_Fifteen Minutes_ and Forty Years

In 1943, a little boy was born to an Irish Catholic father and Russian Jewish mother in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (interestingly, not only was my father born the same year, but my father in law was born the same year–in Brooklyn!).  The father left early in the marriage because of the cross-cultural tension, and apparently because he had issues of his own, and the woman and her parents raised the boy.  The boy’s grandfather encouraged him to sing, paid for accordion lessons, etc.  When he was a teenager, his mother remarried, and his stepfather encouraged his love for music and introduced him to a wide range of performers.  Between his grandparents, mother and stepfather, he grew up on Big Band, Swing, Jazz, Broadway, and the Crooners of the 40s and 50s, as well as the rising rock bands.  He dreamed of some day being in music–not expecting to be “big,” just hoping to be a songwriter, maybe a backup singer and performer.

Shortly after high school, he married his high school sweetheart.  Troubled by his parents’ legacy, and feeling he wasn’t ready for such commitment (and possibly dealing with other issues as well), he divorced her.

In his adulthood, he pursued that exact dream of staying in the background.  Including the classic “worked his way up from the mailroom,” he played piano for Broadway auditions and rehearsals.  He played and sang at bars and hotels.  He made some money performing for television ads and writing a few jingles. He worked as a back up singer and intro act for Bette Midler, Dionne Warwick (for whom he would later serve as producer and songwriter) and others.

In 1972, he had a moderately successful single under a pseudonym.  In 1973, he decided to try his hand at an album, not expect much but hoping that, like Carole King’s _Tapestry_, his album would showcase his talent and diversty as a songwriter.  Things started to pick up.  A young executive at his record label, Clive Davis, found his demo album and liked it.

He toured the country on his own dime, mostly still playing bars and nightclubs and smaller venues.  Then Clive Davis suggested that he perform a cover of Scott English’s “Brandy.”  They tweaked the song a bit, and when “Brandy” became “Mandy,” a hit song was born, and so was the phenomenon of Barry Manilow.

Shortly before his grandfather’s death, he got to see his grandfather in the audience when he performed on stage at Radio City Music Hall, where, some 3 decades prior, his grandfather had paid for what would become an iconic recording of: “Sing it!  Sing the song!” “No, Papa!”

He would proceed to dominate the pop and adult contemporary charts of the 1970s, and continue to dominate the adult contemporary charts in the 80s.  He had a record breaking run of Billboard Top 40 hits within a few years of each other.  His first _Live_ album debuted at #1.  He did a series of television specials that did very well in the ratings and won him an Emmy.  When the fledgling HBO network broadcast one of his concerts, its number of subscribers skyrocketed.

Years of hard work and “paying his dues” paid off, but the fame got to his head.  Like many in his situation, he overspent and overpartied.  He alienated his friends from before his fame.  He began to alienate his friends from his fame.  One industry legend recounts a time when Manilow dined with Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel and bragged that he was bigger than both of them, initiating something of a feud.

After 1978, the string of hits started to trickle off, and in less than a year, he was bankrupt.  His Mom died.  He went through a depression.  He found himself sitting on the beach in LA, reflecting on how empty his life was.  All of that, combined with a song he composed in a dream, lead to _One Voice_ (1979), an album that redefined his career, mixing the ballads and disco songs that had become his trademark with songs that contemplated hope, and family and friendship.

A similar outing in 1980, _Barry_, gave the world “I Made It Through the Rain” and his classic duet with Lily Tomlin, “The Last Duet” (interestingly, _One Voice_ has been recently rereleased in a 3 CD set with his 1985 album and _This One’s For You_, and “The Last Duet” has been included as the final track in a compilation CD called _Duets_).  Both had gotten back into the diversity of style found in his first two albums, and he had decided, after rising and crashing so rapidly, that he wanted to be more honest to himself and be more creative.

1981’s _If I Should Love Again_ (which he has many times identified as his favorite of his own work_ and 1982’s _Here Comes the Night_ refocused on romantic ballads, though each with a slightly different style from his mid-70s work.  Both albums follow a similar internal pattern and work as “albums” in the traditional sense, having some level of internal narrative among the songs.  His 1983 single, “Read ‘Em and Weep,” a cover of a Jim Steinman power ballad originally recorded by Meat Loaf (the same year that Steinman’s work was dominating the charts–“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” “Love Out of Nothing At All,” etc.), would be Manilow’s last top 40 single for 2 decades.

Then he shifted gears and decided to do a jazz album.  Despite a certain sitcom which promoted the idea of a rivalry between Mel Torme and Barry Manilow, Manilow called Torme (whom he had never met) when he began work on _Paradise Cafe_ (1984) and said, “Mel, I’m planning to do a jazz album.”  Torme replied, “It’s about time!”   _Paradise_ did well on the jazz charts but didn’t get much mainstream attention.  However, it showed a certain direction in his craft.  While it did not have the “boy meets/loses/misses/threatens/reunites with girl” narrative of the 1981 and 1982 albums, it did have a tying theme, an evening at a Jazz club, each song segueing into the next.

