Welcome to another installment of Reissue Theory, where we take a look back at notable albums and the reissues they could someday see. Today’s column takes a slight departure, looking at an album that never was, but certainly could be. We present Barry Manilow’s Live at the Troubadour!
Rolling Stone may have famously proclaimed him “the showman of our generation,” but when Clive Davis signed Barry Manilow to the fledgling Arista label, he was anything but. Manilow was a longtime accompanist, jingle writer, arranger and producer on the New York scene, and signed to Arista predecessor Bell Records. But “showman” wasn’t in his vocabulary. He was armed only with a youthful confidence in his skill as a behind-the-scenes music man and his belief that the music he was writing was, indeed, good music, inspired in equal parts by the Broadway musical tradition and the singer/songwriter style of Laura Nyro.
When Manilow took the stage at Los Angeles’ Troubadour on February 25, 1975, there was no flash (and no Lady Flash!), no pizzazz. There was just a musician at work, behind the piano, and a real band: two guitarists, a keyboardist, a bassist, two percussionists, and four background singers, one of whom had been an Archie and a Detergent. Manilow’s performance was captured in stellar sound but its only commercial release has been through the digital treasure trove known as Wolfgang’s Vault. The time is long overdue to expose this performance to an audience more familiar with Manilow the Las Vegas entertainer extraordinaire. The only pyrotechnics at Doug Weston’s Troubadour came from Manilow and his band, whereas today, patrons at a Manilow concert will find costumes, time-honed routines and dazzling showmanship. The artist has allowed some glimpses into his past in recent years, including a DVD release of a 1974 New York City rehearsal at Carroll’s Studio (on the 2-DVD set First and Farewell, also including his performance on a 2004 tour for maximum contrast) in which he agonizes over his set list as he’s about to go solo. With Manilow having recently announced a new Live in London CD, the time couldn’t be better to imagine Barry Manilow: Live at the Troubadour! Our proposed release would offer a glimpse into another path that Manilow might have taken (though few could argue with the success of his phenomenal career).
Hit the jump, and you’ll find yourself on Sunset Boulevard on a winter evening in 1975!
Barry Manilow, Live at the Troubadour (Arista, 2011)
- It’s a Miracle
- I Want to Be Somebody’s Baby
- One of These Days
- Very Strange Medley
- Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again
- Avenue C
- Could It Be Magic
- Friends/Band Introductions
- Martha Medley
The Brooklyn boy Manilow jokes about being in the “virgin territory” of Los Angeles for his set, a tight, 10-song performance. The similarities to later performances are as striking as the differences; he opens with an energetic “It’s a Miracle,” which occupies the same position in many of his concerts today, almost forty years later. The song had made its debut on Barry Manilow II, released just four months before this concert, in October 1974. Following the song, a breathless Manilow tells the audience in rapid-fire manner, “we’re gonna give you enough music…enough styles here…really, if you give us ten percent of the energy we’re gonna try to give you…it’ll be more fun than Let’s Make a Deal, I promise you!” The loose, casual and good-humored patter provides a look into the real man behind the carefully-guarded artist of today.
It’s hard not to notice that Manilow revisited this era with 2011’s 15 Minutes, a semi-autobiographical concept album that chronicled the rise (and fall) of a young musician. On 15 Minutes, the singer and songwriter (with his lyrical partner Enoch “Nick” Anderson) also channeled some of the rock energy that pervaded his earliest albums and performances. (Just listen to “Seven More Years” or “Flashy Lady,” just to name two examples.) He name-checks Anderson as he launches into another song off Manilow II, “I Want to Be Somebody’s Baby.” You’ll want to listen to him pounding the piano amidst the swell of electric guitars for this rock-oriented song. Manilow’s vocal is appropriately aggressive, too, and it’s clear that he takes music seriously, commenting on how the lyric escapes the convention of a typical love song: “I want to be somebody’s baby/I don’t want a child of my own/I was the one who was always strong/And I was always the one left alone!/I was the one understanding/And letting the other go free/Now I want to be somebody’s baby/Let somebody worry ’bout me!”
Manilow is joined for the concert by the backing group of his co-producer Ron Dante plus Debra Byrd (now a vocal coach on American Idol), Ramona Brooks and Lorraine Mazzola, who had assumed the name “Reparata” from Mary Aiese as a member of the Delrons. (Mazzola’s use of the name “Reparata” eventually ended up in court!) His backing band was notable, too: guitarist Sid McGuiness would go on to become a guitarist for Peter Gabriel and then in David Letterman’s house band, and Jimmy Maeulen was a percussionist for Bruce Springsteen and others! The band is rounded out by Alan Axelrod on keyboards, Charlie Brown on guitar, Steven Donaghey on bass and Lee Gurst on drums. The women on backgrounds hadn’t yet morphed into Lady Flash; Manilow joked at the Troubadour that they might be “The Manilettes” or even “Barry and the Barettes,” should a better name not come along!
