Music icon Barry Manilow

Veteran entertainer reflects on his career success and demonstrates why he’s ranked as the top Adult Contemporary chart artist of all time by performing “Bring on Tomorrow” from his new CD, “15 Minutes”—his first original album in 10 years.

One of the top ranking Adult Contemporary chart artists of all time, Barry Manilow has worked on more than 40 albums as a singer, songwriter, arranger and producer. He attended Julliard while still in his teens and also worked in CBS' mailroom, supporting himself as a jingle writer—which became a lucrative parallel career. He later teamed with Bette Midler before the hit song "Mandy" made him an instant star. The busy Songwriters Hall of Famer and Grammy, Tony and Emmy winner is also founder of a project that highlights the importance of music programs in schools.


Tavis: What an honor to have Barry Manilow and his piano on this set tonight. It is hard to believe that we have not seen a project of new music from this iconic artist in 10 years now, but that’s all about to change next week with the release of “15 Minutes.” Barry Manilow, it’s an honor, sir, to have you on this program.

Barry Manilow: And I’ve been looking forward to this, Tavis. We did a radio interview a while ago and it was one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever had. So I’ve been looking forward to doing this too, Tavis.

Tavis: Well, I enjoyed it immensely.

Manilow: Thank you.

Tavis: And I must say, 20 years I’ve been in the broadcast business, eight years on PBS, and in my entire career I’ve never had the honor of sitting with an artist for an entire conversation at the piano.

Manilow: Oh, really?

Tavis: First time ever.

Manilow: Oh, see, well, it works.

(Barry Manilow continues to plays the piano as background musical accompaniment throughout the interview.)

Tavis: So, go, play something.

Manilow: And it works.

Tavis: Yeah, play anything, go. (Laughter)

Manilow: You know, you were talking about this Yamaha thing?

Tavis: Yeah.

Manilow: I’m probably getting in trouble.

Tavis: No, please.

Manilow: But my first piano that I bought after I did the McDonald’s jingle years ago in my apartment, and I had a studio apartment on 27th street in Manhattan. I just insisted that I would get a Steinway piano when I finally got some money. So I got this Steinway piano when I was in the studio apartment.

So they rolled (laughter) this Steinway piano, and it was so huge, and I slept on a couch that – you know, a convertible couch, and I slept under the (laughs) – when I rolled out the bed it went under the Steinway piano (laughter) and I was very happy every night sleeping under the Steinway piano.

Tavis: You must really love your music, to sleep under your piano.

Manilow: I had to. (Laughs)

Tavis: You mentioned the McDonald’s jingle. You have had so many jingles over your career.

Manilow: Yeah, many people don’t remember the jingles, but they remember – well, they still air the (plays song, singing). Whenever you’re driving and wherever you’re bound, like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. It’s still there, that $500.

Tavis: Yeah – what?

Manilow: Five hundred dollars.

Tavis: (Laughs) Wait, wait, wait –

Manilow: Five hundred dollars.

Tavis: You wrote the State Farm jingle –

Manilow: They buy you out.

Tavis: You got $500 and they’re still airing it –

Manilow: Five hundred dollars, yeah. Who knew they were going to be airing this thing 30 years later? The same thing happened with (plays song, singing) I am stuck on a Band-Aid, and the Band-Aid’s – $500. (Laughter) But I was happy to get it in those days. I was a struggling musician.

Tavis: This is a silly question – what is the process for writing a jingle? So they come to you and say, “Here’s the product.” How does that work?

Manilow: They give you the lyric. They wrote the lyric and they say it’s supposed to be romantic, or they want an anthemic melody and all, and you have to write the catchiest melody in 15 seconds of all the other guys that are going up for it. Otherwise, you don’t get it. And so you give them, (plays song, singing) State Farm is there. And they went, oh, okay, what’s the rest of it?

Then you play the rest of it, and if they like the rest of it, they buy it. Because everybody’s – well, in those days, at least there were a lot of anthemic, melodic commercials. These days, they don’t do that.

