Where Barry Manilow is concerned, it’s best to let the facts speak for themselves. A Grammy, Emmy and Tony Award winner, Manilow scored his first Billboard No. 1 album in 1977, his most recent in 2006. His string of hit singles extended from 1974’s chart-topping “Mandy” to 1983’s Top 20 “Read ‘Em and Weep,” with 38 songs hitting the Top 40. He’s recorded over 25 studio albums and released countless more live discs, compilations and soundtracks, and regularly plays to sell-out houses after over 35 years of live performing. Just in time for Mother’s Day, Back Tracks looks at the core recordings of one of Brooklyn’s favorite sons, Barry Manilow.
Rolling Stone called him “the showman of our generation” and Frank Sinatra proclaimed as “next” in line for the chairman’s title. Yet his music has been used to drive teenagers off the streets (or worse) and is often dismissed as corn or schmaltz by some members of the music press. Why the great divide? The great songwriter Irving Berlin is believed to have once said, “There’s an element of truth in any idea that lasts long enough to be called corny.” And for nearly 40 years now, Barry Manilow has rarely strayed from his chosen path of recording lush, unabashedly romantic music filled with optimism and hope. These are clearly truths for Manilow, and if that makes his music “corny,” perhaps the term is a compliment. Many diverse influences created the Barry Manilow sound known to the world today, and all of those influences – jazz, classical, Tin Pan Alley, Motown, the Broadway musical, Brill Building rock and roll – are most evident on his earliest recordings as he honed his familiar production and vocal style. Read on after the jump…
Barry Manilow – reissued as Barry Manilow I (Bell, 1973/Arista, 1975 – reissued Legacy, 2006)
By the time of the release of his first, self-titled album, Barry Manilow was probably best known as Bette Midler’s former accompanist/musical director, and as the composer of a number of commercial jingles. A jobbing New York songwriter, Manilow had also recorded a few scattered singles with little success, including one produced by Tony Orlando under the name Featherbed. One side of that single, “Could It Be Magic,” would be the centerpiece of his debut album, rearranged from bubblegum pop to majestic opus. The song, based on a Chopin prelude, was roughly seven minutes of orchestral grandeur that sounded like nothing else on the album. Barry Manilow tipped its hat to glam with the heavy guitar riffs of “Flashy Lady,” offered Leon Russell-style piano rock on “Oh My Lady,” jazz vocalizing on a cover of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross’ “Cloudburst,” and looked forward to Manilow’s balladeering on the understated “One of These Days.” Clearly the eclectic nature of the album kept it from making much of a chart impression, but that all changed after the release of Manilow’s next album and a little single called “Mandy.” A reissue in 1975 was propelled by the success of a slightly re-recorded “Could It Be Magic” which hit No. 6 on the pop charts (perfectionist Manilow tweaked a few of the album’s cuts), sending the album to a No. 28 peak. The album in its original form has never been reissued on CD, but Legacy’s 2006 edition reinstates the original cover art, adds a single new to CD and three unreleased tracks including the affecting “Star Children” which recalls one of Manilow’s heroes, Laura Nyro. Her style would play an important role in the development of his own. The Featherbed single of “Could It Be Magic” can be found on the 1992 (not-quite-truthfully titled) Arista box set The Complete Collection… and Then Some.
Barry Manilow II (Arista, 1974 – reissued Legacy, 2006)
Manilow’s 1974 follow-up, simply titled Barry Manilow II, followed the eclectic formula of the first disc, but was a much more polished affair than its predecessor. Starting off with the funky “I Want To Be Somebody’s Baby,” other highlights include the artist’s channeling Burt Bacharach in a team-up with Bacharach’s partner Hal David on the sophisticated “Early Morning Strangers,” another jazz riff with “Avenue C,” the moving character study “Sandra” and a terrific Martha and The Vandellas cover, “My Baby Loves Me.” Manilow may never have sang as forcefully as he does on this album, which rocketed up the charts thanks to the presence of No. 1 single “Mandy” and its follow-up, “It’s a Miracle.” Manilow and his co-producer Ron Dante (formerly of the Archies) had coined their signature sound, a combination of Broadway songwriting standards with often-driving pop rock. (Later years would see Manilow relegate the rhythmic thrust of his 1970s albums to the back seat as he emphasized balladry.) Legacy’s reissue adds two tracks unreleased at the time to the lineup, including one of my personal Manilow favorites: the affecting “Halfway Over the Hill,” in which Manilow expresses in song the frustration of a young songwriter trying to make it big. The first take of “Mandy” as well as Scott English’s original recording (titled “Brandy”) are both included on the box set. Nothing would be the same after this album.
