In terms of record sales and career longevity, Barry Manilow is one of the most successful adult contemporary singers ever. That success hasn't necessarily translated to respect (or even ironic hipster appreciation) in most quarters; instead, Manilow's music has been much maligned by critics and listeners alike, particularly the romantic ballads that defined his career, which were derided as maudlin schlock even during his heyday. It's true that Manilow's taste for swelling choruses and lush arrangements often bordered on bombastic, but unlike many of his MOR peers, Manilow wasn't aiming to make smooth, restrained background music: he conceived of himself as a pop entertainer and all-around showman in the classic mold, and his performances and stage shows were accordingly theatrical.
Manilow dominated pop music during the latter half of the '70s like few other performers, spinning off a long series of hit singles (including 13 number one hits on the adult contemporary charts) and platinum albums that essentially made the Arista label. When the well began to run dry in the early '80s, he branched out into other genres. No longer a superstar expected to deliver blockbuster hits, Manilow was free to explore his long-held taste for swing, pop standards, and Broadway show tunes, which dominated his albums from the mid-'80s on. He continued to record steadily during the following decades, and his popularity never completely eroded, as evidenced by the number three chart debut of his 2002 greatest-hits package, Ultimate Manilow, and the number one peak of his 2006 covers album, Greatest Songs of the Fifties.
Barry Manilow was born Barry Alan Pincus on June 17, 1943, in Brooklyn, and grew up in its low-income Williamsburg section. His father left the family when Barry was two, and he eventually adopted his mother's maiden name of Manilow. He began playing piano and accordion at age seven, and following high school, he was accepted to the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, which he paid for by working in the CBS mail room. From there, he became musical director of the CBS show Callback, and supported himself for the next few years by writing, producing, and performing advertising jingles (including high-profile campaigns for State Farm, Dr. Pepper, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and others).
In 1971, he met Bette Midler, who hired him as her pianist, arranger, and musical director; he served as her accompanist on her legendary pre-fame tour of New York City's gay bathhouses, masterminded her first two albums (1972's The Divine Miss M and its self-titled follow-up), and debuted some of his original material at her Carnegie Hall show in the summer of 1972. Thanks to his gig with Midler, Manilow was able to land a record deal of his own with the fledgling Bell label, and his debut album, Barry Manilow I, was released in 1973. It didn't sell very well, and when Bell became Arista, label head Clive Davis asked Manilow to record a pop tune called "Brandy," which had been a U.K. hit for its co-writer, Scott English. Manilow changed the song into a ballad and changed the title to "Mandy" (to avoid confusion with the Looking Glass hit "Brandy [You're a Fine Girl]"); released on 1974's Barry Manilow II, "Mandy" became a number one hit early the next year. The Broadway-esque follow-up, "It's a Miracle," hit the Top 20, and a re-release of the Chopin-adapted ballad "Could It Be Magic" (from the first album) hit the Top Ten.
With his career thus established, Manilow recorded an even stronger follow-up album in 1975's Tryin' to Get the Feeling. "I Write the Songs" (ironically, written by Beach Boys sideman Bruce Johnston) became his second number one pop hit in early 1976, and with the title track also hitting the Top Ten, the album went triple platinum. Manilow consolidated his emerging stardom with This One's for You, released toward the end of the year; it produced hits in the title track, the Top Ten "Weekend in New England," and the number one "Looks Like We Made It." In 1977, Manilow released the concert double-LP Live, which became his first and only number one album, as well as his biggest hit with sales of over four million copies. The same year, he won an Emmy for his first prime-time special on ABC (aptly titled The Barry Manilow Special); the network would air Manilow specials for the next several years. Even Now was another triple-platinum success in 1978; "Can't Smile Without You," the disco-tinged "Copacabana," and "Somewhere in the Night" all hit the Top Ten, with the first two marking a departure from Manilow's typical reliance on ballads for his hits.
The first signs that Manilow's run of success was in jeopardy came on 1979's One Voice, which -- although it sold well and produced a Top Ten hit in an unlikely cover of former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter's "Ships" -- didn't have the same consistency of craftsmanship as its predecessors. Released in 1980, Barry spawned Manilow's last Top Ten hit, "I Made It Through the Rain"; though he remained a massively popular international touring act, and continued to place hits on the adult contemporary charts for a few more years, the prime of his pop success was over. In 1984, Manilow officially changed direction, recording an album of swinging, jazzy originals called 2:00 A.M. Paradise Café; it featured jazz greats like Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughan, Shelly Manne, and Gerry Mulligan. Subsequent ventures like 1987's Swing Street, 1991's Showstoppers, 1994's Singin' with the Big Bands, and 1998's Manilow Sings Sinatra all explored various facets of swing, vocal jazz, and traditional pop. In addition, Manilow's stage musical Barry Manilow's Copacabana: The Musical premiered in 1994, and continued to tour the U.S. and U.K.; another musical, Harmony, was premiered in 1999.
Manilow's long relationship with Arista ended when he signed to the jazz-oriented Concord label, for which he debuted in late 2001 with the concept album Here at the Mayflower, which continued his evolution into a pre-rock/pop stylist. Manilow began to reenter the wider public eye in 2002, performing "Let Freedom Ring" at the Super Bowl pre-game show; aided by television advertising, Ultimate Manilow entered the album charts at a stunning number three position that March. A DVD release of the collection followed, as well as a two-disc set of live music called 2 Nights Live that had been culled from a weekend in New Jersey. Manilow went back to the studio in 2005 to record a diverse collection of tracks from the '50s with producer and music mogul Clive Davis. The resulting Greatest Songs of the Fifties, a labor of love, became a surprise hit and topped the charts in early 2006. A sequel, The Greatest Songs of the Sixties, arrived at the end of that year and reached number two, which paved the inevitable way for The Greatest Songs of the Seventies in 2007, and The Greatest Songs of the Eighties in 2008. A holiday album, In the Swing of Christmas, appeared in 2007 and 2009, the latter release being an updated version featuring a pair of bonus tracks. Manilow next teamed with producer Michael Lloyd for 2010's The Greatest Love Songs of All Time, followed one year later by the concept album 15 Minutes, which told the story of a musician's quick rise to fame and subsequent fall from grace. A new studio album, Night Songs, which featured a set of pared-down standards performed on just piano and upright bass, followed in 2014. Manilow quickly followed Night Songs that fall with My Dream Duets, a collection of electronic duets with deceased vocalists he idolized. The album was his first for Verve and was released with some fanfare in late October 2014. ~ Steve Huey & Steve Leggett