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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."

On the music industry: "It's a business that's awfully exciting and also full of baloney."

One might expect more hard-boiled sentiments from this self-proclaimed "slum kid from a broken home," but Manilow sounds about as streetwise as Forrest Gump.

After he conquered AM radio in the mid-Seventies, Manilow was often asked to talk a bit about his early years. From 1970 to 1973, he served as pianist and arranger for a then-unknown singer named Bette Midler. The duo first performed a cabaret-style revue in, of all places, a gay bathhouse in New York City. Manilow's golly-gee recollection in Cashbox magazine, in 1978: "It was crazy, just like something out of a weird movie. There were all these guys sitting around barely wrapped in towels." Midler, in stark contrast, went on The Tonight Show and told Johnny Carson about the "standing ovations" she sometimes received from her unclothed audience.

There's no reason to take Manilow's innocence at anything less than face value. Indeed, Robert Palmer of The New York Times interviewed Manilow in 1980 and wrote of him, "After 75 minutes it is impossible not to like him. Engaging doesn't go far enough; his gift for disarmament belongs at a negotiating table."

Remarkably Manilow has successfully navigated a twenty-year-plus career without ever running afoul of the smallest scandal. No prostitutes, no drunk-driving arrests, no punching out cameramen, no masturbating in adult theaters. Not one drug bust during the coke-crazy Seventies. No behind-the-scenes grumbling about a hot temper or a huge ego. Money alone can't buy such purity; see Michael Jackson for proof. Perhaps Manilow really is a great guy who lives a model life.

"I tried smoking joints," Manilow is quoted as saying in Peters' bio. "I liked it for about a month, but I didn't really enjoy it. I'd fall asleep, or sit like a puppet listening to records, and maybe I'd hear a horn line a little clearer, but it wasn't any revelation. The few encounters I had with drugs were no more or less pleasant than having a couple of drinks -- which I don't like either. I cannot be out of control."

But Manilow has controlled his career so well that one wonders what he's hiding. So many icons of perfection -- such as Karen Carpenter and Rock Hudson -- have crumbled in one way or another that it's impossible not to speculate about Manilow. Some have wondered about his sexuality. His 1987 autobiography, Sweet Life: Adventures on the Road to Paradise, offers few clues (aside from the young Manilow's love for Judy Garland and The King and I). Rather the book offers an absence of clues. The women in his life are all "friends," and his only marriage, to a high-school sweetheart, ended in divorce in 1968. The book finds Manilow declining one or two sexual advances from fast women, yet he never admits the slightest desire for (or enjoyment of) sexual intimacy. Since his rise to fame, Manilow has fielded most relationship questions with answers along the lines of "I'm married to my work."

Manilow is quite blunt about his personal life: He doesn't talk about it. "That's why I call it my personal life," he told one interviewer. Given his level of fame, and given the gossip-hungry nature of the media, that's understandable. But Manilow is so tightly screwed down that whatever charisma he might have gets smothered. Imagine how much fun it would be to see him burst out of his cozy niche as a Broadway-style pop entertainer. Imagine if he'd done something along the lines of Pat Boone's recent heavy-metal cover album, In a Metal Mood, instead of Summer of '78. Or if he'd had the nerve to appear in an Airplane! movie. Heck, even Wayne Newton was willing to let Conan O'Brien rib him a little not long ago.

But Manilow has stayed rigidly on track: soft music, nice lyrics, straight image. In the mid-Seventies when the critics attacked him -- as they no longer bother to do -- as being hopelessly middle-of-the-road, his music was only part of their complaint. Within the easy-listening genre, Manilow is a smart and talented songwriter. Yet in his adherence to the sentimental tune and the feel-good lyric, he cancels out the anger, the passion, and even the little peculiarities that make an artist human. If there is a myth surrounding Barry Manilow, it's whether he's a real person or someone's fictional creation.  

Barry Manilow performs at 8 p.m. on November 28-30 at Sunrise Musical Theatre, 5555 95th Ave., Sunrise, 954-741-7300. Tickets range in cost from $28 to $58.


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