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Barry Manilow reflects on writing songs — and making the whole world sing

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Barry Manilow is one of the most successful pop performers of the '70s and early '80s. He had 25 Top 40 hits between 1974 and '83, including "Mandy," "I Write The Songs," "Trying To Get The Feeling Again," "Looks Like We Made It," "Can't Smile Without You," "Copacabana" and "I Made It Through The Rain." Now, at the age of 80, he's got a musical on Broadway titled "Harmony." Manilow wrote the music and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman, the lyrics. It's based on the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, an all-male group who were international stars in Germany before World War II, but the group was banned by the Nazis. Here's a bit of the title song from the musical.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARMONY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Harmony. Did we have harmony? But that's just about all we had. Suddenly a little harmony and the poverty's not so bad. Thin, we were, poor as sin in Berlin, we were. Patches on our pants. Mercifully, when you're in harmony, you're in a trance. Others went marching. Not us, we'd dance. Oi.

DAVIES: Before Manilow started writing and singing pop songs he wrote commercial jingles, and he was Bette Midler's first music director. He stopped recording his own songs in the '80s, but he continued performing, and in September, he broke Elvis' record of performances in Las Vegas. When Terry spoke with Barry Manilow in 2002, he had a new album of original songs titled "Here At The Mayflower," and he had released "Ultimate Manilow," the best-of compilation. Let's begin with one of his hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN’T SMILE WITHOUT YOU")

BARRY MANILOW: (Singing) You know I can't smile without you. I can't smile without you. I can't laugh, and I can't sing. I'm finding it hard to do anything. You see, I feel sad when you're sad. I feel...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: When I picked up your "Ultimate Manilow" record, the greatest hits record, I looked at the songs on the back, and I thought, well, I know that. I know that one. Don't know this one. Don't know this one. But when I played it, I realized that I knew the ones that I didn't think I knew. I just didn't remember them by title.

MANILOW: Oh, I have insinuated my little self into your brains over the last 20 years.

GROSS: Well, but that's the thing. I mean, you know, that your songs were everywhere. I mean...

MANILOW: They were everywhere.

GROSS: ...They were on the radio, they were on TV, they were in...

MANILOW: They were.

GROSS: ...Stores and probably in elevators. I mean, they were just...

MANILOW: Oh, I'm sure...

GROSS: ...All over.

MANILOW: ...They were in elevators.

(LAUGHTER)

MANILOW: I'm sure they were in elevators, yes.

GROSS: Well...

MANILOW: No, it's true. And, you know, I hadn't even listened to these records. You know, I sing them nightly, but they're not, you know, they don't sound exactly like the old records did. And I actually was - somebody was playing it, and I actually listened to it, and they all sound pretty good. I mean, you know, "Weekend In New England" sounds pretty good even, you know, all these years later.

GROSS: What are some of the most unusual places you've heard your songs?

MANILOW: Some of the - that's a great question. Some of the most unusual places. Well, you know, well, I must say that, you know, I have heard it in restaurants and - unusual places? I don't know, you know, in big stadiums - sometimes they do it in big stadiums and of course in, you know, boutiques and the, you know, karaoke bars. That was pretty awful, I must say that...

GROSS: Well, tell me a karaoke story.

MANILOW: ...Was - it was some very bad singer trying to do "I Write The Songs." It was really - I had to leave.

GROSS: Well, what were you doing there in the first place? Why were you in a...

MANILOW: I didn't know it...

GROSS: ...Karaoke bar?

MANILOW: ...Was a karaoke bar. It was a Mexican restaurant and then suddenly...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANILOW: ...Somebody got up and sang. I hope they didn't know that I was there.

GROSS: That's really funny. So somebody was singing - what? - "I Write The Songs," did you say?

MANILOW: "I Write The Songs." Yes. It was lovely.

GROSS: Oh.

MANILOW: Actually, the karaoke part wasn't bad, though. The track that they sing to wasn't bad.