Tryin’ to Get the Feeling (Arista, 1975 – reissued Legacy, 2006)
Perhaps the most cohesive album of the Manilow/Dante hitmaking era, this LP boasted two huge hits. Neither song was written by Manilow, but only in the arrangement he crafted did each song soar: David Pomeranz’ title track, and Bruce Johnston’s “I Write the Songs.” Manilow virtually invents the power ballad with the former (if you don’t believe me, listen to Pomeranz’ original, and then Manilow’s version) and goes for broke with the no-holds-barred grandeur of the latter. In between are more mid-tempo soft rock offerings like “Why Don’t We Live Together,” the 1940s homage “Bandstand Boogie” and two longtime favorites penned by Manilow and Marty Panzer: “New York City Rhythm” and “Beautiful Music.” The expanded edition adds two tracks including Manilow’s terrific take on Stephen Sondheim’s “Marry Me a Little,” cut from the musical Company and then from this album. An alternate take of the title song (with one of Pomeranz’ original verses) can be found on The Complete Collection.
This One’s for You (Arista, 1976 – reissued Legacy, 2006)
The Manilow/Dante hit machine shows no signs yet of slowing down, with this album spawning no less than four Top 30 hits: the optimistic “Daybreak,” the intensely personal “This One’s for You,” the wistful “Looks Like We Made It” and another cover so totally rearranged it felt like an original, Randy Edelman’s “Weekend in New England.” It wouldn’t be a Manilow album without a retro throwback, so here he offers “Jump Shout Boogie.” He writes in a confessional vein on “All the Time,” and largely unknown album track “See the Show Again” would be adopted in concert by Frank Sinatra (though the Chairman never recorded it). Legacy’s CD reissue adds four demos and incomplete tracks intended for the album; one meant originally for the amusement of Manilow’s friends is the slightly scathing “I Really Do Write the Songs,” in which he humorously addresses the irony of his not having written that famous tune. The Complete Collection box set features a duet with Melissa Manchester intended for this album, “My Girl/No One in the World,” along with a demo of the title song.
Barry Manilow Live! (Arista, 1977 – reissued Legacy, 2006)
The first No. 1 album of Manilow’s career was this two-disc extravaganza, accurately both the campy excess and impeccable musicianship of Manilow’s live show. One highlight is the “V.S.M. (Very Strange Medley)” in which he shows off some of his more famous jingles. The deluxe Legacy Edition adds a number of songs that were cut from the original LP and presents extended versions of other tracks. A live outtake of “I Want to Be Somebody’s Baby” oddly wasn’t included on this otherwise-definitive edition, but can be heard on the 1992 box set.
Foul Play – Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Arista, 1978 – reissued Intrada, 2009)
Writer/director Colin Higgins’ 1978 Foul Play was a unique film. While referencing the suspense classics of Alfred Hitchcock, it united two of the day’s top stars, Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase, in an adventure that was alternately madcap and thrilling. Chosen to score the film was Charles Fox, with whom producers Edward Milkis and Thomas Miller had worked on smash sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Fox pulled off the rare success of composing a dramatic score (often in the style of 1950s film noir) and spinning off a hit single from that score. The single was “Ready to Take a Chance Again,” and the artist/arranger/co-producer (with Ron Dante) was Barry Manilow. Fox utilizes the “Ready” melody throughout the score, most notably as the central love theme. Intrada’s CD debut in 2009 gave listeners the chance to hear not only the familiar song, but the end title which also utilizes Manilow’s vocals. “Copacabana” is also present on the soundtrack, heard during a sequence in which Goldie Hawn encounters Dudley Moore’s lecherous opera conductor. Fox complements “Copa” with his own “Foul Play (Disco)” cue. Intrada’s reissue is typically terrific, and Foul Play is highly recommended not only to film score buffs, but to those adventurous Manilow fans looking to hear an old favorite in a different context.
Even Now (Arista, 1978 – reissued Legacy, 2006)
Another four hits emerged from this well-crafted pop album, hot on the heels of Manilow’s “Ready to Take a Chance Again,” from the soundtrack to Foul Play. Even Now boasted arguably the biggest hit of his career with “Copacabana (At the Copa)” but the title song, “Somewhere in the Night” and “Can’t Smile Without You” were all ubiquitous, too. “Somewhere…” even features great electric piano by none other than David Letterman’s future bandleader, Paul Shaffer. “Leavin’ in the Morning” and “A Linda Song” are 2 favorite album tracks. If Manilow and Dante were coming to the end of their road together, there were no signs yet. Two outtakes were added for Legacy’s CD reissue, and the first take of “Can’t Smile” is present on the box set.
