Barry Manilow: Ol' big nose is back

What? Barry Manilow fashionable? James Rampton meets the sultan of shmaltz to find out what went right

A decade ago, Barry Manilow's Greatest Hits barely limped into the Billboard Hot 100. He was the singer that taste forgot: a perma-tanned, bouffant-haired relic of the Seventies; the last word in naff. But, earlier this year, he strode confidently into the upper reaches of the British album chart for the first time in 21 years, with his latest album, Ultimate Manilow.

The resurgence has been sparked by artists of a younger generation who have queued up to pay tribute to Manilow's music. Take That's successful 1992 cover of "Could It Be Magic" started the ball rolling, and Westlife's version of his first hit, "Mandy", went to number one last year. He has just recorded One Night with Barry Manilow for BBC1, a good, old-fashioned Saturday-night showbiz extravaganza, and Rolling Stone magazine recently described him as "a giant among entertainers" and "the showman of our generation". Barry's back - and this time, he's fashionable.

I'm having breakfast with him in the hotel where he's based during a flying visit. He is enjoying a tranquil morning, having already played to several thousand fans, first at Blenheim Palace Music Festival and then at BBC Television Centre for the recording of his special. He looks great: subtly highlighted hair, enviably toned skin, eyes that twinkle with what looks very much like mischief. He has a wry sense of humour, with his best gags aimed at himself. He laughs, for instance, about the occasion last year when he bruised his famous nose by walking, half-asleep, into a hotel wall. "My nose is obviously pretty tough," he says. "You should have seen the state of the wall afterwards..."

Manilow seems laid-back about his sudden trendiness. "I've always been cool - it's just taken a while for the others to catch up with me," he says. "I've been both in and out so many times over the past 30 years that I don't get fussed about it any more." He breaks into a slow smile. "It's amusing, but I'm beyond that. I have a little piece of the pie. It's very small, but it's mine. No one else wants it, but I'll take it."

It's been suggested that, in this uncertain world, Manilow's songs are "chicken soup for the soul". He doesn't demur. "I offer comfort," he says. "I know I don't feel like seeing the latest most-talked-about-but-angry new movie, or listening to this week's hippest-but-angriest rock or rap act. Many other people feel the same."

But what continues to motivate him? Having sold 60 million albums, he can scarcely need the money. Nor, after winning three Emmies, two Grammies and a Tony, does he need to seek further accolades. No, he attributes his drive to nothing more complex than his love of music. Growing in Brooklyn up with his mother Edna - a Jewish garment worker - and his step-father, Willie Murphy - an Irish truck driver - he was immersed in music. His classmates at Eastern District High School selected him as best musician for his performances on the accordion. "You can't get out of Brooklyn if you're Jewish or Italian and you don't play the accordion first," he jokes. "They won't let you over the Brooklyn Bridge."

His devotion to music has endured. "I have tons of cassettes and CDs and sheet music lying all over my studio that will never be heard. The process is the biggest turn-on. I'd be very happy still to be in a studio flat in Brooklyn making music. When you come from nothing - as I did - you either want to become a gazillionaire or do a job you're really proud of. I've always pursued the latter. When I got my first million-dollar cheque, I very quickly almost went bankrupt. That's how little I know about money."

Manilow's infectious enthusiasm for his work extends beyond writing and performing his own songs. "I'm always looking for new ways to interpret old songs," he says. "I love finding new depth and different facets. Sondheim was very happy with my version of 'I'm Still Here', and gave me permission to re-write his lyrics. I'm going to call Shakespeare next!"

But the biggest buzz he gets is from performing. "I want to give them their money's worth," he says. "All those guys spending an hour and a half playing their hits - I've never done that. I'd get bored. I like kibitzing [making comments] and playing around with the backing singers and inventing new medleys."

The audiences love it. Fans packed into the studio at the Television Centre the previous evening appear to be hyperventilating before their idol has even appeared on stage. He finally does in a neat coup de théâtre - a screen depicting a 1974-vintage Barry singing "Mandy" rises to reveal the present-day version playing the same tune. That, and every other song, is greeted with the sort of whoopin' and hollerin' usually reserved for audiences at The Jerry Springer Show.

Backed by a full orchestra and eye-wateringly energetic backing singers, Manilow treats the devotees to a rattling good night. Between songs, he majors in cheeky banter. Whipping out his accordion at one stage to play "Can't Smile Without You", he hams it up outrageously, wondering aloud: "Would Sting do this, I ask you?"

The fans - fondly dubbed "Maniloonies" - lap it up. Many are from the Barry Manilow International Fan Club, which is thought to be the world's biggest. They sign letters to each other "with Manilove".

On the Tube journey home, I bump into Angie from Essex and Elaine from Kent, devoted members of The Barry Army. This pair of fiftysomethings have followed to the letter the instruction on the ticket to "wear glamorous dress please". They are done up to the nines - Angie in a natty gold jacket, and Elaine in an equally fetching spangly blue dress. An hour after the gig the women are still on a high, their eyes burning bright from the exhilaration of seeing Manilow up close. Angie is proud to inform me that she has travelled as far afield as Los Angeles to see Manilow. Her finest hour was when he picked her out of the crowd in New York to dance on stage with him to "Can't Smile Without You." (Fans invariably turn up to gigs with banners urging their hero to "pick me" in terms more or less lewd).

"Even though I've seen him in concert literally hundreds of times," Angie says, breathlessly, "it's still as exciting as ever." She vehemently rejects any suggestion that she might be taking her commitment to Manilow a little bit too far. "We're not fanatics," she declares in a tone that brooks no contradiction. "We're just music-lovers." Elaine nods her head. "When he played the London Palladium four years ago, I went to all 12 shows. People say to me, 'How can you go every night?' but I assure you every night is very different. Barry inspires total loyalty because of the way he completely gives of himself on stage."

Manilow has come a long way from that studio flat in Brooklyn. He leads a very comfortable existence in California but avoids the showbusiness round of red carpets and parties, and likes nothing better than to stay at home and relish the peace and quiet. "My working life is so filled with noise," he says, "and home isn't."

But Manilow never rests for long. He's already working away on Harmony, a musical about a troupe of singers struggling to cope in pre- war Germany, which opens on Broadway next year.

Clearly, it's the work that keeps Manilow so vital. "I'm told I seem more comfortable with myself than I've ever done," he says. "Hey, you get to this age and you'd better be. This is no dress rehearsal. This is it, this is your life. When I meet other people my own age, I'm struck by how many look older than their years. They look as if they've given up. All the talk is of the past - the so-called good old days. I've never looked at life that way and don't intend to start now. I have an enormous sense of gratitude for being healthy, for continuing to be engaged with life and for remaining passionate about what I do. I'm one very happy guy."

Five decades after he first picked up an accordion in Brooklyn, Manilow is happy still to be dreaming up new ways of making music. "The song 'I'm Still Here' means a lot to me," Manilow says, looking contemplative for a moment. "When I started out, I didn't imagine being here in one week, never mind 30 years. It's still the same; when I say goodbye on stage, I mean it. I don't imagine I'm coming back."

But he won't be disappearing any time soon. "I've always got five ideas in the pipeline," Manilow beams. "I keep coming up with new ways of expressing my creativity. I'm lucky because people are still excited by what I do. As they carry me to my deathbed, I'll be saying, 'Can you just give me one more day to finish this song?'"

'One Night with Barry Manilow' is on BBC1 on Saturday at 9.10pm. 'The Ultimate Manilow' CD and DVD are out now

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