Barry Manilow Recalls Bette Midler’s Hilarious Response to His Record Deal: ‘You Don’t Sing’
By Jeff Nelson
October 19, 2023
Barry Manilow is looking back on his musical breakthrough.
When the pop icon was starting out in the industry, he was a songwriter, arranger, and a go-to accompanist in New York City for singers like Bette Midler. So when he scored a recording contract in 1969, no one was more surprised than his artist friends — and Manilow himself.
“I made some demos of songs that I had written — I was singing on my demos because I couldn’t afford to [hire] a bona fide singer — and Bell Records liked what they heard and offered me a record contract. People couldn’t believe that I was the one that got the record contract. They were supposed to; I was just a piano player, arranger,” says Manilow, 80, whose musical with lyricist Bruce Sussman, Harmony, began previews on Broadway on Wednesday.
One of the first calls he made with the surprising news was pal Midler, whom he would play piano for at N.Y.C.’s gay hotspot at the time, the Continental Baths.
Manilow recalls: “When I told Bette [Midler], I said, ‘I just got a record contract.’ And she said, ‘Doing what?’ I said, ‘Singing.’ She said, ‘Well, you don’t sing.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know, but they think I do!'”
Manilow broke through with his 1974 hit “Mandy” and has gone on to sell more than 85 million albums worldwide since. But getting onstage was an adjustment for the Brooklyn native.
“The part that terrified me and that I wasn’t very good at was performing. It never dawned on me that it would be me up there singing and communicating with an audience. That was the hard part. And I stunk,” Manilow says. “Yet the audiences didn’t think so. They didn’t care that I was awkward and stuttering. They liked the fact that I was a real guy up there. Little by little, because of these wonderful [fans], I figured out how to do it. But I still sometimes feel like a fraud since I never really wanted to do this.”
But Manilow learned from Midler, now 77, during their time collaborating together.
“She was so daring. She’s still the most talented human being I’ve ever, ever seen, forget about worked with. She tops them all. She can do anything. She’s a comic, she’s a singer, she’s a actress. She’s just the most brilliant talent ever, and I was lucky enough to be there and supporting her with my arrangements and ideas,” he says. “I loved working with Bette. And what I learned from her was, take chances. Don’t play it safe.”
Manilow is still taking chances himself these days. His and Sussman’s musical Harmony opened its first production in La Jolla, California, in 1997. Now more than 25 years later, it has hit the Broadway stage at the Shubert Theatre.
“I couldn’t be prouder or more excited,” he says. “For a while, it looked like it was never going to happen.”
For more on Barry Manilow, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands everywhere Friday.