One Voice (Arista, 1979 – released Legacy, 2006)
The penultimate Manilow/Dante production, One Voice finds Manilow reaching in various musical directions as tastes in pop music began to shift. The title song is the ultimate expression of his love of multi-tracking vocals, but far from being a stylistic cousin to “Cloudburst” or “Avenue C,” “One Voice” is a big, over-the-top production that would make Phil Spector or Brian Wilson proud. He had an unlikely hit in a cover version of a 1942 Jule Styne/Frank Loesser composition, “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” and proved his knack for covers with a surprisingly touching “Ships” written by Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter. He touches on his early, raw work with the story of a hustler, “Bobbie Lee,” and closes the album with a downbeat, introspective look at divorce, “Sunday Father.” Four tracks were added for the 2006 CD reissue.
Barry (Arista, 1980)
The final Ron Dante collaboration has strangely remained unreleased on CD in America. His final Top 10 pop hit, “I Made It Through the Rain,” was as strong a statement as Manilow ever made, one of resilience in the face of rejection. Other cuts seemed to indicate musical restlessness. “The Last Duet” is a goofy duet with Lily Tomlin that makes “Copacabana” look subtle. “We Still Have Time” is a big movie theme (from the film Tribute) that couldn’t replicate the success of “Ready to Take a Chance Again” despite its strong melody and lyric. There’s a bit of a travelogue with “Only in Chicago” and “London” as well as the humorous “Bermuda Triangle.” Richard Kerr, co-writer of “Mandy,” contributes “Life Will Go On.” Despite its sometimes-uneasy mixture of songs, Barry deserves the expanded reissue treatment. A number of session outtakes streamed on Barrynet.com‘s infrequently-updated “Songs from the Vault” area, which appears to have taken an indefinite hiatus from the site’s features.
If I Should Love Again (Arista, 1981 – reissued 1998)
Flying solo as producer, Manilow spun off three Top 40 hits from this disc which finds him veering off into a more distinctly Adult Contemporary direction. Tom Snow and Cynthia Weil’s “Somewhere Down the Road” is a kind of farewell song that Manilow’s patented modulation builds into epic proportions. “The Old Songs” is a wistful look back by “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling” composer David Pomeranz, and “Let’s Hang On” brings a 1980s vibe to the Four Seasons classic. The other songs have a definite romantic leaning; as Manilow writes in his liner notes to Arista’s 1998 CD (which adds one unreleased song, “You’re Runnin’ Too Hard”), “After the last song [of this album], you had to have a cigarette.” For further listening, see the box set for alternate takes of “The Old Songs” and the title track as well as a demo of “Somewhere Down the Road.”
Here Comes the Night (Arista, 1982)
Barry indulges his passion for Broadway here with one of the first recordings of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” from Cats, and managed to scrape the Top 40 with it. The up-tempo “Some Kind of Friend” also made a respectable showing at No. 26, and another standard is remade with “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter.” Despite the success of non-LP single “Read ‘Em and Weep,” penned and produced by Jim Steinman and featuring Elton John’s band, Manilow was clearly in search of reinvigoration. His next album would reflect his unease with the synthetic sound of the new decade. Here Comes the Night (released with different track lineups in the US, UK and Japan) remains unavailable on American CD.
2:00 a.m. Paradise Café (Arista, 1984 – reissued 1996)
Probably the last thing anybody expected from Barry Manilow in 1984 was a pure jazz album, but that’s exactly what he delivered. Writing melodies to original lyrics by longtime collaborators like Marty Panzer, Adrienne Anderson, Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman, he duets with Mel Torme and Sarah Vaughan, and brings acclaimed instrumentalists like Gerry Mulligan into the fold. The standout track of this classy first genre excursion is “When October Goes,” which Manilow set to an unpublished Johnny Mercer lyric and has since become a cabaret staple. In the liner notes to the 1996 CD remaster, Manilow says “this is the one [album] I’d like to be remembered for.” He would also jump ship from Arista after this album, which is still awaiting the expanded treatment.
Part 2 will pick up with 1985’s RCA album Manilow and take us to the present day…stay tuned!