Back Tracks left Barry Manilow in 1984 after the release of his first genre-specific album, the jazz-inflected 2:00 a.m. Paradise Café. We pick up with him shifting gears in an attempt to once again court the pop market. He’s left his longtime label, Arista, and signed a new deal with RCA. This union would be a short-lived one, producing just four albums: two sets of his greatest hits as sung in Spanish and Portuguese, and the following two discs…
Manilow (RCA, 1985 – reissued Legacy, 2008)
Manilow layers on the synthesizers for a strong 1980s vibe on this mixed bag of material which was greeted by general audience indifference. Most successful is the one song that departs from the formula: the theatrical ballad “Sweet Heaven (I’m in Love Again)” from the television musical Copacabana, which remains a concert favorite today. Manilow also reached back for a Motown cover of Ashford and Simpson’s “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” duetting with his backup singer Muffy Hendrix. The Italian version of the LP offered two tracks sung in Italian, while the Japanese LP offered one sung in that tongue plus a duet with Japanese artist Hideki Saijo. The French edition offered a duet with Mireille Mathieu. Only the Mathieu duet has surfaced, on the Complete Collection box set. The other international tracks would have made for a great expanded edition, but RCA/Legacy opted to give Manilow a bare-bones remaster when they reissued the disc in 2008. (At least this reissue stopped the scarce original RCA CD from commanding exorbitant prices on eBay; it had probably become the most difficult-to-find Manilow compact disc.)
Copacabana: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack Recording (RCA, 1985)
In 1985, Barry Manilow teamed with producer Dick Clark, writer James Lipton (of Inside the Actor’s Studio fame) to craft an original television musical based on his most famous song. But one song doth not a musical make, so Manilow teamed with lyricists Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman to create a full score. He also made his acting debut as Tony, joined by Annette O’Toole (Lola), Joe Bologna (Rico) and Estelle Getty (Bella). The most successful of the new songs was “Sweet Heaven (I’m in Love Again),” reprised on the Manilow album, and a winning ballad, “Who Needs to Dream?” O’Toole does her best with “Man Wanted” and Latin pastiche “El Bravo.” The film itself is ridiculously over-the-top, and is most appreciated by those who enjoy unabashed camp. The music for the film was co-produced by Manilow and The Four Seasons’ Bob Gaudio in their only collaboration. Manilow, Sussman and Feldman would later turn the film into a full-blown stage musical, adding yet more new songs to the score. The London staging received a cast recording (First Night CAST CD42) in 1994. As with Manilow’s superior theatre score, Harmony, Copacabana has never made it to Broadway. (Side note: the television film’s rather downbeat ending – true to the original song – was amended for the stage version, which employs a framing device to find the Tony and Lola characters still happily together at the final curtain. So much for “She lost her youth and she lost her Tony, now she’s lost her mind!”) RCA’s soundtrack didn’t remain in print for long, but Manilow.com currently offers a CD issue.
For his next album, Manilow returned to his longtime home base, Clive Davis’ Arista Records. Read about it after the jump!
Swing Street (Arista, 1987 – reissued 2006)
Old label, new/old sound. Phyllis Hyman, Tom Scott, Diane Schuur, Stan Getz, Kid Creole and Gerry Mulligan were all enlisted for this belated sequel to Paradise Café, with the difference being that Swing Street would be, in Manilow’s words, “techno swing” emphasizing up-tempo big band and jazz with a modern production touch over the prior album’s smoky ballads and traditional arrangements. Manilow returns to autobiographical songwriting with “Brooklyn Blues,” while “Big Fun” and “Hey Mambo” both make a raucous, joyful noise. Arista’s 2006 reissue offered no bonus tracks, but perhaps an expanded Legacy Edition could offer a DVD of the companion CBS-TV special, Big Fun on Swing Street.
Barry Manilow (Arista, 1989)
Did the self-titling of this album indicate some kind of rebirth for the superstar? Perhaps that was the intention behind this straight pop excursion, but Barry Manilow is more notable for being the first release where Manilow wrote hardly any of the material on it, just 2 of the 11 songs. Celebrated songwriter Jimmy Webb offers “Once and for All,” while Will Jennings and Richard Kerr offer a throwback with “When the Good Times Come Again” in the mold of their “Somewhere in the Night.” Single “Keep Each Other Warm” from the pen of Andrew Hill and Peter Sinfield is a strong offering, but too many of the other tracks lacked distinction.