RCA wooed him away from his home at Arista, and some executive who apparently only knew him for “Copacabana” tried to position him amid the Latin craze of the mid-80s (Gloria Estefan, Paula Abdul, Julio Iglesias, etc.)  1985’s _Manilow_ has become legendary both for its scarcity and its very different style, though a few tracks have become standards in Manilow compilations since the 1990s Boxed Set (it is also included in the aforementioned trio set).

In 1987, he returned to Arista and followed up _Paradise_ with _Swing Street_, a combination of old standards and new songs, again following a theme of a night on the town.  _Swing Street_ was accompanied by a TV special that semi-dramatized the album with Barry and his collaborators touring a fictional street full of night clubs.  It was moderately successful, and its main single, “Brooklyn Blues,” while not achieving mainstream Top 40 status, did chart on the Jazz and A/C charts.

Barry would return to the romantic ballad for the last time in 1989, with an album that was originally simply self-titled but later reissued as _Please Don’t Be Scared_.  It followed a similar pattern to _If I Should Love Again_, but with a heavy emphasis on digital instruments as opposed to the lush pianos and strings of the earlier album.  It did well, but while its singles frequently turned up on the radio for the next few years, none of them charted as highly as his earlier work.

Then, starting with the first of three Christmas albums, his career began to split in two directions.  On the one hand, he would pursue his lifelong dream of being a composer and songwriter by a number of efforts.   He wrote the soundtracks to _Pebble and the Penguin_ and _Thumbelina_.  He wrote songs that other performers sang.  He produced a few albums for others.  He talked about writing a Broadway musical.

Meanwhile, his own albums for several years were primarily covers: _Showstoppers_, _Summer of ’78_, _Singing With the Big Bands_, _Manilow Sings Sinatra_.  The only “original” songs he released in the 1990s were either introductory or closing songs to those albums, bonus tracks on re-releases of his older albums, and a bunch of previously unpublished work included in his 1992 boxed set.  Oddly enough, though, this period saw a resurgence in his popularity.  I forget what it was, but some appearance he did in the mid 1990s really caught the attention of teenagers and college girls.  Since the 1980s, he had been understood as a niche singer whose primary audience was middle-aged women (who, as one critic pointed out, didn’t really have anyone else appealing to their market) and to geeks, since were drawn to his message of hope for the underdog.  Suddenly, though, in the mid-1990s, he had screaming teenagers crowding his concerts again (at the same time as they were doing the same for Tony Bennett).  I almost gave up being a Barry Manilow fan because I didn’t like the fact that he was suddenly popular with people my age!

After the Sinatra album, which seemed to push the limits of the covers thing, he disappeared for a while.

Then, in 2001, he released his first album of all new music in 12 years, _Here at a the Mayflower_.  This was, however, something different.  It followed more in theme with _Paradise Cafe_ and _Swing Street_.  It was a song cycle, narrating the lives of people in a fictional apartment building, with recurring lines and motifs.  The overall mood was jazzier than his previous work, but still reflecting a diversity of style.   As a complete work, _Here at the Mayflower_ has to be Manilow’s masterpiece.  Like most true masterpieces, it wasn’t as commercially successful, though its single “Turn the Radio Up” did fairly well.

Meanwhile, after the modest success of _Copacabana: the Musical_, he tried his hand a completely original musical, but the result, _Harmony_, was thwarted due to a series of financial and legal difficulties.  Supposedly, mismanagement by the producer led to its failure to ever make it to the stage, and this resulted in a lawsuit, which Manilow won, but there was never enough money to stage it.  In the meantime, Manilow suffered a heart episode and a much-publicized broken nose.

In 2004, he released _Scores_, a compilation of songs from _Copacabana_ and _Harmony_ (several of which had already been recorded).
Tired of the “road,” he began regular performances in Las Vegas, where, as he puts it, “old singers go to die.”  This led to new exposure.  While many of the Las Vegas audience members were fans who had travelled to see him, the majority were people who just came as tourists, and didn’t know his work, and became fans because of the experience.
2005’s _Greatest Songs of the Fifties_ debuted at #1–his first #1 album debut since _Live_–and led to a string of decade covers, all of which were very successful.  In that year, he also began talking about doing another song cycle, this time an autobiographical narrative about what it’s like to be suddenly famous and then crash.
Well, it’s almost 6 years later, almost 10 years after _Mayflower_, and _15 Minutes_ is here.
Dude’s pushing 70, and he’s still got it.  I came into this album with some level of optimistic doubt.  Manilow’s voice has been showing signs of wear and tear for 20 years now.  There are moments in the 1990 _Live on Broadway_ album, and during that tour, he cancelled some appearances due to vocal chord damage.  2004’s _Two Nights Live_, while energetic and representative of his long career, has points where he can’t even sing and asks the audience to sing for him.  While the first four _Greatest_ albums were fantastic, _Greatest Love Songs of All Time_ seemed to me to be, as they say, “phoned in.”
(When the latter album was released last year, a critic quipped, “Barry Manilow is going to do a tribute to Rod Stewart, and Rod Stewart is going to do a tribute to Barry Manilow, and then the universe will implode.”)
I happened on an interview on the Tavis Smiley show on PBS, and Manilow sounded horrible.  He said, “People get a lot of hope when they hear, ‘Daybreak, if you wanna believe,'” and he sounded terrible.  I said, “Yeah, people get a lot of hope from hearing that.  They think, ‘At least I’m not as bad off as that guy.'”