GROSS: The funny thing about "I Write The Songs," you know, that people associate that song with you 'cause you recorded it, but you didn't write "I Write The Song."

MANILOW: I did not. And I knew it was going to get me in trouble as soon as Clive - you know, my hit record experiences all - I give the credit to Clive Davis, who was the president of Arista while I was there, and I - when I went on to Arista Records, I really knew nothing about pop music at all. My first single was "Could It Be Magic," a - you know, a song that I based on a Chopin prelude, and it came in at eight minutes long. So what did I know about pop music? So, you know, you're supposed to have a three-minute record. But when Clive started to work with me, he actually taught me the ins and outs of how to have a hit record, and he would submit songs to me so that I would arrange and produce and sing these outside pieces of material, even though I considered myself a songwriter. And "I Write The Songs," was one of the ones he gave me, and I knew I was going to get in trouble if I accepted this, because first of all, I figured everybody was going to think that I was screaming about how I write all the songs in the world. What does he think he is, Burt Bacharach?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANILOW: You know, and then, you know, I didn't write, "I Write The Songs," but Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys wrote it, and when I sang it, I knew what he was trying to get to. He was saying the spirit of music is really the creator of everything, you know, of all composers' work. And I believe that, too. I believe that when I'm writing, I have nothing to do with it. I'm just taking dictation. I loved that idea, but I didn't think anybody listening to "I Write The Songs" would really understand that. And I was right. Most people actually thought that I was singing about myself, and it didn't seem to bother anybody, either. But it's true. I didn't write, "I Write The Songs."

GROSS: Are you sorry you recorded it or...

MANILOW: Oh, no, no, no. I think - over the years, I think people really get a big pleasure out of it.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a little bit of "I Write The Songs?"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WRITE THE SONGS")

MANILOW: (Singing) I write the songs that make the whole world sing. I write the songs of love and special things. I write the songs that make the young girls cry. I write the songs. I write the songs.

GROSS: That's Barry Manilow, and it's one of his hits that's included on the new CD, "Ultimate Manilow."

You did a lot of the arranging on your songs. I mean, before you were even a singer, you were an arranger and music director. Talk a little bit about the kind of production you liked on your records, on your pop records.

MANILOW: I like emotional productions. I like to take a listener on a trip. I don't like, you know, a lot of the records that I hear are, like, one feeling. They start with a groove, and three minutes later, nothing has happened except a groove. I've never been able to do that. Some of them, I like that kind of thing, and a lot of people do it very well today. But that's not my thing. I really like for your heart to start to beat a little faster, and you're - I like to make you have goosebumps now and again. I like to convey the passion that I have for my music to you, the listener. And that's what I have always loved. And that's what I've always done with my arranging. I've always started it in - on one level and tried to take it someplace so that by the end of the song, you've gone somewhere with me.

GROSS: Now let's talk about your early musical life. Your first instrument was, I think, accordion?

MANILOW: I'm sorry.

GROSS: What happened?

MANILOW: Yeah. I'm sorry that it was the accordion.

GROSS: Oh, you're sorry that it was the accordion? Oh.

MANILOW: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Why do you have...

MANILOW: Yes...

GROSS: ...To apologize?

MANILOW: ...I'm guilty. Yes. I'm guilty. It was the accordion.

GROSS: Well, the accordion is, like, the hippest instrument now. I don't have to tell you that, you know?

MANILOW: Not when I played it.

GROSS: Not when you played it. The whole "Lady Of Spain" bit?

MANILOW: Yeah. I think every Jewish and Italian boy cannot get out of Brooklyn, N.Y., unless he learns how to play the accordion. There's a guard at the Brooklyn Bridge.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANILOW: And you have to play "Lady Of Spain" before you can go over the bridge. Everybody I knew played the accordion - badly. I happened to - you know, because I was more musical than the rest of my friends, I kind of got through "Hava Nagila" and "Lady Of Spain." And I was...

