Barry Manilow is an icon. Ranked as the number one Adult Contemporary Artist of all-time, according to Billboard magazine, the Grammy, Emmy and Tony award-winning singer-songwriter, arranger, producer and musician has had an astonishing 50 Top 40 singles, including 12 number ones and 27 Top 10 hits, and five of his albums were on the best-seller charts simultaneously.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his legacy as an artist that has spanned the course of popular music of a staggering five decades. On May 9, 2017, his legacy will be honored when he is awarded the title of BMI Icon at the 65th annual BMI Pop Awards in Los Angeles.
I caught up with Manilow, who has sold more than 85 million albums, to talk about the award, his charity The Manilow Music Project, as well as his new album, coming out in 2017 and the contemporary artist he would love to duet with.
Simon Thompson: How do you feel about being referred to as an icon?
Barry Manilow: I’m surprised, I didn’t start by saying what I usually say, ‘Hi, it’s the icon speaking!’. I don’t take that seriously but I do take this recognition seriously because I’ve had my share of awards over the years but this one really does mean a lot because it’s a songwriter’s award. Over the years, songwriting has been very important to me even though I’ve had many opportunities to sing other people’s songs and have a lot of success as an arranger and a producer of other people’s songs. It’s the composing that has always been very, very close to my heart so for BMI to give me something means a lot.
ST: How do you quantify your success? Is it financially or in some other way?
BM: For me, I started off just wanting to be a musician and that’s all that is important to me. The rest of it I am grateful to have, don’t get me wrong, but it’s never really been what I went after. There are a lot of people who go after fame or they go after money or they want the approval of an audience but that’s never really been my thing. All I’ve cared about is making music and it doesn’t matter whether it’s for thousands of people or for a small nightclub or even if it’s in my little studio with my computer, that’s what feels right to me.
ST: Your new album is This Is My Town: Songs of New York. How much of your success do you credit to New York?
BM: It’s not my success, New York formed me as a human being and as a person. I was raised by my mother, my Grandmother, friends, relatives, all New Yorkers, all decent people with a sense of humor and really great morals. Most of all, when you come from New York, you are given a big bullsh*t meter and you can tell when people are being honest with you and New Yorkers will not stand for you being dishonest. New Yorkers are great people, honest people. If you get into trouble then you want someone from New York standing next to you because if there’s a building on fire they will run into the building, not away from it. It’s one of the things that I treasure about being raised in New York and that bullsh*t meter that I have in me has served me very well in this world of showbusiness.
ST: You have personally contributed over $100,000 to The Manilow Music Project. Is that something you see as much of a part of your legacy as your music?
BM: I never really thought about it like that, I just try to get musical instruments into the schools that are running out of them and if I can encourage or inspire some young people to get into music, that’s all I care about because I know what it did for me. I was a geek when I grew up, I had a few great friends but I wasn’t into sports, they really didn’t teach me very much and I wasn’t inspired by my teachers but when I found the piano I felt safe and I knew that I had a future. You put a guitar in the hands of a young guy and it might do the same thing for them.
ST: With the foundation, is it important for you to lead by example and put your own money where your mouth is and have a personal financial input?
BM: If I can, I do. I do that all over the place and all the time but the Manilow Music Project works really well on the road because in every city I go to I donate a piano and that starts off an instrument drive. We collect instruments from people that are coming to my shows, they all go to local schools and that feels great. You should read the letters from these kids. I got a picture of a little boy, he wrote to me thanking me for his brand new Tuba and he was standing next to the Tuba and it was bigger than he was.
ST: So what is the biggest investment that you have made in your career?
BM: I think I have not made as many friends as I could have because of this fame. This fame thing puts a separation between the famous person and the public. I have met people in an elevator where after two sentences I could be a friend of theirs and then they leave because they are looking at this image named Barry Manilow, they’re not seeing me, the guy. Over the years I’ve found that they have to get through being comfortable with me but there’s this bubble that stops them from actually knowing who I am. I find that’s the only problem. For me, the investment has been that I think I have lost great friends because of this fame thing.
ST: A landmark for many artists is that very first big check that they get. Do you remember getting yours and do you remember how much was it for?