So, I was grateful that Amazon had the entire album of 15 Minutes on sale today for $3.99 (maybe they still do–go find out!), because I wouldn’t be missing much if I hated it.

I don’t.

I love it.

Narratively, this is the album  he has been working towards his entire life.  The reason for my longish bio in this post, besides showing off my knowledge of Manilow trivia, is that, as he said back in 2005, this is based upon his own experiences in the 1970s of being rocketed to stardom after years of frustration and hard work, riding high, then crashing, then finding a new peace.

On Tavis Smiley, he mentioned that he’s worked with _American Idol_ 3 times (twice as celebrity judge and once behind the scenes, giving a lesson to the contestants).  He said that each time, the contestants said he said things no one else told them.  He advised them not to let fame get to their heads, and to keep their real friends close at all times, to remember that a real friend is the one who will tell you you’re being a jerk even when you’re making millions.  (He also gave some great singing advice which I intended to use in my writing classes when teaching audience).

He talked about how we’re living in the times Andy Warhol predicted, where Reality TV, YouTube, etc., give everyone a chance at a few minutes of fame, when you can get interviewed on _Today_ because a million people watched your YouTube video of your baby and kitten dancing at a wedding (my little paraphrase).

In terms of the music, it’s all fresh.  I’ve always liked Barry best when he’s being creative (not necessarily *not* covering other people’s work but at least being creative about how he does it).  At the same time, I’ve always felt that, as a composer, his music is a bit bland.  He had a hand in every song on _Mayflower_, but he also brought in a ton of collaborators–it’s a “who’s who” of songwriters and lyricists from his previous hits.  _15 Minutes_ is all music by Manilow and lyrics by longtime collaborator Enoch Anderson (who, ironically, has never written the lyrics to a Barry Manilow hit, though he’s written a lot of Barry Manilow songs).  The album isn’t 100% new: 1975’s “She’s a Star” is reworked as “He’s a Star” (they should have also included 1978’s “A Linda Song,” also written by Anderson).   It’s very Manilow, but very different.  The overall tone isn’t jazz or ballad or Broadway (one problem with _Harmony_ is that he sounds like he’s trying too hard to sound like “Broadway”): it’s rock.  He distances himself from the unnamed “character” in the song cycle by making the character a rock singer and guitarist rather than an a/c singer and pianist.   It sounds like something out of the mid 1980s, though the styles fall in the range of what has always been “upbeat” Manilow, including a disco finale.

The lyrics are amazing, but that’s to Anderson’s credit.  The overall work really is a song cycle rather than an album, as motifs recur throughout, there are a couple reprises of the main songs, and even an instrumental.  There’s a really cool piece called “Letter from a Fan/So Heavy, So High,” which is really a back and forth medley.  Some woman I never heard of sings “Letter from a Fan,” which with each verse proceeds from basic, “Hi, I love your music” to “I signed my name in blood”.  Meanwhile, Barry sings the alternating verses by the main character, beginning to feel the pressures of fame.
The much touted “Bring on Tomorrow” is a wonderful ballad in which the character, having just gotten his contract, comes home to tell his wife/girlfriend the good news, but she’s asleep.  Later, “Written in Stone” chronicles their breakup, as the character asks, “weren’t we written in stone?”  That song ends with a melancholy instrumental reprise of “Bring on Tomorrow,” which practically had me in tears (the combination works similar to the tributes to his grandparents on _Mayflower_, “Not What You See” and “I Miss You”).

“Winner Go Down” is a song about how people love to see celebrities crash, and includes real life snippets of news reports about celebrities ranging from Marilyn Monroe to Amy Winehouse.

As for his voice, Manilow manages to pull off sounding youthful in the first couple tracks, but as the character proceeds into fatigue and bitterness, Manilow’s age becomes an asset not a problem.  There is a certain “style” of Barry Manilow that appears from time to time–it’s his “choked up” voice, I guess–that at first you say, “Wait: that’s not Barry Manilow.”  Two classic examples are “The Two of Us” from _Manilow II_ and “I Miss You” from _Mayflower_.  Much of this album is “that” Manilow, and it works.

You’ve probably stopped reading about 2500 words ago, but if you haven’t, and the review works for you:
Click here to order _15 Minutes_
Click here to order _Duets_
Click here to order _Triple Feature_ (This One’s for You, One Voice, 1985 Manilow).

I used this Discography to double check many of my dates and chart rankings.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s