(LAUGHTER)

MANILOW: I actually entertained my relatives, you know, they just thought it was the greatest thing. It really wasn't the thing that turned my musical motor on, I can tell you. But you're right, there are people who play the accordion and actually make it sound good. I was not one of those people.

GROSS: Did you sing when you played?

MANILOW: No, I never sang. I didn't sing until I started making records. I never really thought of myself as a singer. Singing was for other people to do.

GROSS: Right.

MANILOW: Performing was for other people to do. I was - if I was going to have a career in music at all, it was going to be as a musician and that was it. No, I never sang.

DAVIES: Barry Manilow speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARRY MANILOW SONG, "DO YOU KNOW WHO'S LIVIN' NEXT DOOR?")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with Barry Manilow. He has a new musical on Broadway titled "Harmony."

GROSS: Now, you've said that your stepfather introduced you to jazz, to music that you really loved.

MANILOW: Yeah.

GROSS: Tell us about how he introduced you to the music you fell in love with.

MANILOW: Well, when my mother remarried, we, the three of us, moved into a little apartment still in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. And he brought with him a stack of records that I had never heard of before, records that were - included people, like June Christy, Chris Connor, Stan Kenton, lots of Broadway musical soundtracks - a lot of jazz, Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, some classical music.

And I'd never - you know, I had never been exposed to that kind of thing. I was raised for the first part of my life with my mother and my grandparents, who were all very musical but not in the musical world, but Willie was. And I devoured this stack of music. I memorized every note from every overture, every lick that anybody sang or played. And it was really the beginning of my musical passion for what wound up to be a career. But had he not - had I not been exposed to that at the tender age of, like, 12 or 13, I really don't think I would have gone into the music business. I wouldn't have known what to do.

GROSS: How did you ditch the accordion and start playing piano?

MANILOW: Actually, he did it. He convinced my mother to buy a spinet piano. And so we got a spinet piano in my little - our little apartment. And they pooled their money together and gave me piano lessons. And it began to - I began to love making music more so than I ever did before.

GROSS: Now was jazz playing something that you picked up by ear or something that your teacher was actually able to help you with?

MANILOW: No, it was by ear. I think jazz - you can't be taught jazz. You listen to it and then you do your own version of it. But, you know - well, for me at least, I needed to know the rules of music. I needed to know the language of music. And that's what the lessons were so handy for.

GROSS: How do you think listening to jazz during your formative years affected your songwriting style?

MANILOW: Well, you know, it always pops up. No matter where - what record I make or the song I sing, the influence of jazz and swing is always lurking somewhere underneath every song I write or perform. And on the "Here At The Mayflower" album, it's very obvious in this bebop song that I wrote called "Freddie Said." It could have come right out of the '40s, the Cab Calloway thing in the '40s. And it's an adorable song for - on "Here At The Mayflower."

GROSS: Why don't we hear it? And this is Barry Manilow from his latest CD, "Here At The Mayflower."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREDDIE SAID")

MANILOW: Going up.

(Singing) Freddie's got the dirt on everybody on the street. Don't know how he does it, but he isn't too discreet. Everybody says it always winds up being true. He's got something on everyone, maybe even you. Freddie knows. Oh, yeah. Freddie goes, oh, yeah, I got the 411 in my head. That's what Freddie said. One night, Freddie's going home...

GROSS: That's Barry Manilow, one of his new songs from his latest CD, "Here At The Mayflower." Now, you've said that when you were in college, you expected to have a pretty conventional life - get married, get a good job, live in the suburbs. What changed your mind and made you pursue music?

