Published Wednesday, May 20, 2009 | 1:22 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, May 20, 2009 | 2:16 p.m.
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Recording superstar and Hilton headliner Barry Manilow says he faces two dilemmas, and he might not solve the more pressing one until he walks onstage this weekend. From Friday through Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, Barry plays host to the annual International Barry Manilow Fan Club Convention at the Hilton.
Thousands of fans are traveling here from across the U.S. and Canada and as far away as Britain and Australia. Barry knows they will be here to listen to his incredible collection of hits, but instead he wants to treat them to a special performance of his personal favorite album Here at the Mayflower, which critics have hailed as the finest album of his career.
Barry admits that he’s torn. In a rare, exclusive one-on-one interview, he told me: “When I walk onstage at the Hilton, I’ve got 90 minutes of show time. That’s still not even long enough to fit in every one of my hits that they’ve come to hear live, and yet if I do At the Mayflower for them, that will take up a good third of the time. Depending how the fans react when I walk on, I’ll feel it in my gut and make the decision right then of what to do. We’ve rehearsed the entire show with Mayflower, so we can do all of it or some of it and balance with some of the hits. I’ve no idea what will happen or what we’ll do until that very moment.”
Mayflower is about a Brooklyn apartment building where Barry grew up. “That was the life I had back then,” he told me as we sat at the counter of a dressing room kitchen-bar. “I wanted to tell stories in song of what was behind each door in the building. I got the best reviews of my life for it, and it is a very special memory and part of my life. My other favorite is 2 a.m. Paradise Cafe, which was my first jazz album. We had Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Shelley Mann and Jerry Mulligan on it. Of all the records, those are my two personal favorites. Don’t get me wrong. I love the hits. Every one of them has a different meaning and memory for me. I still love singing and playing them. I will never get tired of them.”
Barry has recorded 42 albums and sold 80 million records during his extraordinary career of some 50 chart hits dating back to “Mandy” in 1974, “I Write the Songs” in 1975 and “Copacabana” in 1978. At one point, he had five albums on the charts simultaneously.
I go back with Barry to his early days in New York City some 40-plus years ago when he gave piano lessons and played for aspiring singers, all well before he played backup for Bette Midler at the Continental Baths. He supplemented his income back then with radio and TV commercials.
“Here I was in New York. I’d gone to the New York College of Music and Julliard, and the nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn had to pay his rent. So I got into the jingle jungle, where I learned everything about catchy melodies. I can still remember the words to Band-Aid and State Farm and even the Toilet Bowl blues! But it was the McDonald’s ‘Take a Break Today’ that paid the most money.
“Jingles changed my life. My very first one was for Dodge. I brought it in at 3 minutes 45 seconds, and the advertising agency sent me back to cut it down to 30 seconds and not lose the melody! That took some discipline, but I did it, and it taught me everything I know about my songs, the pop hits. It changed my life, and for the rest of time, I knew how to write catchy music and words. If you can nail a melody and a message in a 15- or 30-second commercial, you can write the songs that people sing! I learned so much doing the jingles, arranging and orchestrating the singers. It’s a total art, and I had people like Valerie Simpson, Melissa Manchester and Ron Dante on my first jingle as unknown backup studio singers, and they all went on to stardom in their own right.
“I took that into the pop world, and it’s extraordinary when you think of all the education I had about music and piano and even giving lessons, I learned the most from being in the music jingle industry! I am so happy it happened, and Mom would be very proud of where it took me. She was so proud she even wore a sign around her neck at my early concerts, “I am Barry Manilow’s Mom.”
Barry’s last TV spot was a Bank of America commercial 10 years ago, and he reminded me that his music for a State Farm insurance spot from 30 years ago still plays today! “Don’t be surprised if somebody takes the old ‘Up, Up and Away’ song for a Viagra commercial one day soon,” he joked.
I asked Barry about his other dilemma -- what he’ll do when his contract with the Hilton is up this fall. He started there in February 2005. “I hope they want me to renew. We have such great audiences at the Hilton. Being there on our schedule keeps me off the road. I certainly don’t want to retire. I love Las Vegas, and the Hilton treats me and our audiences so well. I don’t want to go anywhere else, and there’s no stopping me. Retirement is a dirty word, and I’ve got so much more to give and do. This summer I’ll be working on my next two albums.”
Barry, who will celebrate his 66th birthday June 17, summed up: “You know I’m still the kid from Brooklyn who wants to work hard to pay the bills, so I am going to keep on working.”
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground. Read more of Robin's stories at VegasDeLuxe.com.