The pop icon sat down exclusively with PEOPLE to discuss his life, love and enduring legacy

By Jeff Nelson
April 05, 2017 08:00 AM
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Pop legend Barry Manilow opens up for the first time about coming out, finding love, and surviving showbiz for 50 years. Subscribe now for his exclusive untold story — only in PEOPLE.

Looks like he made it!

After 50 years in showbiz, Barry Manilow sat down exclusively with PEOPLE in his home recording studio at his Palm Springs estate to reminisce on his career, enduring legacy and private world ahead of the April 21 release of his latest album, This Is My Town: Songs of New York.

From his humble beginnings in Brooklyn and collaborating with Bette Midler to becoming one of the bestselling artists of all time, the pop icon looks back on how he became the man who writes the songs that make the whole world sing.

A Native New Yorker and a Natural Musician

Martin Schoeller

Born Barry Alan Pincus in 1943, Manilow grew up with his single mom Edna Manilow in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood; he took her name after his estranged truck-driver father, Harold Kelliher, left. And while he started playing instruments (accordion at 7, piano at 13), it wasn’t until he met his stepfather Willie Murphy that he found his first love: music.

“When my stepfather came into my life and brought with him a stack of albums that may as well have been a stack of gold, some of the greatest music you’ve ever heard — jazz, Broadway scores, great singers with great arrangements,” recalls Manilow. “He changed my life with just that little stack of records. My mother was very, very musical. So there was always great music in my house.”

Courtesy Barry Manilow

He wasn’t the most popular teenager — “I was miserable in high school!” he says with a laugh — but Manilow found his place among fellow musicians.

“When I found the orchestra class, then I became Mr. Popular, really,” says the Eastern District High School alum. “I was voted best musician of the year, I formed my own band … but before that, I really didn’t know what to do because it was all about sports, and that’s not who I am.”

Marriage, Bette Midler — and His Big Break

After graduating, Manilow married his second love — high school sweetheart Susan Deixler — and pursued a career in music in Manhattan. But the young artist’s dreams put a strain on his relationship, and they split after a year.

“I was in love with Susan. I just was not ready for marriage,” says Manilow, who (now married to longtime manager Garry Kief) maintains he wasn’t struggling with his sexuality at the time. “I was out making music every night, sowing my wild oats — I was too young. I wasn’t ready to settle down.”

Courtesy Barry Manilow

But sacrificing his personal life paid off for his professional one as he worked with up-and-coming singers, accompanying and arranging music for them.

Manilow made a name for himself writing jingles (he’s the brain behind such beloved slogans as “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there” and “I am stuck on Band-Aid brand ‘cause Band-Aid sticks on me”); headed up music for Ed Sullivan at The Late Show; then, in 1971, began collaborating with one Bette Midler at the gay hotspot the Continental Baths.

“Barry Manilow was a driving force,” says Midler of Manilow, who produced her first two albums. “He did a great job arranging, and he had a great sense of how to move a song along; he just knew how to inject a song with excitement.”

Midler’s career skyrocketed, and his followed suit.

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A Hesitant Superstar

Following a lukewarm debut album, Manilow caught the break of a lifetime when famed record exec Clive Davis acquired his contract after seeing him perform for the first time in Central Park.

“I was knocked out,” says Davis, who urged his latest signee to record a rock song that he’d discovered called “Brandy.” So Manilow took the track, slowed it down, and turned it into a dramatic piano ballad and retitling it. Soon after, “Mandy” became Manilow’s first No. 1 hit in 1974.

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“I didn’t know I was making the first big pop-rock ballad,” says Manilow, laughing. “But when it did get on the radio, I listened to what was around me: ‘Kung Fu Fighting,’ ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie.’ I thought, ‘These people need me!’”

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Although he’s beloved by his devoted “Fanilows” as a singer, songwriter and performer, Manilow actually prides himself most on his arranging abilities.

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“As an arranger, you take a rock ‘n’ roll song and make it into a ballad with three chord changes and key changes and an emotional ending. That’s what I do,” he says. “Yes, I’m a songwriter. I’ve written a handful of songs that have become hit songs. But that’s not really my forte.”

Still, after the success of “Mandy,” Manilow released hit after hit, from “Could It Be Magic” and “Looks Like We Made It” to “Copacabana (At the Copa)” and “Can’t Smile Without You.”

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“Barry’s a terrific showman. But he’s so modest about his performing talent and, to some extent, self-deprecating,” says Davis, whose inaugural pre-Grammys party (an award season staple) was thrown in 1976 to celebrate “Mandy.” “I mean, the combination of the number of songs that are now part of, clearly, the musical culture? They’re standards. And so the hits that we have enjoyed together are really part of the new Great American Songbook.”

Indeed, Manilow says he’s still wrapping his head around his pop star status.

“I started out not loving the job because it was a big surprise,” he says. “I never thought about being a performer or a singer or any of that — maybe a composer or producer, anything in the background. But when I wound up on the stage singing and trying to talk to an audience, I was terrible; I was really terrible.

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“I was an amateur. I got up from the piano, and I didn’t know what to do with my legs. And as the years went by, I’ve figured it out and become comfortable with it, and the audiences have stayed enthusiastic and wonderful.”

‘I’ll Keep Going Until They Stop Me!’

Over the course of his decades-spanning career, Manilow has released dozens of albums, become one of the bestselling artists of all time and won a Grammy, an Emmy (which he uses as a makeshift doorstop!) and a special Tony. And while his fan base is as fervent as ever, he bid adieu to his touring days last year.

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“Forty-five years of room service is enough!” Manilow jokes of his retiring from touring. “Going away from home for weeks at a time, I just couldn’t do that anymore. I wanted to be home, to really have my life back. You know, there’s this joke: Like the prostitute says, it’s not the work, it’s the stares. That’s me! It’s not the work; it’s getting there that got me eventually, it just got me. So it was the last couple of tours I kept saying, ‘I think this is it.’ And then it wasn’t. It was so exciting: another album, another reason to go on the road, another television thing. But eventually, it just got me, finally.

“It’s the end of the road — but it’s not the end.”

Verve Label Group

The consummate performer gets to spend more time with husband Kief at home in Palm Springs these days.

“The reason I chose Palm Springs: My life is so filled with noise — great noise and the noise of airports and streets and going in and out of concert halls and music and applause,” he says. “I needed to be able to come home to a place where it was peaceful. It’s peaceful here. It is the absolute opposite of what my 45-year career has been.”

Martin Schoeller

That doesn’t mean Manilow is retiring, though: “I tried it. I was so bored, I was driving myself crazy,” he says.

Sure enough, the legend is keeping busy making new music, as This Is My Town drops later this month.

  • For more on Barry Manilow and his life, love and legacy, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.

“There’s always the next thing,” he says. “A lot of the people that I started out with are not making albums. There are still record companies that are interested in me and audiences that are still interested in what I have to say. I’m just one of the lucky guys that are able to keep going.

“I’ll keep going until they stop me!”