Tavis: To your point now, whatever happened to melody in music? I don’t hear a lot of it these days.

Manilow: Drum machines. Drum machines happened. I mean it. I’m on the square, kidding around on the square. The drum machines took over. The rhythm – which is great. They’re making great-sounding records – great-sounding records with great grooves, but the songwriting kind of took a back seat.

Tavis: What are we missing out on when we are absent of melody in our lives?

Manilow: Feelings. We miss feelings, I think. The melody seems to have gone to the country. The country music seems to still have melody and interesting lyrics. But pop music, you’ve got to really listen hard to somebody who’s doing a good melody and a good lyric. The rest of it is – I’m not putting it down, but I wish there was a little bit more of a classic songwriting – A, A, B, A, coda, fade. I don’t hear that anymore.

Tavis: The audience knows that I ask this question of every artist whose songwriting I respect, at least. I ask this same question, I’ve asked it countless times over these 20 years. What, for Barry Manilow, makes a great song?

Manilow: Well, you would think that I would say a good melody, but I always answer a good lyric. Because as a performer when it gets down to it, I have to crawl into the story of the lyric, and if I get a turkey of a lyric I can’t – I do it, but I can’t really do it as well as if the lyric is really written well.

And the same thing as a composer. I put the lyric of the lyricist on the piano, and if it’s a beautiful lyric I can write a great song. If it’s kind of a simple, badly rhymed, then I’m in trouble.

So it’s a good lyric. My answer is a good lyric.

Tavis: Have you figured out after all these years – I assume you have; maybe you haven’t – have you figured out what makes for a great match between a song and the voice, the song stylings of Barry Manilow? So when you see something, when you hear something, do you immediately know? Does it take you a while to figure out? Is there a process for knowing that this song will work for Barry Manilow? Barry Manilow can rock this.

Manilow: Yeah. I think if I write – most of the time, I want to write them. I’ve recorded a lot of songs that I didn’t write, and I have to work it. Even (plays song, singing) Oh, Mandy, well, you came and you gave without taking, that’s not the demo that they showed me. What they showed me was (plays song, singing) Oh, Mandy, with different chords, with different – and I went, “Wow, is that for me? Really?”

So I studied it. I put the music in front of the piano and there was a beautiful song hiding in the middle of all those guitars. There was a beautiful song, and I made it more beautiful than that demo and I think the public liked that version of it.

Tavis: That’s an understatement.

Manilow: Yeah, it started –

Tavis: “Mandy’s” one of your biggest hits ever.

Manilow: It did, it started this whole trip for me. It started this whole thing off for me.

Tavis: To your point about “Mandy” starting this whole journey, this whole trip for you, what do you make when you hear your stuff on radio these days, or do you not hear enough Barry Manilow on the radio these days?

Manilow: Oh, well, I don’t know. Well, sure, it’d be nice to hear more of it, but I like it, I do. There aren’t very many records that I’ve made that I regret. I hear a lot of people say, “Oh, I wish I could go back and do this.” Sure, I’ve got little moments in various songs that I wish I can go back and fix it, but I think these records that I made are pretty great. I do. I think they’re pretty great. “Weekend in New England,” I think it’s a beautiful song.

It was odd that that was a hit, because it’s a waltz, it’s in three-quarter time, right, and it never mentions the title in the song. But I think we made a really good pop record out of it and it fit perfectly on the radio. Isn’t that odd?

Tavis: Yeah.

Manilow: Odd.

Tavis: You mentioned earlier that we have a conversation on radio, and indeed we did, and it’s one of the great conversations of my career on radio. I so – and there was no piano in the room, even, and I still loved talking to you.

One of the things I raised in that conversation on radio which I want to reprise now was my own statement to you about how much I’ve appreciated your music over the years, specifically – I’m a kid growing up in Indiana, so I’m listening to Barry Manilow.

This is Cole Porter, this is Indiana, so I have a great appreciation for Cole Porter, for Barry Manilow. The songs that have always meant the most to me in your songbook are the songs that are inspirational, the songs that inspire people.

