Looks Like He Made It

Over the course of this weekend, South Floridians will spend three warm evenings with Barry Manilow -- the man, the legend.

But not the myth. There really isn't one surrounding Manilow. In fact, though his fans seem to enjoy an intensely personal relationship with him, Manilow appears almost totally devoid of what most people would call a personality. After more than two decades of performing and recording, Manilow remains virtually unchanged, his clean, sweet, quirkless image continuing to keep him in the good graces of his fans. But that same saccharine image has virtually excluded him from the public consciousness of late. These days, with the Manilow mania of the Seventies well behind him, the 51-year-old singer appears to be exactly what he was before he became a superstar in a sequined shirt: a successful writer of advertising jingles.

Make that the most successful. Manilow began his career as a ditty writer and vocalist for TV commercial spots in the early Seventies. McDonald's, State Farm Insurance, Pepsi, Stridex, and Bowlene Toilet Cleaner were among his many clients. His ability to write a happy, sappy, or bittersweet tune and put it to lyrics translated easily into the pop-song format.

Beginning with the No. 1 hit single "Mandy" in 1975 and continuing with songs such as "Could It Be Magic," "I Write the Songs," "Copacabana," and "Daybreak," Manilow became a one-man factory of high-charting cheese. Listening to the Manilow oeuvre today reveals no surprise other than the astonishing toothlessness of every song. Though Manilow was often lumped in with Billy Joel and Elton John, the association was unfair to the latter two. Joel's passion is occasionally misplaced (as on "We Didn't Start the Fire"), but at least it exists. John, whatever he may be today, was once a sophisticated and idiosyncratic artist: Think of that odd but intriguing hiss that ends every chorus of "Bennie and the Jets."

Manilow, on the other hand, never colors outside the lines: His piano is always muted, his voice always enriched by reverb, his lyrics always filled with Hallmark-style messages of hope and love. By 1977, at the peak of his fame -- he had no less than five albums on the charts simultaneously -- his songs were already cashing in on his own image as the modest, dreamy, lovelorn singer. On "This One's for You," he sighs, "This one'll never sell/They'll never understand/I try to sing it well/I try but I just can't."

To date Manilow has sold more than 55 million albums around the world. He's not as omnipresent today as he once was, but he's certainly no has-been. In recent years two plays for which he wrote the scores have graced major stages: Barry Manilow's Copacabana -- the Musical and Harmony, another musical, this one set in Nazi Germany (shades of Mel Brooks' film The Producers). His records continue to go gold and he continues to perform in large venues. (He appears in South Florida at the 4000-seat Sunrise Musical Theatre.) As one defensive fan wrote on the "Barry Manilow Rocks!" Website: "Sure, Barry doesn't have #1s anymore, but he's still a major concert attraction."

Yet he hasn't been "rediscovered" as have other performers of his ilk. Thanks to the lounge revival, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett have become cult icons, Tom Jones and Wayne Newton camp icons, and Frank Sinatra a cultural icon to a whole new generation. Even Neil Diamond has found the respect of younger music fans.

Jones, for instance, a bona fide phenomenon of the Seventies, saw his brand of charm and smarm go out of fashion in the Eighties. His response was to play up the silliness of his "hunk" image on two cover songs: Prince's "Kiss" and EMF's "Unbelievable." The result: Jones hit the Top 20 with "Kiss" in 1987, landed his own TV show on VH-1, and began popping up in hip places such as The Simpsons and Tim Burton's campy sci-fi flick Mars Attacks! Once a cultural punch line, Jones became the one telling the joke.

There's little chance of Manilow doing anything similar: His latest album bears the nostalgic title Summer of '78. In any case Manilow's image is so bland that there's little for him to reinvent. Since he first released his self-titled debut album in 1973, Manilow has appeared to his public as a nice, talented Jewish boy from Brooklyn who happened to made good. In interviews he displays a wide-eyed naivete and childlike candor that seem somehow inappropriate for a grown man who has lived half his life in the entertainment business. Richard Peters' gushing 1982 biography, Barry Manilow, lists scores of such interview excerpts.

Manilow, on his concerts: "My audience don't come to hear perfect high notes or great singing. I know I've been unsure and shy as a performer sometimes, but I am a good entertainer and I try very, very hard."

On his fans: "Sometimes it's very frightening. They're caught up in their own excitement, I guess. I don't do anything to merit that."

On song writing: "It's usually the simpler songs that wind up hits. 'Lonely Together' took only two hours to record, and 'Even Now' was written as a straightforward song with no emotion attached."

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