MANILOW: It was coming out of my ears.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANILOW: And it just wouldn't leave me alone. I tried everything not to follow this muse that would not leave me alone, you know, because coming from where I come from - you know, a four-floor, six-flight walk up where people were just struggling, you know, to make the rent every Friday. You know, that paycheck every Friday was the most important thing. That's what I learned, you know? There was really no way that anybody would take the risk and go into the biz, show biz, the music biz, you know. You just - the most important thing was security. So no matter how much I loved it - and I played in jazz bands, and I won the Best Musician award in high school and all - it never dawned on me that that was going to - I was going to make a career out of it because it just was too risky. But I just kept getting these offers to do things musically. I got a job at CBS as a log clerk. First I was a mail boy. Then I was a log clerk, when I was jotting down the times of television commercials. And I had this - you know, this regular 9-to-5 life plotted out for me. But whenever I'd play or arrange for somebody, you know, I would keep getting these offers to go further than just my 9-to-5 job. And I finally took one. And I took a chance, and I left CBS, and I never looked back.

GROSS: When you first started working professionally, I think it was in more of a supporting role, working - like, you had an act with a woman singer. I think Jeannie was her name.

MANILOW: Yes.

GROSS: And so you did some arranging for her. You were the pianist. You sang some duets with her. But it was kind of - it sounds from your book like it was a kind of supporting role. Did you see yourself as being, like, a supporting role type of character in music?

MANILOW: Well, if I saw myself at all in music - and, like I said, it was so risky. I never even dreamed about even that. But if I were to imagine myself in the music business at that time, it would have been as in a supporting role, as an arranger, as a pianist, as a producer, as a songwriter. Those were my goals. Those were my dreams. Those were my fantasies - that one day, if I ever took the risk, that's where I would wind up. And so my first professional engagement was as an accompanist for many, many singers. And Jeannie was one of them.

GROSS: Well, your most famous position in a supporting role was as Bette Midler's accompanist and music arranger. And this was in the era when she was playing at the Continental Baths, the gay steam bath in Manhattan. How did you meet Bette Midler?

MANILOW: Well, she was one of the dozens of girl and boy singers that I was accompanying. I had left CBS, and I had begun accompanying singers. And I was making a really healthy living because I'm really a good accompanist. I'm not that great a pianist, but I'm a really good accompanist. And they are always in demand in New York for auditions and people who need arranging and coaching and stuff. So before I knew it, I was coaching just about every singer that needed a pianist. I was booked, like, 12 hours a day.

And Bette must have heard of me and called me and asked if I would play a couple of weekends for her at this place called the Continental Baths. So I worked for a couple of weekends for her. I subbed for her - the piano piano player that she had. And she exploded and asked me if I would stay along with her. And I frankly didn't want to just work for one person, and she couldn't afford to, you know, really just, you know, pay me for, you know, 24 hours a day. But Bette Midler was so incredibly talented that I just could not say no. And I began to work for her exclusively.

GROSS: What was your role in her act? I mean, did you - were you just quiet at the piano, or did you participate in any of the banter or sing duets?

MANILOW: No, no, no, no. That - again, you know, I was not up to singing then. That was still - this was still before I began to sing. In the beginning, I was - I just arranged her music, put her act together, tightened it up, led her band, hired the background singers, taught them what to sing. You know, I put her whole musical - the musical part of her show together.

GROSS: Could you talk a little bit about what it was like to play to an audience in a gay steam bath?

MANILOW: Well, I only worked there for two weekends. You know, people got, you know, this unbelievable reputation that both Bette and I had, you know, about working in, you know, all the gay bathhouses of all - around the world, you know, in Iran and Paris. But it really was - I don't know how long she worked there, but I know for me it was only two weekends. And it was a nightclub situation there, although they were in towels, but it was a nightclub situation. And there was a stage and lights and a sound system, and Bette would come out and do her brilliant hour and a half, and they would freak out. And after the two weekends, she got booked at a place called the Upstairs at Downstairs, which was in Manhattan. And that was it. That was the end of my experience at the Continental Baths. But a lot of other people worked at the baths because it was - like I said, it was a really interesting nightclub situation, and the audiences were fantastic to the performers.