I’m thinking now about “I Made It Through the Rain.”

Manilow: That’s right.

Tavis: Talking about the songs that you’ve written that you’ve recorded that are all about inspiring, motivating, uplifting people.

Manilow: It’s my favorite thing. My favorite word is “hope,” and I try to find songs that will make you – I said before, I make you feel better. You can’t believe the letters that I get. Sure, “Copacabana” is fun and it’s great, but the letters I get are all about what you just said.

Tavis: “Ready to Take a Chance Again.”

Manilow: Yeah, it’s all about people feeling better when they walk out of the hours after hearing (plays song, singing), Daybreak, if you want to believe, it can be daybreak. It makes me feel better.

I did a song called “Turn the Radio Up” on my “Here at the Mayflower” album, and it was about hey, don’t be so profound. Turn the radio up. Those are the songs that I like writing and I like listening to myself – songs like that. You know, (singing) Forget your troubles, come on, get happy. Harold Darling did a great job on that one. It makes me feel better.

Tavis: Why 10 years for a project of new music?

Manilow: Well, I had a really great run over the last, what’s it been, eight years, with these cover albums. It was Clive Davis, a brilliant idea to do the first one, which is “The Greatest Songs of the ’50s,” and it entered at number one. I really loved doing it. It was wonderful songs. As an arranger, I loved doing that and producing it.

I thought that was going to be it, but since it entered at number one, we did “The Greatest Songs of the ’60s.” It just kept going until last year, when we did the “Greatest Love Songs of All Time” and I got a Grammy nomination.

But I did miss writing songs. I did. I love doing these songs. Doing Gershwin, hey, I’m in. But I missed writing, so that’s what “15 Minutes,” since that’s what happened. I jumped in as soon as I could, writing my own album.

Tavis: Of course, you can’t mention “15 Minutes” without mentioning Andy Warhol.

Manilow: Yeah. Well, the album is about fame, and what could happen to people once they become famous. I took the title from the Andy Warhol quote, “In the future,” he said, “everybody will get 15 minutes of fame,” and I think he’s right these days, especially with these reality shows happening. These regular people become household names within weeks, and I say to myself, “How are they handling it?”

“Mandy” came out and threw me for a loop, and I was an adult. How are these young people handling it? So I thought, well, that might be an interesting thing to write about.

Tavis: And yet all these years later one of those reality shows called you in for a cameo – namely, “American Idol,” and a whole new generation got exposed to Barry Manilow. What’d you make of that moment?

Manilow: Yeah, yeah. Well, I did three “American Idols.” I did two where I worked with the kids and then one where they gave me a whole hour to talk to about 90 of them that were just going on the air.

I really loved it, and they were like sponges. The ones that I worked with that were going on the air, the first and second ones, they did my songs, and I asked them a lot of questions that they had never been asked before. I think it helped, because when they finally did the songs I think they were better.

They really are looking for somebody to give them a hand, because they haven’t paid their dues. These young people have not worked in bars and they haven’t worked in theater. They just sing well, and suddenly they’re on the air singing a song and they really – if they win, they’re good, because they really work hard on this show.

Tavis: Since the rest of America wasn’t privy to your conversation with these artists in a private setting, when people do get a chance to have access to Barry Manilow, how introspective with them are you being? In other words, what are you sharing with them that might help them along the way as they advance their careers?

Manilow: Well, one of the girls wanted to sing “I Made It Through the Rain,” your favorite.

Tavis: I love it.

Manilow: So I said, “Who are you singing it to?” and she said, “The audience.” I said, “No, no, no, no – who in your mind are you singing this song? Because I will arrange your song differently for every – no matter who you sing – if you’re singing it to your friend, if you imagine your friend out there, I will give you, (plays song, singing) I made it through the rain.

Tavis: (Singing) Kept my world protected. I made it through the rain.

