March 06, 2006 12:00 PM

After 32 years, it’s gotten a lot easier to persuade Barry Manilow to make a hit record. In 1974, when his label head Clive Davis pressed him to record what would be his breakthrough single, “Mandy,” the singer recalls telling Davis, “I’ve been in this business a year and a half. This is not a hit song!” Now more than three decades in, the 62-year-old singer says he knows a good project when Davis, BMG North America’s chairman and CEO, suggests it. Sure enough, The Greatest Songs of the Fifties, Manilow’s album of covers, recently debuted at the top of the Billboard chart. “I don’t think you’ll ever hear lyric-writing like this again: ‘Love is a many splendored thing.'” he says. “These days you hear, ‘My humps, my lumps, my bumps’!”

He may not be as current as the Black Eyed Peas, but that doesn’t matter to Manilow’s diverse fan base, which consists, he says, of “little children to grandmothers.” After years on the road, the singer has settled into his headlining role at the Las Vegas Hilton, where audiences know every word, from “I Write the Songs” (before recording it, “I was afraid people would say, ‘Who does he think he is, Bob Dylan?'”) to “the one they come for,” as he calls it. “On my tombstone it will say, ‘Barry Manilow—Copacabana.'” To this day, he still marvels at his fans. “The most flattering of all is when the trash collectors yell, ‘Barry! Barry!’ hanging off their trucks. You know you’ve made it when they do that.”

Barry Looks Back

LENDING LIZ A HAND, 1986: “That’s when Elizabeth [Taylor] and I got married and Carole [Bayer Sager] was our bridesmaid [laughs]. Elizabeth called me to do the first AIDS benefit ever. She called every musician she knew and they all turned her down. How could you say no? All of my friends were dying. It was in the ’80s, where if you got this thing you died. Nobody wanted to be associated with it. I did it and she never forgot it. She sends me flowers every year on my birthday.”

HIS NAME WAS BARRY, HE WORE A WHITE TUX, 1977: “I did my first TV special and won an Emmy for it. ‘I’m freaking out’ was my acceptance speech. Don’t even bother to thank anybody! But it was the last thing I expected. I hadn’t prepared one word. I’ve never been more humiliated. But I was very happy I won.”

THEY WRITE THE SONGS, 2000: “It’s the wandering Jews. Those are the two most talented people [Neil Diamond, left, and Billy Joel, center] I’ve ever sat at one table with. That’s fantastic.”

DANCING MACHINE, 1976: “That was one of my background girls, and both of us were doing ‘Bandstand Boogie.’ We all were wearing stuff like this. Today it looks ridiculous. But I’m telling you, that’s what everybody looked like. They were wearing these tight pants and shirts.”

POLYESTER PARTY, 1978: “I’m so sorry you have to see this. I can tell you Rod Stewart had the same outfit. We all looked like morons in the ’70s, but I think I win for the most moronic outfit, face, hair and glasses. Clive [Davis] looks great. Must you show this to everybody?”

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