October 22, 1984 12:00 PM

Deep in a recording studio on the fringe of West Hollywood a debate is taking place—an earnest argument among master craftsmen. Gerry Mulligan, the superb saxman who has played with such giants as Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck, feels that a note in the passage he and a small group of jazz elders have just played should be an E flat. No, says the session’s leader: just an E. Mulligan is adamant. The leader, a thin, nervous man with watery eyes and a slight paunch under his baggy sweater, picks at the piano, screws up his face and has the group repeat the smoky, jazz-tinged phrase Mulligan’s way. Then: “I like it,” says Barry Manilow. “Let’s change it. Thank you, Gerry.”

Wait a second. Run back that tape. Barry Manilow? Talking trade with Gerry Mulligan? The Barry Manilow who gave us State Farm Is There? Join the Pepsi People?! Write the Songs?

The very one. Only this time, Manilow’s sound is not the Muzak-plus-one that once prompted a critic to call him “a Las Vegas middle-of-the-road shlock entertainer”; it is vintage ’30s and ’40s torch. Following in the footsteps of Joe Jackson and Linda Ronstadt, Manilow has made an album, 2:00 A.M., Paradise Cafe, full of the wistful sounds of another era, and gathered around to perform them are Mulligan and guitarist Mundell Lowe, plus fellow vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Mel Tormé. Unlike Ronstadt and Jackson, who picked their favorites from the vast trove of past hits, Manilow, who has written songs the whole world sings, has written the music for his own “standards” as well.

And they sound good. An hour later, Manilow is playing back a tape of today’s session. Mulligan’s sax sounds gorgeous, perfect: sinew wrapped in tweed. Manilow looks up from the control panel. “This is why I’ve done it,” he says. “To spend a week like this, with these musicians. What a thrill. It makes some of the junk I’ve recorded worthwhile.”

Barry Manilow has spent 10 years at the top of the heap, no matter where the critics would wish him. With 26 straight Top 40 hits, 10 platinum albums and countless industry awards, the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who once talked of “shlepping up the ladder of success” would seem to have reached its golden rungs. But at 38, it is obvious that he sees Paradise Cafe, in support of which he has just launched a 90-city tour, as more than a playful experiment of his musical maturity. It is, rather, a long-delayed affirmation of identity—an escape, after a highly atypical “composer’s block,” from the suddenly joyless process of hit-making. “This album is not as commercial as my others,” he admits. “But there comes a point where you can’t live or die by whether you make the Top 40 or not. I’m trying to keep thrilling myself, and not just keep doing what I think I’m supposed to do. This one’s for me.”

There was always an obsessive aspect to Manilow’s music making. The son of divorced working-class parents who was brought up largely by his grandparents, he quickly transformed his musical genius (“I could always sit at a piano and play anything”) into his refuge from a host of insecurities. Of an early stint in a Kankakee, Ill. piano bar, he remembers, “It was the first time I ever felt attractive. Girls started coming on to me and guys started buying me drinks. Every time I played, I didn’t feel too bad. Then, when I’d get off, I’d turn into this little shlep.”

As Manilow passed the now well-known phases of his climb—the CBS mail room, his discovery as Bette Midler’s arranger-accompanist, Mandy and 25 other hits in fevered succession—he carried his own pressures with him. “I’m more negative than I am positive,” he admits. “All the things they say—’marshmallow,’ ‘syrupy,’ ‘ugly,’ ‘talentless,’ ‘can’t sing,’ ‘wimp,’ ‘fag’—hurt so badly because I call myself all those names before they do.” In response he has worked even harder.

This winter Manilow stopped. Exhausted after an international tour on behalf of his Greatest Hits II album, he discovered he no longer got any joy from his two major forms of amusement, the piano (“I almost never played for pleasure”) and the radio. “Every time I’d listen, it was competition: ‘Oh, why didn’t I think of that drum lick?’ I was always trying to catch up. You can go nuts doing that.”

Instead, Manilow went to seed. After singing the national anthem at Super Bowl XVIII, he ceased performing. He canceled his subscriptions to the trade papers and stayed away from TV and radio. Behind the 10-foot electric gate and three-quarter-mile driveway of his mountaintop Bel Air home, he pretended he was on vacation. “I chained myself to the chaise longue, greased myself up like a tuna and tried to relax,” he says, and all the while he fought the feeling that “it was like the end of the movie. I didn’t know what to do. I felt the credits should roll: ‘The End.’ ”

It was actually a strange sort of beginning. One night after a month of idleness, Manilow strolled up to the piano while entertaining guests and began playing standards. “I started noodling,” he says. “Here’s That Rainy Day, When Sunny Gets Blue. And they were all so friendly, so familiar and so non-threatening.” A concept was born. “Why don’t I do an album of old standards? But then I said to myself, ‘You’re a writer. Why do old stuff?’ So I started to do my own.”

It took Manilow only two weeks to compose the 11 tunes on Paradise Cafe, and when he finished he was uncharacteristically upbeat. “I knew they would work,” he says. “When you’re writing pop songs, it doesn’t matter whether they’re great. It matters whether they’re hits. But with these, I knew after I’d written them I had 11 great songs.” Within a week he was on the phone with Mulligan and the rest of “my musical heroes.”

Recording the album seems to have once again sparked his formidable energy. Before beginning the Paradise Cafe tour, he produced Dionne Warwick’s album Run to Me, sang on one of its duets, put in time on a home word processor working on a memoir—and, after five years of anticipatory acting lessons, began preparing for his first starring role, in a made-for-TV movie based on his 1978 hit, Copacabana.

Between takes the reactivated singer returns to his house in the clouds—or rather, his houses. One is an expensive playpad featuring videogames, a screening room and a small recording studio. Then there is the elegant one-story main house outfitted with more electronic equipment than a small-town radio station, as well as sliding glass doors through which Manilow can view the surrounding valley. Deer graze in his three-acre “yard”; indoors his pet beagles, Bagel and Biscuit, reside in plush comfort.

If others sometimes share his quarters, Manilow doesn’t say so. “The press has been trying to get into my pants for years. It’s not that I have anything to hide, I just want to do my own thing,” he says firmly. A veteran of one failed marriage back in the ’60s, he waves aside questions of gender preference, but concedes that another traditional marriage seems remote. “I couldn’t have the kind of life I have now, bopping off to Europe, going yachting, working all day long. I’d have to change the whole thing, and I haven’t found anybody I’d want to do that for.” Two people he does maintain regular relations with are his psychiatrist and his mother, of whom he says, “Anything I do is okay with her, as long as I sound all right on the phone.”

Lately he has been sounding just fine. “I think I trust myself more,” he says. “I believe in myself, in my talent. I think I’m better than a lot of people give me credit for.” And what if the critics pan Paradise Cafe as they have almost everything else he has written? Manilow smiles, just a little bit confidently. “If I’m still annoying them, that means there’s still a lot of life left.”

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