Manilow: (Singing) – protected, I made it through the rain. Okay, that’s an arrangement. If you’re singing to your grandmother, then I would do a more – more of an emotional. If you’re singing it to God, a thank you to God I made it through the rain, well, then I would give you an anthemic arrangement.

So she said, “Okay, I’m singing it to God.” Well, I gave her this big, anthemic arrangement and she began to sing it differently. And she looked there, instead of singing it to the audience, she looked up, to – she performed it beautifully.

Those are the kinds of questions a singer has to ask themselves, and those are the kinds of things that nobody does.

Tavis: What are these lyric come to – where does this stuff come from? When I think of lyrics like “We dreamers have our ways of facing rainy days and somehow, we survive. We keep the feeling warm, protect them from the storm.” Where does this stuff come from?

Manilow: Look at you, singing the song.

Tavis: No, I just love it, I love this stuff.

Manilow: Well, I work with some really great lyricists, too. I wrote “One Voice,” I wrote a batch of songs by myself, but most of the time I collaborate with some great, great lyricists. But before we do anything, we collaborate. We say what – that’s the hardest part of writing a song – what is the song going to be about? What are we going to write about?

That’s the bloodletting. That’s the part where everybody struggles. Once we get the idea we’re going to write a song called “This One’s for You,” it’s easy to write it. It’s easy to write it, but it’s – the hard part is what are we going to write. Then writing it is kind of fun.

Tavis: Back to this CD. The cover says, “Barry Manilow, 15 Minutes – Fame, Can You Take it?” How do you think you have taken – how have you handled fame, in your own assessment?

Manilow: I think I did pretty well, but there was this one moment, I’m not sure we talked about it, but there was this one moment about four years into – after “Mandy” hit, where I didn’t like myself. I didn’t like how I was treating people. I was in Florida and I was outside in a rocking chair, looking up at the stars, and I realized that everybody in the house, they were all on my payroll.

It was the driver and the cook and my assistant and my manager and my agent. I said, “Where did I go? Where’d my friends go? Where’d I go?” Nobody had been in touch with me. I was on the road, they didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know where they were.

I had to make a decision there, right then – do I want this life, with a bunch of strangers telling me how great I am, or do I want to be the guy that I started off being? I made that other choice. If I were to advise anybody about it, I would say make sure you’re surrounded by your family and your old friends, not your new friends – your old friends, who will look at you and say, “What are you saying? That’s not you.”

That was really important to me. It was really important. From then on in, I think I got back to being Barry. If you ask the people that work with me, I don’t think they’re working with a huge super-mega-sex god. (Laughter)

Tavis: But you raise a fascinating question, for me, at least, which is how do you, especially in today’s world, when everybody wants their 15 minutes of fame and it’s all about being fabulous, or at least acting like you are –

Manilow: Well, that’s dangerous. That’s dangerous.

Tavis: How do you not let this kind of fame that you’ve experienced go to your head?

Manilow: I stay glued to my piano and my work. I don’t look up. I write, I produce, I do the next project, I do my job. I don’t look up, and I try to be kind. I try to be kind to people. That’s what I do.

Tavis: Tell me about the music on “15 Minutes.”

Manilow: Well, it’s different for me. On one hand, it hearkens back to the kind of albums that I made in the beginning before I did these cover albums. They’re lovely melodies and they’ve got a lot of energy to them.

But on the other hand, it’s a little more energetic than anything I’ve ever done. I imagine this “15 Minutes” story being about a young guy who wanted fame, who wanted to get his music out there, and that young guy, I thought, would be a guitar player. He wouldn’t be a piano player like me.

So I wrote a batch of songs that would be guitar-driven, but the problem was I don’t play guitar. (Laughter) So it was difficult to write this without playing guitar, so I wrote it on the piano and hoped that I was being true to what a guitar player would play.

Then I got into the recording studio and it took a long time to record this, trying to get the guitar players to play what I was hearing.

Tavis: But every album for you doesn’t have to be, has not been, in fact, a concept album.