BM: I do remember the very first big check I got. It was from Clive Davis, my hero from Arista Records, he was the record company President that began my recording career. I was a struggling young piano player, I played piano for every singer in New York because I’m a good accompanist, I’m not a good piano player but I’m a good accompanist and that was a week-to-week paycheck, although it was hardly a paycheck. Then we did Mandy and it was very successful but you don’t see any money from your records for at least a year so I was still struggling. Clive and Arista were having a convention, it was their first big convention because Mandy was their first big record. They were having it in San Diego and I was living in Manhattan so I bounced a check in a grocery store in order to get that plane to get to San Diego. When I got to San Diego, Clive knocked on my hotel door and gave me a check for $1 million and I’ll never forget it because that was the beginning of my career. I didn’t tell him I had literally just bounced a check that morning.
ST: What do you put the longevity of your career down to?
BM: Simon, you’ve really got to ask them (the fans) because I’ve never known. I don’t know why they are still with me, I couldn’t be more grateful, I listen to my records and they’re okay and I watch my performances and think, ‘He’s alright.’ I don’t understand why they are still with me, I don’t understand it but maybe nobody does because perhaps every performer will give you that same answer. I keep doing the best I can, I kill myself trying to make great records, I kill myself trying to do the greatest performances I am capable of doing but I don’t understand what it is that keeps them coming back.
ST: Have you ever considered a movie or a musical tracing your life and career?
BM: I haven’t but there have been other producers and filmmakers who have been interested in doing something like that. I don’t want to be involved in anything like that because it’s too creepy for me but maybe after I’m gone but not while I’m still alive.
ST: A lot of people have suggested that should follow in the footsteps of other icons such as Lionel Richie and Dolly Parton and perform at the Glastonbury Festival. Has that been discussed at all?
BM: It’s never come up but those big rock and roll festivals would terrify me. I don’t think anybody would come (to see me). I’m not a rock and roll artist and that’s what those kinds of huge festivals have, they have loud bands and that’s not me. No-one’s offered that to me.
ST: You’ve done a lot of duets in your time but is there anyone around at the moment that you would like to duet with? I thought that perhaps you and Ed Sheeran could be an interesting pairing.
BM: Yeah but I think I would choose Bruno Mars because he’s right up my alley. He’s a crazy performer, he comes from the kind of performing family and I just love him. That would be so great if he were interested. I met him once and it was great, we both gushed about each other but nothing has ever come out of it.
ST: You recently came out and have had an overwhelmingly positive response. You were concerned about how fans might react but did you expect quite the show of support?
BM: No, I didn’t but I should have because the people have always been so great so I should never have doubted them. When I said that quote, what I really meant was that if I had done something like that in the 80s I don’t know whether it would have been accepted as easily and beautifully as it has today because things have changed. Being gay is no big deal anymore, thank God, although I’m still it’s a big deal to a lot of families and a lot of young people. Overall, I do think the tone of accepting gay people is more accepting than it’s ever been. Gary and I have been together for going on 40 years, I could have done it any old time but I think it would have been a very negative explosion and I didn’t want that for my fans because they stand up for me. Every bad review I’ve ever had, I just pull the cover over my head and feel sorry for myself but the next day the newspapers are filled with letters from people standing up for me. I adore them so much and I am so grateful and I didn’t want to put that burden on them. During those days I wasn’t the golden boy, believe me, and I wasn’t as accepted with my music as I am today. I have been open about this forever to everybody and I have never hidden this and I couldn’t be more proud to be a gay man or to have a partner of 40 years, it’s never even dawned on me to hide it but People magazine, bless their hearts, needed a big headline but it really wasn’t a secret in my family or amongst my friends, my band or people that know me. All the fans knew, it was never hidden, but perhaps the public at large might be surprised, although I don’t think even they were very surprised. Simon, I’m 73 years old, I’m not married to a woman and I love Judy Garland so you do the math!
Barry Manilow’s latest album, This Is My Town: Songs of New York will be released on April 21, 2017
You can find out more about The Manilow Music Project here
Barry Manilow will be playing a number of concerts across the U.S. in May