DAVIES: Barry Manilow speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. He and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman have a new musical on Broadway titled "Harmony." We'll hear more after a break. Later, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Poor Things." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHAPEL OF LOVE")

BETTE MIDLER: (Singing) Whoa. Spring is here, and the sky is so very blue. Whoa. Birds all sing as if they knew today's the day we'll say I do. And we'll never be lonely anymore because we're going to the chapel and we're going to get married, going to the chapel and we're going to get married. Gee, I really love you, and we're going to get married, going to the chapel of love. Bells will ring, and the sun is going to shine. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I'm going to be his. He's going to be mine. We're going to love until the end of time. And we'll never be lonely anymore because we're going to the chapel and we're going to get married, going to the chapel and we're going to get married. Gee, I really love you, and we're going to get married, going to the chapel of love.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with Barry Manilow. He was one of the biggest pop hitmakers of the '70s and early '80s. He now has a musical on Broadway titled "Harmony," based on the true story of the male singing group the Comedian Harmonists, who were banned by the Nazis. Manilow wrote the music, and his longtime collaborator Bruce Sussman, the lyrics. Before we get back to the interview, let's listen to Manilow's first big hit, "Mandy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDY")

MANILOW: (Singing) I remember all my life, raining down as cold as ice - shadows of a man, a face through a window, crying in the night. The night goes into morning, just another day. Happy people pass my way. Looking in their eyes, I see a memory. I never realized how happy you made me. Oh, Mandy. Well, you came and you gave without taking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: At what point did you think, well, I'm going to be the one by the microphone; I'm going to be the one singing; I'm going to have my own act? What led you to that point?

MANILOW: You know, I was - it felt to me - it still seems to me that I was not in charge of that until way, way into my career. It felt like I was just catching up. I was just keeping up barely because when this opportunity to sing for myself came up, I was very reluctant to pursue this. I - so, first of all - didn't believe that I had any right to be a singer. I didn't think that I had a voice. I didn't think that I had a style. I didn't think that - and frankly, it wasn't anything that I'd ever aspired to in any way.

But I got this record offer, a contract offer, because somebody had heard my demos that I had sung. I had sung my own songs, and I was trying to get other people to record them. So - but I couldn't afford other singers, so I sang them myself. And I got an offer to make a record because Bell Records thought that I - I don't know what they thought. They liked what they heard. And I was - you know, I was so interested in promoting my own songs that if that was the only way to do it, I took it. But they said that I could not - they wouldn't give me this deal unless I promised to go out and put a show together and promote it.

Well, that - I just didn't know how to do that. But I was still conducting for Bette, and I asked her if I could sing a few songs to open her second act, and in that way, I would tour to promote my album, and I would also stay a music director for her show. And she let me do it. So I would conduct her first act. Then I would open her second act with three of my songs from this new album that I had made. And then I would continue to conduct it. So that kind of worked out great.

GROSS: Wait. When you were doing demos, who - what kind of person were you hoping would record your song? Like, who were you looking at?

MANILOW: Who were the singers? Andy Williams. Who were the singers that needed - Nancy Wilson, you know, Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones. These - this was the end of the '60s, and those were the kinds of singers that were recording other people's material. But at the same time, there was the new crop of young singer-songwriters, which, little did I know, I was one of.

GROSS: Right.

MANILOW: But I didn't know that. I was still trying to come from that old Tin Pan Alley school where you wrote songs for other people to record. So I - you know, I was just writing songs that seemed like they could be recorded by other people. Little did I know that I was going to be the one that did it.

GROSS: Were you the first person to record one of your own songs?

MANILOW: Yeah. I was. I guess I was. I was the first person to record one of my own songs, if you don't want to count, State Farm is there.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Is that one of your commercials?

MANILOW: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, 'cause you wrote a lot of jingles before you made it as a performer.

MANILOW: Yeah, I did.

GROSS: Oh, so how does the whole thing go? What's the first line in that, in the State Farm is there?

