed. She was on the cover of Newsweek magazine. It was a thrilling experience for me to be supporting this incredible talent and watching her become so well-respected and well-loved. It was a thrilling three or four years.
Speaking of Bette, will you be seeing her in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway?
I’m going into New York next week and I wish I could but they’ve got me booked from morning until night. But eventually I’ll probably wind up going to see it. I hear she’s just brilliant in it.
Like you, Melissa Manchester is a phenomenal lyricist and vocalist and you’ve worked together several times over the years. Looking back on your time as friends and colleagues, what’s your favorite experience with Melissa?
Well, we just finished doing a duet for her latest album. We just did it. She did an album that paid tribute to the great female singers from the past, and now she’s doing an album that’s paying tribute to the great male singers. She asked me if I’d do a duet with her and, of course, I said, “Yes” and we did it. She came to my studio and we sang together. I think it’s going to be a beautiful duet. We’re still friends and we’re still singing together. She’s great and one-of-a-kind. She’s one of the greatest voices ever.
The Manilow Music Project is clearly something you hold very near and dear to your heart. What was the inspiration for starting this organization?
One of my friends down here, years ago, told me that his daughter wanted to play the sax and the school didn’t have one. I said, “They don’t have one?” He said, “No. They’re running out of instruments and they didn’t have a sax for her.” I said, “They’re running out of instruments?! What the hell is that about?” When I looked into it, I found, to my disappointment and horror, that most schools in the country are running out of instruments and more. The first thing they do is cut music and arts in high schools and middle schools all over the country. They don’t have music stands or sheet music to play from. All these music departments are running out of everything because they don’t have the money to do it. So, I came to the rescue to do my little part of it and I try to get instruments into the schools that are running out of them.
When I was on the road for a long time, I’d donate a piano to a music program in every city I visited. Then I’d do an instrument drive and ask the audiences to bring down any instruments that they had in their attic or basement that was just collecting dust. They would do that and in every city we would collect about 100 instruments and we would divide them into schools that needed them. That was what I could do all those years on the road, and I’ll continue to do it whenever I can.
You and Liza Minnelli are friends. How is she doing?
From what I understand, she’s doing better than ever. Michael Feinstein has gotten her out to perform with him, and I think she’s doing better than ever. That’s what I hear.