Manilow: No, no, this is one of the very, very few. I just thought – I wanted to write more than 12 lovely songs. I don’t think the public would be interested in that. I needed to go a little further, so I made up a little story.

Tavis: How does one, no matter how much success one achieves, at some point it does level off.

Manilow: Yeah. Well, no, it’s a roller coaster.

Tavis: A roller coaster.

Manilow: It goes like that.

Tavis: I like that better – so it doesn’t even level off, it’s a roller coaster. So how does Barry Manilow handle this part of the roller coaster ride?

Manilow: I don’t look up. Sometimes the music, I throw it out there, sometimes it sticks to the wall, sometimes it falls down. I’ve never, ever thought about hit records. Clive and the record company, that’s all they did. They think – he would call me and say, “It’s not working.”

When it comes to me, I just write the most beautiful music I can, I do the best work I can, and then I hand it out there. Now, I was lucky I had Clive Davis and I had Arista Records with me continually, and they were my commercial ears. They would guide me along. No, don’t do this, don’t do that, do that. That’s why I had hit records. Yeah, I wrote my own stuff, but Clive didn’t even like “Copacabana,” so I was right on that one. (Laughter)

Tavis: He was on this program, though, just a few months ago.

Manilow: Yeah, he’s great.

Tavis: He had some wonderful things to say about you on this program.

Manilow: Yeah, oh, he’s great. I wouldn’t have this career without Clive Davis. A lot of guys would say that.

Tavis: He said the same thing about you.

Manilow: Yeah, well, isn’t that nice? Really. Well, we started all together, we did. He created Arista Records and he found me on his desk. He had this very bad album cover picture – terrible – and he went to see me at Central Park, I was the opening act for Dionne Warwick.

I thought I was just awful, but he came backstage and he shook my hand. He said, “Welcome to Arista Records,” so he must have seen something in me that I didn’t see.

Tavis: Obviously. (Laughter) That was then, this is now. How are you enjoying the Paris run in Las Vegas?

Manilow: Oh, I’m crazy about it. I was very grateful when I got that, because I was going to stop. I couldn’t bear the road anymore. I’m sure that a lot of people who have been on the road a long time will say the same thing. After a while, waiting for bedroom service and planes – I wanted to go home.

So I said, “I’m done,” and then I got this offer to be the resident artist at the Las Vegas Hilton, and I thought, oh, God, this is where old singers go to die. (Laughter) But it turns out to be one of the great experiences I’ve ever had. I love this. I was made for a group like this, and now I’m at the Paris and it’s even better.

Tavis: Well, Vegas is like traveling around the country, except that people come to you.

Manilow: Isn’t that great?

Tavis: And they come from all around the country.

Manilow: Isn’t that great? They come to me.

Tavis: No bad room service, no planes for you.

Manilow: No, then I can go home at the end of the night. (Laughter) It’s great. But I do do one-nighters now and again, but not the tour. I can’t do the tour.

Tavis: Well, I’m glad you added this stop on your tour.

Manilow: Oh, it’s (unintelligible).

Tavis: The flight from Vegas to L.A.

Manilow: Oh, it’s great being here.

Tavis: I hope it wasn’t too inconvenient for you.

Manilow: No, it’s great being here.

Tavis: I’m glad you brought your piano with you.

Manilow: Oh, thank you.

Tavis: Because it allows me to step aside and let you do what you do so well and have done so well for so many years. I am honored – I mean this – in 20 years of doing this, I’ve never sat for a conversation with someone at their piano, so I’m just delighted to have you here.

Manilow: Great, great. I’m glad to be here.

Tavis: The new project from Barry Manilow is called “15 Minutes: Fame, Can You Take It?” A wonderful concept album of 16 wonderful tracks. Barry, great to have you on.

Manilow: Thanks, Tavis.

Tavis: So, up next, a song from Barry Manilow on his Yamaha piano. The song is called, “Bring on Tomorrow.” Enjoy.

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Last modified: July 25, 2011 at 12:32 pm