MANILOW: (Singing) But like a good neighbor...

GROSS: Yeah.

MANILOW: (Singing) ...State Farm is there. Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

MANILOW: A very talented girl named Lesley Miller recorded that one after I wrote it. And then there was another one called "I Am Stuck On Band-Aids, And A Band-Aid's Stuck On Me (ph)." And it was a whole batch of little kids that recorded that. But, I mean, you know, I wouldn't consider that that was, you know, my first hit, you know?

GROSS: Well, let me back up to that. How did you start writing commercials? You know, we've got you going from Bette Midler's music director to recording demos and recording yourself. Where do the commercials fit in?

MANILOW: Well, when I was sending my demos out, a commercial agent heard some of these demos, and they thought that I was writing commercially. And they called me and said, do you want to go up for a Dodge commercial? And I said, sure. So I wrote a Dodge commercial, the melody to it, to the lyric that they gave me and because my commercial - not knowing anything - came in, like, you know, at 4 minutes or something.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANILOW: You're supposed to write for 30 seconds, you know? And - but they liked the melody. And ultimately, as we pared the whole thing down to 30 seconds, I got it. I got the first one I went up for. And then they kept calling me to write various jingles, and State Farm and Band-Aids are the ones that people still remember.

GROSS: What about...

MANILOW: And I think they're still playing them.

GROSS: What about the McDonald's have it your way? Isn't that one yours?

MANILOW: No. That - it was, "You Deserve A Break Today."

GROSS: Oh, yeah. "You Deserve A Break Today." Right. That was yours, wasn't it?

MANILOW: Right. I only sang on that one. I was part of the vocal group. I got into the commercial world while I was conducting for Bette. You see, when I started, I stopped accompanying everybody except Bette. But like I said, she couldn't afford to keep me on salary, so I was really making a handsome living doing these commercials. And so between the two of them, I was able to support myself.

GROSS: Now, what did you learn about the craft of songwriting from writing commercial jingles?

MANILOW: Well, you know, I attended the New York College of Music, and a little while I went to Juilliard. And even though that was pretty good training for my brains, the commercial world, my three years in the commercial world was really the college that I went to because I got to work with the top musicians. You know, they pay so well. You work with the top studio musicians, who taught me really how to arrange music.

You know, the oboe player would say, psst, come on over here. You see this thing? It's - you're writing it too high. I'd say, really? I'm writing it too high? Yeah. The oboe can't go up that high. So take it down an octave. This would go on and on.

I worked with great studio singers who taught me how to harmonize and how to change the timbre of my voice. I worked with these great engineers who, you know, I would stand behind, and I would see how they made it - how they made these jingles sound so hot that they would jump out of the radio. And as far as the songwriting goes, well, you're up against so many fantastic songwriters that you've got to write the catchiest melody in 30 seconds. If you don't write it - if you don't write the best one, then the other guys get it. And so for three years, I was in school. And I'll never, never forget that.

GROSS: Now, did you ever come up with a hook for a jingle and think, wait a minute, that's really a song? It's not a jingle. I'm keeping that one for myself?

MANILOW: A lot of them. But, you know, once you start to write 30-second jingles, they really don't want to be much more than 30-second jingles.

GROSS: So, like, there were ideas coming to you that you knew were just, like, 30-second ideas.

MANILOW: Yeah. They were great hooks, but every time I tried to expand them, they didn't work.

GROSS: Right. So there's no bridge to "You Deserve A Break Today" (laughter).

MANILOW: No, there's no bridge to "You Deserve" - and there's no bridge to "State Farm Is There." You know, I mean, "State Farm Is There" is such a pretty little melody, you know, that it could be a melody, but frankly, it's probably better as a commercial.

DAVIES: Barry Manilow speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON-ERIK KELLSO'S "LITTLE WHITE LIES")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with Barry Manilow. He has a new musical on Broadway titled "Harmony."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's get back to when you started performing after being more behind the scenes as a music director and writing commercial jingles. Were you self-conscious those first few times when you got up on stage and you were at the front of the stage?