There’s a hint of things to come with Manilow’s sensitive performance of the ballad “One of These Days,” from his 1973 debut album. He leads the affecting song on piano, but gives breathing room for a guitar solo, as well. Manilow wrote both music and lyrics for the resonant declaration: “One of these very ordinary days, you’re gonna call my name/And I won’t be there/And on that day, someday I’ll find the strength to stay away/I won’t give in/I won’t let myself be taken in again.”
There is, however, an indication of the splashy showbiz to come with the introduction of the seven-minute long “V.S.M.” or “Very Strange Medley.” This specialty was recorded for posterity on Manilow’s chart-topping Live album of 1977, and features what he then called “a medley of my greatest hits.” Remember, this was before “Mandy” hit it big, so the artist is speaking of the jingles he wrote and/or recorded for a number of famous projects. Cheekily acknowledging that his “artistic” friends think the medley is crap but his “trashy” friends enjoy it, he tears into odes to fast food giants Kentucky Fried Chicken (“Have a bucket of chicken, finger-lickin’ good!”), Jack-in-the-Box and McDonald’s (“You deserve a break today!”), beverages Tropicana, Dr. Pepper, Pepsi (“Join the Pepsi people!”), cars, Stridex (“Give your face something to smile about!”) , and somewhat unfortunately, Bowlene, a toilet-bowl cleaner (“The Bathroom Bowl Blues”). Most enduring, however, is the jingle for State Farm: “Like a good neighbor…” Mazzola performs it with as much gusto as is possible!
The most remarkable track performed that night at the Troubadour was Manilow’s introduction of David Pomeranz’ “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again.” He introduced it to the crowd by noting that “I was working with Bette Midler about two weeks ago, and she showed me this song…she was going to do it, and it was such a beautiful song, I said, listen, don’t pay me for the week…just let me do the song!” It’s a good thing that Midler acquiesced. Manilow looks for songwriter Pomeranz in the audience before apologizing that the song has only been rehearsed for a couple of hours. Manilow hews closer to the original Pomeranz version of the song than the rearranged track he took to the pop Top Ten, and all the way to No. 1 on the AC chart. As on Manilow’s original demo heard in the Complete Collection…and Then Some box, he utilizes a verse of Pomeranz’ which was cut from the final single: “I read every book, looked, through every meditation and poem, just to bring back home that old sweet sensation/But it ain’t no use to me, trying to get that feeling again.” He employs markedly different phrasing than on the final recorded version; it’s a more wounded vocal, with a different intro and conclusion to the song. Upon its finish, he adds with youthful enthusiasm, “Let’s hear it for David…hot song! When we get that one together, it’s gonna be great!” and calls out his label boss: “Mark that one down, Mr. Davis!”
This early attempt at “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling” shows off Manilow’s acumen for arranging; he similarly altered other songs he didn’t write, such as “Can’t Smile Without You,” Somewhere in the Night,” “I Made It Through the Rain” and “Weekend in New England” from their original versions, scoring venerable hits in the process.
If only one word could describe the Troubadour set, it would be “eclectic.” It would have been difficult to predict which musical side the singer would pursue. In introducing his “Could It Be Magic,” which was remixed from Barry Manilow on Bell to its Barry Manilow I form on Arista, Manilow commented, “Next to Laura Nyro, [Chopin] is my favorite composer!” Even today, the singer exudes the same pride in his ambitious orchestral composition based on Chopin’s Prelude in C Minor. Hearing the song in a stripped-down setting is another rare treat. There’s a modest introduction to the now-staple “Mandy,” which had made a splash on the charts just weeks earlier.
Without only one bona fide hit song to his own name at the time, Manilow presents a number of cover versions in his set, foremost among them his solo version of the Buzzy Linhart/Moogy Klingman song he arranged and produced for Bette Midler’s The Divine Miss M. “Avenue C” was just the kind of song that set Manilow apart. It’s a vocalese tune from Lambert, Hendricks and Ross’ Sing a Song of Basie LP, and not exactly something you’d hear every day at the Troubadour circa 1975! One has to admire the young musician’s refusal to play with then-current trends as he drew on all of his many disparate influences.
The finale of the Troubadour gig is a “Martha Medley,” featuring Manilow’s favorite Vandellas songs. The medley makes apparent the Motown influence on his earliest albums as well as his ear for a great song. Manilow accompanies his wailing background singers on piano, and one wishes the raw energy heard here could have been recaptured on his recent “greatest hits of the decades” albums. There’s pure, uninhibited fun in these renditions of “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run,” “My Baby Loves Me” and finally, “Dancing in the Street,” in which Martha Reeves herself emerges from the club audience to sing lead! When this song leads into a reprise of “It’s a Miracle,” itself inspired by the former song’s refrain, there’s palpable pandemonium.
A star wasn’t born that night at the Troubadour; Manilow was already in the ascendant. But a compact disc release of this concert would remind listeners of a hungry young singer and songwriter, before that first rush of fame, before disco, before excess, before Las Vegas. Until then, you can listen to the concert here, thanks to the fine folks at Wolfgang’s Vault. Could it be magic? I think it is!