Barry Manilow: From kitsch to cool?
By Andrew Walker
BBC News profiles unit
After his well-documented accident, could it be that Barry Manilow, the arch-priest of schmaltz – might be on the verge of being re-invented as a King of Cool?
Recent newspaper headlines, proclaiming “Barry Manilow Breaks Nose” have already achieved the same notoriety as “Fog in Channel: Continent Cut Off” and “Dundee Man Drowns: 1500 Also Die As Titanic Hits Iceberg”.
There is something deliciously absurd about the man and his world-famous proboscis, but not so absurd to have prevented him from selling 58 million records, winning a Grammy, an Emmy, a Tony and playing both the Superbowl and Bill Clinton’s inaugural ball.
Manilow’s idiosyncratic brand of easy listening music has won him a legion of adoring middle-aged matrons, yet the man himself remains charmingly disarming and refreshingly self-deprecating.
Of his accident, Manilow says that he thought he was still in a hotel room and not his own home. “I veered to the left instead of the right and slammed right into the wall.”
Knocked unconscious for four hours, he adds, “I may have to have my nose fixed and, with this nose, it’s going to require major surgery!”
Look for post-Modernist irony in Barry Manilow’s songs and you’ll be disappointed. He is not – and does not claim to be – a Jacques Brel, mocking the business of love and howling about the pain of existence.
But if you like the idea of a good old-fashioned entertainer, whose live shows combine schmaltz and razzamatazz and who can sing and play unaided – a rarity in this digital age – then he might just be your thing.
Manilow was born Barry Pinkus in Brooklyn in 1947. After his parents divorced, he was brought up by Edna, his formidable Jewish mamma, whose surname he adopted, aged 13, after his bar mitzvah.
Music provided an outlet from what was a tough upbringing and, after becoming a noted writer of TV and radio jingles, he teamed up with Bette Midler, providing piano accompaniment during her raucous gigs in New York’s notorious gay bathhouses.
Still going strong
Manilow’s big breakthrough came in 1975 with Mandy – “you came and you gave without taking”.
He followed it up, in similar vein, with the anthemic Can’t Smile Without You, Copacabana – “the hottest sport north of Havana” and Could It Be Magic, co-written, according to the label, with one F Chopin.
Although Manilow’s chart success has been limited – he has only had one Top Ten UK hit – his vast following has ensured his continuing popularity.
Punk, New Wave, Grunge, House, all may have come and gone, but Manilow ploughs on regardless, like an acrylic-clad ocean liner.
“His very dedicated fan base has assured him iconic status,” says Gennaro Castaldo, head of press and PR at Manilow’s UK label, HMV. “I suspect that many people whistle his tunes in the bath, but won’t admit it. He has become part of the fabric of our culture” – drip-dry, presumably.
Although promoted as the epitome of cheesiness, Manilow’s stage persona is no more excessive than most of his peers, and pales into insignificance beside the lachrymose posturings of Johnnie Ray and Liberace’s singular brand of vulgarity.
His concerts take the shape of a well-rehearsed catechism for his fans – the self-proclaimed Maniloonies.
He always sings all his hits, always invites one lucky female admirer onto stage to duet on Can’t Smile Without You and delivers another song, One Voice, to an auditorium lit only by a sea of cigarette lighters.
He has, as they say, the audience eating out of his hand.
His vast house in Palm Springs, which he shares with his long-term partner Linda Allan, is testament to his success.
Of his own talent, Manilow says that “my songs are like anchovies. Some people love them – some people get nauseous.”
Critical success…at last
And critics have nauseated over him for decades. One New York Times review called his songs “processed cheese”.
But, horror of horrors, there are signs that Manilow is about to become – whisper the word lightly – cool.
That bastion of musical credibility, Q magazine, hailed his recent concept album – that’s right, concept album – Here at the Mayflower, effusing that “only a fool could doubt his talent”.
And the greatest hits package, Ultimate Manilow, went into the US Billboard chart at number three.
As Gennaro Castaldo puts it: “People who are kitsch can eventually, through sheer longevity and by being parodied, achieve the status of retro-cool.”