MANILOW: I would say I was the geek of all time on the stage. I really didn't know what I was doing up there. I can't express how uncomfortable I was walking out on a stage, having the spotlight hit me and me having to lead the evening.

GROSS: And...

MANILOW: I...

GROSS: ...What about that experience made you so uncomfortable?

MANILOW: Well, like I say, I had never practiced for it, and I had never imagined it. I had never thought about it. All I really ever thought about was making music, not performing music. And so it was a very uncomfortable, scary experience for me. But the amazing part about that was that the audience never had trouble with it, ever. From the very first moment I hit the stage and sang my own songs, the audiences never had the kind of trouble that I was having accepting this new role.

GROSS: What did you think it took to be a good performer or entertainer that you were afraid you might not have?

MANILOW: Style, confidence, experience, not being self-conscious. Those were all the things that I, you know, that I didn't have. I was very self-conscious. I didn't know my way around a stage. I didn't know the rules of performing, you know, I didn't know what to do with my legs. I was just...

GROSS: What about your arms?

MANILOW: Or my arms. Forget about my legs. What am I going to - I mean, I would stand there, you know, and I know that I would feel like, you know, naked and vulnerable, and the audiences loved that.

GROSS: Maybe they identified with your self-consciousness.

MANILOW: Maybe they did. But whatever it was, I was very comfortable sitting at the piano singing "Could Have Been Magic," but then, you know, having to talk with them and stand up and, you know, lead a whole hour-long set, that was - it was torture. It was just torture for me. I just - I was just very uncomfortable for many, many years.

GROSS: When you were having all those Top 10 hits - this was the '70s and the '80s - now, all of us who were - who remember then know that - well, most of us were fashion victims of one sort or another during that era, particularly in the '70s...

MANILOW: Were we?

GROSS: ...There were some pretty frightening things that we all wore that we all participated in. As a performer - I think it's even worse for performers, 'cause performers have to wear more extreme versions of whatever...

MANILOW: And you're tortured with them for the rest of your life.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, here I am, bringing it up again for you. So what are some of your worst fashion memories?

MANILOW: Well, you know, I was - I - you know, I looked just like Rod Stewart and Elton John did. You know, we were all wearing - we all looked like idiots back then. You know, I got the...

GROSS: White suits. Yeah.

MANILOW: Yeah. The glitter and the, you know, bellbottoms and the platform shoes and the puka beads and I - frankly, I looked like Britney Spears back then.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANILOW: With my long, blonde hair, really. Before the boob job.

GROSS: Oh, exactly.

MANILOW: That was me.

GROSS: I was going to...

MANILOW: Right.

GROSS: ...Mention that.

MANILOW: That was me.

GROSS: David Rakoff did an interview with you in the Sunday New York Times Magazine...

MANILOW: Yeah.

GROSS: ...And you had mentioned that the Smithsonian had asked for your...

MANILOW: (Laughter).

GROSS: ..."Copacabana" jacket, which you described...

MANILOW: Really. Isn't that funny?

GROSS: Yeah. You described it as being a huge, ruffled, Desi Arnaz "Babalu" kind of thing.

MANILOW: It is. It's - I did it as a joke in 1978, and, you know, I - they - and somebody took a photo of me and, you know, from that moment on, I was sunk. I was just sunk. You know, I did it as a joke, but I think people, you know, thought that I was serious.

GROSS: Well, you said that the Smithsonian asked you for the jacket, you sent it to them, and then they sent it back to you.

MANILOW: Well, here's the - the real story is this. I just put my foot in my mouth. They asked me for the jacket. And, you know, it's such a funny jacket. It's a joke. And so when I got it, I was interviewed, and the interviewer said, it's going to the Smithsonian. I said, yeah, I always knew it was going to wind up in an institution. And the Smithsonian got so insulted they sent it back.

