Barry Manilow turned 70 last month, but the tenacious singer-songwriter isn’t cutting back on his touring schedule because of his age.
“I just miss home,” Manilow said over the phone from Los Angeles last week. “I started so many years ago and when you do that, you don’t have a life. Your life is hotel rooms and waiting for airplanes and bad room service. It’s a young man’s job.”
Nonetheless, Manilow remains not only a fan favorite but a bankable superstar. Last fall he scored his historic 50th hit on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart — marking nearly 40 years since his single “Mandy” catapulted him from jingle-writer and producer to crush-worthy music idol — and in February completed a blockbuster run on Broadway, reaching the rarified ticket sales of shows such as “Wicked” and “The Book of Mormon” in his first two performances.
We caught up with Manilow in advance of his concert at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on Thursday, July 11, to talk about his new musical, his favorite commercial jingles, the curse of fame for teen idols like Justin Bieber and Britney Spears, and why he won’t be visiting a certain town in Australia anytime soon.
You’ve played Red Rocks quite a bit over the years, but what was your first time there like?
I used to play for Bette Midler as her music director, conductor, arranger and producer. We did albums and went on the road together. I was her pianist and arranger, and during the last time we were together I had already made my first original album and the record company wanted me to go on my own tour with my own band and book clubs. But I had committed to Bette that I would do that last tour, so we made a deal that I would open as her second act and do three songs, and of course conduct and everything else. But opening as the second act was the suicide spot because she was so great and fantastic. They didn’t wanna see me! At least that’s what I thought. So that was the only way I could figure out how to promote my own album and work with Bette, so I did it.
That must have been a lot of pressure.
Every night on that tour I would hold my breath and walk out and say, “I know that you’re here for Bette, but I’m going to sing you three original songs.” And audiences were always very kind, but when we got to Red Rocks there was something in the air. It was probably weed, but I didn’t know that. There’s was just something different about this audience. They always loved Bette but when I started to play I could tell they were listening more than the other shows that we had done. And I did three songs and when I got to the last number, “Could It Be Magic,” the song I wrote based on a Chopin prelude, I could see the shadows of people beginning to stand up. It was my first bona fide standing ovation in this gorgeous place with the stars and the mountains and it was an epiphany for me. It was the first time I’d ever gotten a full standing ovation from 5,000 people (note: Red Rocks’ capacity is 9,450) for a song that meant so much to me. It was really something for that to happen in Denver, and I’ll always be very grateful for it.
Well, Red Rocks is obviously a unique venue so it’s not surprising that it had that effect on you, or your audience.
You know we’re not allowed to bring in a set — any set? If you perform at Red Rocks, and if you’ve got curtains and side things behind you, and all sorts of production, you can’t bring them to Red Rocks because wind knocks them down, so you’re always told you’re stuck with sitting in front of your band with the mountains behind you. That’s it. And that’s what we’ll do this time.
You’ve got a nine-piece band on this tour, right?
Yeah, they’re just tremendous. Luckily enough, this tour is a very modest tour. I’ve been going on the road for many years and sometimes I go out with a huge orchestra, sometimes with a big band. This time I thought I’d go small because I can’t get bigger. The last one I went on was 75 musicians and we’d pick up strings and horns, and I thought, “I can’t get bigger than that.” But we’re having a great time because my band knows everything in my catalog. I can change songs on the spur of the moment and they know everything. You can’t do that with 75 musicians. It would be pandemonium. But this time has been a great treat, and this one’s as modest a show as I’ve ever done, and since we can’t bring our fun stuff that we usually bring it’s really a night about the songs.
You have lots of great stories that accompany your songs in concert. Is that something you like to see in other performers, giving a bit of atmosphere and context to the whole affair?
You’re so right. I would love Sting to tell us why he wrote “Roxanne” before he sings it. I would love people to do that. I’ve been doing that forever so if I told the audience just a little bit about where this song came from or why it meant something, that song would land harder if I just gave them a little background to it. That’s just me. I just like doing that. But I would love to have seen other performers doing it more. The last time I saw that was with John Denver. Boy, he was great.