Concert preview: '15 Minutes' with Barry Manilow
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Few songwriters have enjoyed the kind of career Barry Manilow has. Love him or hate him, his songs are unforgettable. Tunes like "Mandy," "Can't Smile Without You" and "I Made It Through the Rain" helped define part of the softer sound of the 1970s.
Through that decade, the singer, songwriter and producer who performs Thursday night at Big Sandy Superstore Arena was an undeniable hit maker. Manilow sold millions of records, won a Tony, an Emmy and a Grammy. He earned a legion of devoted fans, while casually deflecting scorn heaped on him by some critics who hated everything about him, including his wardrobe.
Fame was very good to Barry Manilow, but it wasn't always kind.
Manilow said, plainly, "I never intended to be famous. I was always happy being in the background. My first eight years in show business, I was a conductor, an arranger and a composer."
And that was fine by him, but Manilow wanted people to hear his music. So he did what a lot of songwriters do. He made demos of his songs and sent them to artists, producers and record executives -- people who might buy songs.
"I got a record deal," he said. "Big surprise."
Fame, real fame, came after "Mandy" broke into the charts, and his life, Manilow said, changed overnight.
"I went from bouncing checks at the grocery store one day, to the next day riding in a limousine."
Nobody is prepared for that kind of change, he explained. At least, he wasn't.
"My records took off, and I found myself a public figure," he said. "I fought against it for three or four years, but then I realized this wasn't going to go away.
"Happily," he added.
Manilow survived, he said, by grounding himself and by embracing his brand-new life. Not everybody in similar shoes has been able to do the same.
It was through observing the celebrity news cycle that Manilow first became interested in making an album devoted to telling a story about fame. Calling it "15 Minutes," the album tells the story of a young guitar player who gets his break, becomes famous, then crashes spectacularly before trying to pick himself up again.
If the story sounds familiar, it should. Some variation of the story plays out almost every week.
"I was seeing reality shows like 'American Idol,' which I've done three times," he said. "What I was looking at were these young people who had no experience. They didn't work in the bars. They didn't do shows. They'd paid no dues, and they were becoming household names overnight."
It seemed like a lot for anyone to take. Manilow wondered how these kids were coping, and the answer to him seemed obvious. A lot of them weren't. It was too much, too fast, with everyone watching, and people posting videos on YouTube.
"You could just count down the days until they wound up on TMZ doing something stupid."
The breaking point for all of this, he thought, might have been watching Britney Spears, mobbed by paparazzi, trying to go to Starbucks. She could barely move for the mob of cameramen and reporters badgering her with questions.
"She couldn't have a life," Manilow explained.
So, Manilow contacted his writing partner, Nick Anderson, and the two of them set out to write an album that's a less-varnished look at the effect of fame. The record is meant to entertain, but it's also a kind of advisory of what to expect if you get your big break.
Fame is something Manilow knows, and it's something he's thought a lot about.
The world, he pointed out, has always been interested in famous and successful people, but, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, the ability to provide fresh water-cooler chatter and gossip about public figures has been ratcheted up. It's not that the demand is so much greater, it's that the means to disseminate is so much greater.
Likewise, it seems easier to become famous. Reality television, viral videos and blogs are just a few new ways to attract attention, to become in some way a star.
Manilow doesn't think fame for fame's sake is all that great.
"I hear all these kids," he said. "You ask them what they want to be when they grow up. And they say, 'famous,' and my heart just sinks.
"You can be famous if you jump off the roof. The answer should be, you want to be a great singer, a great composer, a great actor. But, wow, just to want to be famous? That's asking for trouble."
As far as his own fame, Manilow is pretty comfortable with it. His focus is the work, his music and the here and now. After "15 Minutes" and the current tour, Manilow isn't sure what he'll be doing next. He might revisit his old jazz project "2:00 AM Paradise Cafe," come up with a second volume, but he might do a dozen other things.
Right now, he's sticking with the show he's doing.
"The crowds are pretty great," he said. "I expect the whole thing to go away every year, but they're still there."
He said he was hoping to find a crowd in Huntington. It's been a while since he played West Virginia. He was last here in 1994; before that, Manilow played Charleston in November 1985, right after the terrible floods that killed dozens and displaced thousands.
At the time, Manilow said he couldn't take money for his show and ended up donating $25,000 for flood relief.
He said he remembered that show.
"It was a great audience," he said. "Great reviews, which was surprising. I was getting bad reviews then, but the people were just great. I hope they're still around."
Want to go?
WHAT: Barry Manilow in concert
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
WHERE: Big Sandy Superstore Arena, Huntington
TICKETS: $34.99, $54.99, $74.99 and $124.99
INFO: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com
Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.