Because It’s Christmas (Arista, 1990)/A Christmas Gift of Love (Columbia, 2002)/In The Swing of Christmas (Arista, 2007, reissued 2009)
Manilow recorded his first album of Christmas music in 1990, and has sporadically returned to holiday perennials since. Each of his three holiday albums has a different flavor. The first offered classic songs with self-penned material like the title song and “It’s Just Another New Year’s Eve,” and his remake of the Bing Crosby/Andrews Sisters “Jingle Bells” as a duet with Expose. This disc has a late-night vibe similar to that of Paradise Café. He veered into Andy Williams territory with his 2002 A Christmas Gift of Love, emphasizing big orchestral charts of familiar chestnuts. His cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” received some holiday airplay. His final holiday album to date returned to jazz, but with radically different arrangements, accompanied by the Matt Herskowitz Trio. The 2007 Hallmark exclusive In The Swing of Christmas was reissued by Arista in 2009 with two bonus tracks: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and a rather catchy original, “Christmas is Just Around the Corner,” neither of which fit in the album’s jazz format. His adventurous style on this disc garnered him a Grammy nomination.
Showstoppers (Arista, 1991)
Manilow’s first album to feature no original material, Showstoppers was a tribute album to one of his first loves, the Broadway musical. Musical theatre vets Michael Crawford, Hinton Battle and Barbara Cook all drop by, and theatre enthusiasts will love the “Overture of Overtures” in which Manilow cleverly stitches together bits of the best overtures in the canon. Choice tracks are “But the World Goes Round” and “Never Met a Man I Didn’t Like” from, respectively, the film New York, New York and the stage show The Will Rogers Follies. Manilow apparently considered including his own patriotic anthem “Let Freedom Ring” on this album; wiser heads prevailed, but the Showstoppers session outtake can be found on the Complete Collection box set.
The Complete Collection…and Then Some (Arista, 1992)
The four-CD (plus VHS, now upgraded to DVD) box set might have been a stopgap release during a fallow period of recording for Manilow. In any event, it gave him an opportunity to review the past 20 or so years of his career, and he succeeded in assembling an “odds and ends” collection that includes many of his biggest hits in their original versions plus a copious number of outtakes, alternates, demos and live recordings. The title is misleading, as the set is far from complete. But the contents are well worth exploring for any Manilow fan, and as almost another 20 years have passed since its release, we’re long overdue for an upgrade/overhaul. Are you listening, Legacy?
Singin’ With the Big Bands (Arista, 1994)
Rather than employ modern production as on Swing Street, Manilow opts for a straight recreation of the 1930s and 1940s big band sound on this second straight tribute album. He bookends the album with two original compositions evoking the era, but the rest are straight performances of standards like “Sentimental Journey” and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” For fans of the era only.
Summer of ’78 (Arista, 1996)
This is perhaps the oddest album in Manilow’s discography to this point, and a precursor of things to come. Here we have covers of some of the most well-known songs of the 1970s. His rendition of England Dan and John Ford Coley’s “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” received some airplay, but fans wanted to know why Manilow’s original compositions had disappeared. This CD features just one, the brief title song.
Manilow Sings Sinatra (Arista, 1998)
Manilow’s lowest-charting studio album to date (No. 122) tackled the Frank Sinatra songbook, but Sinatra’s swagger didn’t come easy to the self-deprecating performer. As with Big Bands, he offered two original songs to begin and end the album. It’s all very well-arranged, as Manilow may be second to none in the field of pastiche. But there’s just no creative spark present.
Here at The Mayflower (Concord, 2001)
Here, the artist returns to top form, making this the single most essential release of his recent years. This is an all-original album of self-penned pop songs, and it seemingly energized Manilow. A concept album about the residents of a New York apartment building, Mayflower spawned two Top 30 Adult Contemporary singles including the infectious, “Daybreak”-recalling “Turn the Radio Up.” This is the CD Manilow’s fans had been waiting for, and it unfortunately stands as his last original album as of the time of this writing. There were various special editions of the album (a K-Mart exclusive, a tour edition sold at his concerts, and UK and Japanese versions) all with track variations. A definitive reissue containing all of the alternate tracks would be more than welcome.
