Manilow, Barry (1946—)

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Manilow, Barry (1946—)

Best known for his romantic and borderline saccharine songs, Barry Manilow was a whipping boy for the critics through much of the 1970s even as he sold millions of albums and gained a huge audience base. Though he didn't always write the songs, even when recording work by other artists Manilow still cultivated a lush and melodic musical style that was popular during the pre-rock era. His style evolved during the early-1980s from tame, string-laden, AM-radio pop to a more classic, jazzy sound that was heavily influenced by swing and 1930s and 1940s Broadway show tunes (many of which he later covered).

Unabashedly embracing a sentimental style that appealed primarily to white middle-class women of the working and homemaking sort, it is unsurprising that this Brooklyn born and raised songwriter was frequently denounced by the male-dominated rock and rock critic worlds. Because forms of entertainment associated with women—such as soap operas, romance novels, and the like—have historically been devalued, those who cater to that audience have been routinely dismissed by mainstream critics.

Unlike his ragtag rock 'n' roll world counterparts, however, Barry Manilow's resume has "professionalism" written all over it. After taking up a variety of instruments at an early age, Manilow attended both the New York College of Music and the Juilliard School, and in 1967 he went on to work as the musical director of a CBS network television show. From there Manilow remained busy writing a successful Off-Broadway adaptation of The Drunkard, doing musical arrangement work for Ed Sullivan Productions, and writing a number of well-known commercial jingles for Dr. Pepper, Band-Aids, and other advertisements. Throughout the 1970s his voice could be heard singing the McDonald's jingle—"You deserve a break today." He even released a medley of his commercials on one of his 1970s albums.

He got his foot in the door of the pop music world while working as part of a duo with the then-unknown Bette Midler. Working out of New York City gay bathhouses as her pianist, Manilow soon became her musical director and arranger, co-producing and arranging her Grammy-winning debut album and its follow-up. His own debut album, on the other hand, went nowhere, but his second album featured the number one Billboard Pop single, "Mandy," laying the groundwork for his rise to fame throughout the rest of the 1970s. Many more hit songs—"I Write the Songs," "Looks Like We Made It," "Could It Be Magic," and "Copacabana (At the Copa)"—soon followed, as did a Grammy and a Tony for a Broadway performance.

In the early 1980s, Manilow began to position himself as a modern interpreter of showtunes and pop standards, working with singers Mel Torme and Sarah Vaughan and veteran jazz instrumentalists Gerry Mulligan and Shelly Manne on 1984's 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe. He followed this same path on 1987's Swing Street and 1991's Showstoppers, on which he sang with Michael Crawford and Barbara Cook. One of Manilow's self-described career highlights was scoring music to a collection of unpublished lyrics by Johnny Mercer, the famed lyricist who penned a multitude of pop standards from the 1930s to the 1950s. From pop standards to show tunes, Manilow has captured a devoted audience who continue to maintain his importance to American music and popular culture.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Clarke, Alan. The Magic of Barry Manilow. New York, Proteus, 1981.

Lulow, Kalia. Barry Manilow. New York, Ballantine, 1985.

Peters, Richard. Barry Manilow: An Illustrated Biography. New York, Delilah Books, 1983.