GROSS: Oh. Oh.

MANILOW: (Laughter).

GROSS: So where is the jacket now?

MANILOW: Oh, it lives in my offices in Los Angeles. And it's still as silly as it ever was, but now it has a little bit more meaning for me.

GROSS: Now, I have a question for you, and I know you're asked this a lot, but has it bothered you that although you've had this huge success over the years, there's also been people, you know, listeners and some critics who, like, to use the word syrupy to describe your music? And, you know, you've been the butt of jokes in some articles and other places. Is that difficult to handle? Does it bug you?

MANILOW: Now and again, it does. I'm, you know, human, so yeah, it does. I - you know, I go into self-pity for a while, and I pull the covers over my head like any human being would do, but it doesn't - it never really stopped me, mostly because I believe in what I do. I listen to these songs, you know, trying to get the feeling. And this one for you and when October goes. And I say, well, I like them. (Laughter) I think they sound great. And, you know, my band likes them and my - the audiences like them. And so I just keep going. I just keep doing what I love doing and hope that there's an audience out there for it. And I was always surprised at the critics when they felt they needed to be so mean-spirited in their opinions to somebody that they never even met. So - but I forgave them, (laughter) the little creeps...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANILOW: ...For making my life miserable all those years (laughter). But, you know, the best revenge is, like I say before - like I said before, you know, I continue to get the opportunity to make music, to make the music that I love to make. And so that's really the best revenge.

GROSS: You're on a long performance tour now. Are you still self-conscious when you're performing?

MANILOW: No, not anymore, not anymore. I am a sex god now. And I...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MANILOW: I accept it. I have accepted the fact that I am a sex God. And...

GROSS: Have women ever thrown panties at you and done that whole bit?

MANILOW: Only once, only once. And I thought maybe she was asking me to take it out to the laundry, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Where was this?

MANILOW: It was in Vegas. Where else would they do that?

GROSS: Exactly. Right.

MANILOW: So - but no, they usually throw - they don't throw very much things at me, you know, little soft teddy bears and roses and stuff. It's always very nice. No, I'm very comfortable on the stage these days, much more comfortable than I ever thought I would ever be. And it hit around, I would say, 10, 11, 12 years ago, when I finally accepted that this was not going to stop, this was not going to go away. It seemed to be getting bigger. And I had better learn how to make myself comfortable on that stage or else I was going to be a very miserable old man.

GROSS: Right (laughter).

MANILOW: And I took acting classes.

GROSS: Oh.

MANILOW: Took acting classes from a brilliant acting teacher and actress named Nina Foch. And when I started taking acting lessons, it was the first time I realized that what I was doing - there were rules for what I was doing. For those first, I'd say, 10 years, I was meandering around the stage, trying to crawl into a lyric as honestly as I could. But because I'd never thought about actions and motivations, and reasons for singing or reasons for moving on a stage, it always felt so unsafe to me, because I didn't know where I was. I didn't know why I was doing it. As soon as I began to take acting lessons, not that I'm a great actor, but I was able to learn the rules of acting. You break down a script. You don't walk unless you have a reason to walk. You don't speak unless you know who you're speaking to.

These were the rules that - I mean, I guess other performers know how to do that. I didn't. I was just going by - flying by the seat of my pants, and luckily the audiences liked it. And again, because I had the music to rely on, and I was pretty good at that, I was able to get through it. But emotionally, I was a wreck every night because I had no rules. I was out of control. As soon as I finished taking acting classes, or in the middle of it, I began to learn the rules of what you do when you're on a stage. And it was the thing that saved my life as a performer.

DAVIES: Barry Manilow recorded in 2002. His new Broadway musical, "Harmony," is based on the true story of the Comedian Harmonists, an internationally famous male singing group in Germany who were banned by the Nazis. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "Poor Things" starring Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo. This is FRESH AIR.

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