Barry Manilow (“Mandy,” “Copacabana,” “Ready to Take a Chance Again”) makes his Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall debut Feb. 16, as part of the Van Wezel Foundation’s annual gala, which raises funds to support the hall’s education programs. The cause dovetails with Manilow’s own aims to put musical instruments into schools with his Manilow Music Project. No longer on the road regularly, Manilow makes special appearances like this one; we chatted with him about the show business career he never expected to happen the way it did.
After such a long career and so many hits, what keeps you motivated to perform?
I haven’t got an answer for that. I’ve always been a self starter; I’ve always been able to just create out of thin air. It doesn’t seem to me it’s ever going away.
You don’t ever have writer’s block?
Sometimes writing is a little more difficult than others. But I’ve never been a guy that waits for the phone to ring. I always am able to create, and there’s usually enough interest from record companies or TV shows to want me to do albums or TV specials. And the audiences are still coming. I don’t understand it, but I’m glad and grateful.
Did you know from early childhood that music was it for you?
Yeah, but I didn’t believe it, because I come from nothing, Brooklyn, New York, no money. When you come from that background, you don’t take a chance; you’ve got to get that Friday paycheck. As soon as I got out of high school, I got a day job; then I went to college and did music in the evenings. I was playing piano for singers, arranging music for singers, and I started making more money as an arranger and piano player than the day job. So I quit the day job and went into the music world.
There was no background in your family of music?
No, but they knew that I was a musical kid. They had no money, so they stuck an accordion in my hands. Every Jewish and Italian kid in Brooklyn had that. I knew how to read music, so it was easy to switch to piano later.
But I never wanted to be a singer. I was going to be a songwriter, an arranger, a producer. I wanted to be in the background. But in that era, the early 1970s, the singer-songwriters like Carole King, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, were becoming popular, and record companies were looking for their version of singer-songwriters. I started to send demos of the songs that I wrote to record companies. I couldn’t afford real singers, so I sang on my own demos. And I got a record contract from those demos, which was a big laugh for all my friends. When I told them I got a record deal, they said, “Doing what?”
Did it take you a while to get used to thinking of yourself as a singer?
Oh, yeah. I was more comfortable in the recording studio, because I had already done two albums as a producer/arranger for Bette Midler. So I knew how to make my own albums, and I had a great co-producer, Ron Dante.
But in order to promote an album, you have to go out on the road and sing and get up on a stage and be personable with the audience…and I was terrible. But from the very first show, something happened, they connected with me and I connected with them, and it took off. I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t really understand it now. I know I’ve gotten better at it, gotten more comfortable onstage. But back then I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t throwing tomatoes.
What musicians have you learned the most from?
My musicians have taught me more than anybody. These guys are inspiring, because they are true musicians; that’s all they think about and all they live for. But as a performer, Bette was my role model. When I started I tried to be Bette, and that’s probably why I was terrible, because nobody can be Bette. So I tossed that idea out. I had to trust that I just had to be myself up there.
How would you describe your style?
Anything that makes people feel. I always know I’m wrong if I don’t get goosebumps from a melody I’ve written, or even if it’s another person’s song. If it doesn’t make me feel something, no one else will feel it, either.
Tell me about your current album.
It’s a tribute to New York; half originals, half standards. I always knew I’d do this album. This is my town. I’ve lived in California now longer than I lived in New York, but when you come from New York, you are always a New Yorker. I talk fast, I walk fast. I have to slow down a little bit when I’m in the middle of the country.
Was there a specific moment where you thought, “I’ve made it, this is success”?
No. I’ve never felt that. Yes, I’ve had lots of hit records but…do people think like that? I don’t. I’m always thinking of the next one.
What are you particularly proud of?
That I stayed the same guy I was when I started. I started older than most people; “Mandy” was No. 1 when I was 28 or 29, so I’d already had a career. It was thrilling, but I was an adult. I remained the same guy, and I think that’s rare.
It’s tempting to change, and there’s a lot of pressure for a young person. I did American Idol three times, as a judge and mentor. I remember there was this young girl, and they were putting so much make-up on her and she was wearing Versace, and I thought, what is she in for? I was hoping that she didn’t win, and could go back home and grow up.
What other interests do you pursue?
I’m shallow. That’s all I do. I’ve got my dogs, I’ve got my partner, I’ve got a beautiful life. But I’ve been on the road for so many years I haven’t had time to collect stamps or cars or do any of that.
Were you pleasantly surprised by the public response when the news of your marriage came out?
When Gary and I met in 1978… then, I wouldn’t have had a career. But these days you come out and nobody cares. By the way, I’ve always been out. Everybody’s always known about Garry and me, even the public, I’m sure. I’ve never hidden that I’m a gay man.
The fans, the people who’ve supported me all these years, they care about me. So when they read that I was happy and that I had somebody in my life, they were happy for me.