He writes the songs the whole world sings, but Barry Manilow still feels sort of miserable. He’s the king of jingles (Band-Aids, Chevrolet) and the producer-arranger maestro who helped establish Bette Midler. Since he went solo, he has had eight hit singles in two years, including Grammy nominees Mandy and Write the Songs and his current Looks Like We Made It. All five of his LPs have gone at least gold. “But to himself, Barry’s still zero,” says a former girlfriend. “He can’t believe how enormous a star he is, and he’s afraid it’s all going to fall apart.”
“I’m from nowhere, Brooklyn, up from nothing. I’ve worked my ass off to get here,” is Barry’s response, “and I’m gonna work my ass off to stay here. I can’t sleep at night for the music going round in my head.” That, of course, has gotten in the way of relationships with either sex, including the marriage with his high-school honey that dissolved after a year at age 22.
Now in his mid-30s (he claims to be younger), Manilow’s success has made him a virtual recluse, terrified that fans will discover his address or phone number (which is more guarded even than Streisand’s). Surrounding himself with an impenetrable buffer of go-betweens (not to mention a bulky blond chauffeur-bodyguard), Manilow never ventures out to movies and rarely to restaurants. “Anybody who really needs to can get to me,” he maintains. “I’m a very private person. I don’t want to share my life with anybody.”
But he does share his home, lately renting what he calls “a ridiculous Beverly Hills palazzo” while at work on a new album and a 1978 TV special on the Coast. Present housemates include his general manager, manager, longtime friend Linda Allen, and his beloved pet beagle, “Bagel.” But when his current projects are finished in the fall, Barry will skedaddle back to New York and the new West Side co-op whose roster so far includes only Linda and Bagel. “Everybody in the music business lives out here in L.A.,” he says, “but I’m not coming. I choose to live in New York. I’m a city kid with soot in my blood.”
An only child, Manilow was born in the tough Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and raised by his mother after his truck driver dad deserted the family when Barry was 2. At 7 he was given an accordion. Then at 13, his bar mitzvah year, he received a piano and a stepfather, Willie Murphy. Though also a truck driver, he helped the boy cross the bridge to Manhattan, introducing him to Broadway musicals and jazzmen like Gerry Mulligan.
Barry put himself through a year of college and classical training at Juilliard working in the CBS mailroom, before making his own move in music on the local CBS station. Linda, his current lady, then in programming, got him to arrange a new theme for The Late Show, to replace Leroy Anderson’s Syncopated Clock. About then his marriage failed. “I didn’t have a good time. I had to come home to the same person all the time and I didn’t want to, even though I might have loved her,” Barry reflects. “I don’t see any reason to get married,” he adds. “My mother and stepfather got divorced and then started to live really happily. They actually date, and they live together when they feel like it. That seems to me the way to do it.”
“Schlepping up the ladder of success,” as he phrases it, Manilow arranged and conducted for some of Ed Sullivan’s last specials and personally played gigs in coffeehouses and Holiday Inns. In 1972 he took over as house pianist at the Continental Baths in Manhattan (the model for Broadway’s and Hollywood’s The Ritz). A few weeks later Bette Midler bounced in to make her name among the boys in the bath towels.
Before he went on his own in 1974, Manilow had co-produced her Grammy-winning debut album, The Divine Miss M, and hit single, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy. He had also written, sung or arranged a mother lode of commercials (McDonald’s, State Farm Insurance, Stridex, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi) that, billed as A Very Strange Medley, are a droll highlight of his latest live album and concert. On one of these commercial recording dates he met a then-unknown Melissa Manchester, whom he now counts as his only real pal in the business. Sadly he recounts that when he won a special Tony in June for his two-week stand on Broadway, “the only congratulatory telegram I got, from friends, family or anyone, was from Bette Midler.”
One acquaintance believes that Manilow “has never had a successful human relationship yet. People who start as nothing—and don’t forget, he was ugly as well as poor—often stay nothing to themselves,” the man continues. “They feel they have nothing to offer anyone else.”
Though about 80 percent of Manilow’s material is self-written, most of his monster hits have been composed by others. His own assessment of his artistry is sound. In live performance, he finds the notes and his voice is strong. His stage movements tend to be awkward, but that often wins audience empathy. As a composer, he believes, “The words I sing best to a melody are words about love. Listening only to my singles, you’d think that’s all I sang about. On albums I do take it a step or two further,” he suggests. “I’m possibly breaking through into slightly new ground with more intelligent lyrics than ‘Baby oh baby’ and more sophisticated rhythms and arrangements that go beyond a guitar and drum. Arranging is my strongest suit. It’s what separates me from everyone else,” Manilow says justifiably. “I grew up wanting to be Nelson Riddle. I’m only a fair singer, I write nice songs, but I’m a great arranger. If it all fell apart tomorrow, I’d be able to make a living as an arranger.”
Not that Manilow expects it to fall apart tomorrow, although it could happen, he figures, to a Peter Frampton. “He’s got his audience,” says Barry. “Yet they want me on the cover of 16 Magazine while my mother’s friends are still having a good time with my music.” Retirement? “When I’m 50-something,” he laughs, “I might lie on a raft on the Riviera. The people who last 20 or 30 years in this business don’t do it by accident.” The only previous solo artists to have five albums on the charts simultaneously were Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra. “Maybe there was a little luck in the beginning,” says Manilow. “But you plan for it and you work your ass off to make sure you don’t fall back down.”