Ultimate Manilow (Arista, 2002)
This is the album that skyrocketed Manilow back to a position of chart prominence, a 20-track collection of the man’s best to date which opened at Billboard’s No. 3. All of the big hits are here on his first-ever single disc compilation assembled for the CD era. Ultimate Manilow basically supplanted Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits, a popular 1978 collection that had received a no-frills CD release. Eighteen of Manilow’s 20 Top 40 hits between 1974 and 1981 are present here, with fan favorites “Bandstand Boogie” and “When October Goes” rounding out the set.
2Nights Live! (BMG, 2004)
Manilow’s 2004 live album remains his only release on the BMG label, by arrangement with Concord. (Other concert albums since the original Barry Manilow Live include 1982’s Live in Britain and 1990’s Live on Broadway, in addition of a number of DVDs.) 2Nights Live! found Manilow looking back on his entire career, with both Here at the Mayflower and Ultimate Manilow fresh in the audience’s collective memory. In addition, the varied setlist looks forward to Scores and back to Showstoppers and even Manilow Sings Sinatra. The 2-disc set was culled from 3 concerts at New Jersey’s PNC Bank Arts Center. Your humble writer attended 2 of the 3 shows; the final performance was a truncated affair, as Manilow had been forced to do two performances in one day (yes, a concert matinee at an outdoor amphitheatre!) due to the previous evening’s inclement weather, and was therefore vocally a bit strained. Each setlist was somewhat different, and the CD captures the best of all 3 shows.
Scores (Concord, 2004)
More original material can be heard here, but it’s not in a pop vein. Instead, Scores offers Manilow singing highlights from the two musicals he’s written: Copacabana, based on the television special, and Harmony, an entirely original piece about wartime vocal group The Comedian Harmonists. Neither show reached Broadway, but there are a number of attractive songs here, and Manilow re-records “Sweet Heaven.” In all, Scores plays like a very expensive, lushly-produced demo recording for the two shows.
The Essential Barry Manilow (Legacy, 2005)
When Sony merged with BMG (parent of Arista), one order of business was to create a Manilow volume in Sony’s popular Essentials series. Hence, The Essential Barry Manilow, expanding on Ultimate Manilow by 14 tracks, and allowing for the inclusion of that set’s most egregious omissions: “New York City Rhythm,” “Jump Shout Boogie” and “Read ‘Em and Weep.” The tracks are presented in chronological order over 2 CDs, and some single edits and mixes received their first-ever CD release here. The Essential fits the bill for both newbies and completists and is unlikely to be topped as a 2-disc overview of its subject’s long career.
The Greatest Songs… series (Arista, 2006-2008)
Clive Davis lured Manilow back to major label Arista from indie Concord with an idea to revitalize the singer’s career: record an album of 1950s standards, following in the footsteps of Davis’ other recent signing, Rod Stewart. As with Stewart, Davis’ formula worked for Manilow – and how! – on a commercial level. The Greatest Songs of the Fifties (2006) gave him his first No. 1 record since 1977’s Live, earning him a place in the books for the longest time elapsed between No. 1 albums. (Bob Dylan would subsequently best this record by one year with a “comeback” of his own, 2006’s Modern Times.) The format may have sounded fresh with this first collection, so Davis followed it a mere ten months later with The Greatest Songs of the Sixties (2006). Always an imaginative arranger, Manilow came up with a fun medley of the Association’s “Cherish” and “Windy,” duetting with the group. He brought Ron Dante back into the fold for background vocals, and brought his own stamp to no fewer than three Bacharach/David classics. This album came close to repeating the first’s phenomenal success. But he seemed to hit a creative wall with the The Greatest Songs of the Seventies (2007), in which he seemed less interested in rearranging its overly familiar radio staples to suit his strengths. Therefore the album sounds somewhat “phoned in” despite a nice reunion with his former backup singer Melissa Manchester on “You’ve Got a Friend.” Bonus tracks for the 1970s volume consisted of acoustic reworkings of his own hits from that decade, and these efforts were of varying success. (A low key “Even Now”? The original arrangement was near perfect. The salsa-flavored “Copacabana” is a bit more successful, and it’s fun to hear such a familiar song in a new take.) By the time of the The Greatest Songs of the Eighties (2008), the singer appeared exhausted. Not even a spunky “Islands in the Stream” with Reba McEntire could validate the concept. This CD, unsurprisingly, had the weakest sales of the four albums, as the audience being courted wasn’t necessarily an audience nostalgic for the 1980s. Each album had numerous non-LP bonus tracks released as singles and on international editions. A box set of all four entries could tie up these stray tracks, and add yet more: Manilow recorded much more for each volume than could be included, and he confesses to having many outtakes in the vaults including a duet with Rosie O’Donnell on “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” One wonders if any of the unreleased material would have been stronger than that which appeared on the albums. Manilow has long professed his love for Tom Waits’ work; too bad he didn’t cover a Waits track, even “Downtown Train.” Similarly, it might have been fun to hear the singer reteam with Jim Steinman on “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” or “Making Love Out of Nothing At All.”
