On a recent afternoon in Hollywood, Barry Manilow, the Brooklyn-born singer-songwriter who has sold more than 80 million records worldwide, has one of life's curious surprises waiting for him in suite 12D of the W Hotel & Residences, where he's holding an interview in support of his new album, 15 Minutes.
Manilow, who turns 68 this week, looks trim in dark slacks and gray jacket. He sits on a couch with a view of the Hollywood Sign. Across from him sits a redheaded journalist whose mother, Beanie, was one of Manilow's good friends when they worked together at CBS in New York City in the '60s.
Manilow attended Beanie's wedding in 1967, his records were endlessly played at the journalist's home during his childhood in the 1970s, and the singer regularly sent Christmas cards to the family. The singer and Beanie's son, however, have never met. When the journalist explains all this, the singer says he feels like he's going to cry.
“We were close,” Manilow says, moving to the edge of the couch. “Your mom got me through the days of CBS. It was a very gray office, with a lot of people and serious bosses. It was typical office work. She was a bright, shining light in the middle of all these gray, serious businesspeople.”
He thinks, and says, “If she only knew how important she was to me in those days.”
Manilow smiles and reminisces about the old times, when he would sneak away from the CBS mail room and play a piano in a nearby rehearsal hall, Beanie covering for him. Manilow also drafted her to be in Off-Broadway productions.
“I used to do some conducting for local theater stuff, and she was in those shows. She did The Pajama Game with me, and she might have done Bells Are Ringing with me. She was fun. She was funny.”
Since Manilow's new, guitar-driven album examines the pitfalls of fame and a celebrity-obsessed culture, the journalist asks if that rise from the CBS mail room to the top of the charts taught him any lessons.
“Well, your mom would remember,” Manilow says. “I was always into the music. I was not into becoming famous. I was not into making money. I was just into the music. And everybody remembers me as a musician. So this new album kind of says, 'Don't do it for the fame. Do it because you have something to say. Do it because you can't not do it.' That's what I did.”
He continues, “I had to leave that job at CBS. I had to get this music out of me. It was the only thing in my life that made me happy. And it wasn't about standing up on the stage and getting applause. I was very happy in the background. I was very happy playing piano for people and conducting for people and doing arrangements for people.
“So Beanie will tell you that I never did it for the fame. Ever. As a matter of fact, when I wound up as a singer, everybody who knew me was shocked. One of my friends, I think it might have been Bette [Midler], when I got my first record contract, I said I got a contract, and she said, 'Doing what?'
“I said, 'Singing.'
“She said, 'You don't sing.'
“I said, 'I do now.'”
Then he recalls the years between 1975 and 1979, the height of his fame.
“'Mandy' came out [in 1975], and it kind of threw me for a loop,” he says. “This fame, being famous, I didn't like it. When I got these No. 1 records, people were applauding and my name was getting bigger and bigger, and audiences were getting bigger and bigger, and I was getting more famous for something else. They liked the way I looked. They liked the way I talked. And the music was beginning to take second place. It was the best of times and the worst of times for me.”
The journalist looks down at his sheet of scribbled questions, thinking about the many hours he listened to Manilow's records as a kid, trying to get to know his mother's friend through his songs. He then realizes, some 30 years later, he no longer has to guess. He asks what it was about fame that Manilow didn't like.
“For me, I really didn't like all of the attention. I didn't like the spotlight. It just wasn't my thing. So suddenly I found myself having to put makeup on for TV shows and think about what I was wearing. And it wouldn't stop. It just kept going.
“I think I became a person I didn't like. I think I just didn't like doing this job, but how could I turn it down? You know, the records were selling. They did like my music. They did like my performance. And I'm good at that. But what came with it was very uncomfortable to me.
“I became a guy who I think Beanie wouldn't have liked. I wasn't that same guy. I was, I think, demanding. I was not kind, I think. That's what it felt like to me. I keep asking people around me, and they might not agree with me. But that's what it felt like to me. I lost myself during those four years.”
Manilow pauses for a second, and says it was by reaching out to friends in the early 1980s that he found himself again.
“I made phone calls to everyone. To my family and to my old friends. Because those are the people who are going to tell you the truth. Those are the people who kept me grounded. I shook myself awake again.”
The journalist, realizing why his mother liked Manilow so much, asks if he has any wisdom to share with young songwriters.
“Keep your old friends and family with you. Don't lose them. Because they'll tell you the truth. That's what helped me.
“The other thing is, don't do it for the money and don't do it for the applause. Because it'll never be enough, and if it goes away, you're going to be very, very unhappy.”
He continues, “I've read someplace that when it's all over, they're not going to remember you for what you did. They're going to remember you for how you made them feel. That goes for any artist, maybe for any human being.
“I remember your mom for how she made me feel. I know that she made me feel better than I was. When I would show her something, she would jump around and say, 'You're great! That's great!' Or she would make me laugh.
“She was a light in that gray room. That's what I remember about her. That's what I hope my fans are getting from me. That they like the way I make them feel with my music. Maybe that's what has kept me up there.”
At the end of the interview, Manilow asks for Beanie's number. He wants to call his old friend.