First and Farewell (Rhino, 2006)
By the 2000s, a steady stream of Manilow concert DVDs had begun hitting the shelves, often tying in with his concerts and tours. Best of them, though, is First and Farewell, which offers one show from 1974 and one from 2004. The 1974 show is the real find, with an awkward, slightly uncomfortable Manilow testing his material before a small audience at the Carroll’s Studio rehearsal hall. It’s primitively-recorded, but memorable nonetheless for the singer/pianist’s impassioned “Oh, My Lady,” a solo spot for the Harlettes (moonlighting from Bette Midler’s employ?) on “Easy Evil” and “Armed and Extremely Dangerous,” and earnest theatrical excursions like Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow” from the musical Candide and a medley of “Hello, Dolly!” with film theme “The Shadow of Your Smile.” This special shows an young, hungry Manilow giving his all and embracing many different musical directions on the pre-“Mandy” cusp of stardom.
The First Television Specials (Rhino, 2007)
A surprising addition to the Manilow catalog was this lavish 5-DVD box set presenting his first 5 television specials in chronological order. Manilow’s first (simply titled The First Barry Manilow Special) premiered in 1977 and scored an Emmy win; it guest-stars Penny Marshall and spotlights some lesser-known songs such as “Sandra” and “Early Morning Strangers” alongside the big smashes. 1978’s The Second Barry Manilow Special had Ray Charles duetting on “It’s a Miracle” and taking on Manilow’s reflective “One of These Days”; it received no fewer than 4 Emmy nominations. Something of a tradition by this point, The Third Barry Manilow Special from 1979 also took home the Emmy gold and brought John Denver on board to duet with the star on an Everly Brothers medley. 1980’s One Voice offers a terrific segment with Dionne Warwick performing songs from the 1979 album Dionne which Manilow produced; and finally, 1988’s Big Fun on Swing Street offers guest spots by Carmen McRae, Phyllis Hyman, Diane Schuur and Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Sure, some of the sketches don’t play as well now as they did originally, but the music as presented on these specials remains vibrant.
The Greatest Love Songs of All Time (Arista, 2010)
Once again instigated by mentor Clive Davis, Manilow’s latest effort – timed for Valentine’s Day release – sounds like a collection of outtakes from the decades series. As always, the results are polished and tasteful, but the energy, abandon and full-voiced singing that mark Manilow’s biggest successes just aren’t present on this staid set. There are expectedly some fine moments (Bacharach and David’s “The Look of Love,” an excavation of the 1898 song “When You Were Sweet Sixteen”) but the ballads have a certain sameness that wears thin by the album’s end. As romantic cocktail music for background listening, this may be tops, but this writer can’t wait for the next original album by the prodigiously talented arranger/producer/singer. I don’t doubt Manilow’s passion for these songs for one second, but his gifts could surely be better spent on other projects than doing more cover crooning. I miss the vocal urgency, insistent rhythm, and the swelling of orchestra, choir and piano that marks much of Manilow’s oeuvre, and perhaps marked the drive of an artist climbing to the top and determined to stay there. Here’s hoping that he channels that inspired part of himself sometime soon.