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Q&A; WITH BARRY MANILOW : Onstage ‘Because I Love It’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Look out for us old fogies,” jokes Barry Manilow, alluding to the recent flurry of successful Southern California engagements by fellow fortysomething popsters Billy Joel, Bette Midler and Neil Diamond.

Manilow’s turn on stage begins tonight with a six-day engagement at Universal Amphitheatre, where he’ll return to a “greatest hits” emphasis after focusing in recent years on jazz and Broadway-styled music.

Those old hits--including 1974’s “Mandy” and 1978’s “Can’t Smile Without You"--were frequently ridiculed by critics as sappy, but they earned Manilow a massive following. Estimated album sales to date: 50 million.

By the mid-'80s, however, Manilow, had shifted to the more ambitious material and finally received some of the critical acclaim that eluded him. And he has another ambitious project ahead: He’s co-writing and producing a play, “Barry Manilow’s Copacabana,” which will open in England in March.

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On the eve of the Universal shows, Manilow, 47, sat in the recording studio of his Bel-Air estate and spoke about the changes in his music and the renewed appreciation of the old songs.

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Question: Why did you decide to do a show of your pop hits again?

Answer: The box set of my hits that came out last year inspired this tour. I took the time to reacquaint myself with those tunes and saw that they were filled with passion and grand production and, in their own way, innovation. I just felt it was time to do them properly in a show again.

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Q: Why did you drift away from pop music in the first place?

A: I did this single (“Read ‘Em and Weep”), and it was a real empty experience. I wasn’t connecting with pop the way I always had.

I think some part of me started to believe all the negative press--that I just wrote saccharine crap and I did the same thing over and over. Those early songs had become something that wasn’t respected. I really had to step away from them--to get some distance--before I could appreciate them again.

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Q: What made you try another pop album--"Barry Manilow” in 1989?

A: I did it for (Arista Records president) Clive Davis. He wanted me to do a pop album because he believes in me so much as a pop artist--but the album didn’t do that well. I guess I didn’t have a handle on how to make music for pop radio.

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Q: Of all your albums, what’s your favorite?

A: That’s easy. It’s the “Paradise Cafe” album. It’s a jazz album that I wrote, arranged and produced. I called artists like Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme and Gerry Mulligan, and they were happy to collaborate with me. It was easily the most profound musical experience of my life.

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Q: Is the current show Broadway-style--with big production numbers?

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A: Not really. This is basically a stripped-down show, with music and lights. I think that’s the best way to present these songs--in as simple a setting as possible.

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Q: Do you modernize some of the oldies?

A: Not now. I’ve done some of these songs every possible way, probably in a misguided effort to keep them fresh. But I found that was silly, that I was ruining the songs. It’s better to do them in their original style.

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Q: Are there any of your hits that you’re not too crazy about?

A: Probably “Can’t Smile Without You"--which I didn’t write. I salvage it by doing it as a duet with some member of the audience, which makes it somewhat fresh for every show. But if I had to perform it straight--without the device of singing it with someone from the audience--I’d have trouble putting my heart and soul into it.

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Q: Do you listen to new pop music very much?

A: Sometimes I try to check out pop radio, but I can’t bear it. Most of it is too angry for me.

But I do like people like Sting and Tom Waits, who’s my favorite vocalist. Basically what I do is listen to classical music. That’s where I get my composing inspiration--from classical melodies--and a lot of my musical enjoyment.

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Q: What’s your next album going to be like?

A: What I’d like to do is go into the studio next summer and maybe make an album that’s a tribute to the big bands--like the Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman bands. What’s holding me back is not having an angle. I want to take some kind of different approach--but I don’t know what it is just yet.

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Q: Will you ever make another pure pop album?

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A: It’s not very likely, but I won’t say never. What I won’t do is another standard pop album that lumps together a bunch of unrelated songs.

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Q: What about the London stage production?

A: It’s a musical comedy based on the characters and story line of one of my songs, “Copacabana.” I’m overseeing the show, and I wrote the music and helped write the script. A production company in England heard about an Atlantic City casino show based on the song and wanted to do something bigger. I thought we could expand it to a two-act musical comedy. I’m not in the show--I’m just part of the creative team.

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Q: How do you rate yourself as a singer?

A: Not very highly. But I’ve never really considered myself a singer. Singing is the least of what I do. I don’t think about my voice--or coddle it like some singers do. I don’t even warm up before I sing. What I do, as effectively as I can, is try to convey the emotion of the lyric--to communicate the emotion of the song to the audience.

My biggest plus is that I sing in tune. But I’ve gotten braver as a singer. I crawl into the essence of a song in a way that I couldn’t before. Sometimes I’m hoarse but that doesn’t matter. If you’re singing from the heart, the audience will forgive you even if you don’t reach the notes.

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Q: Why do you continue to perform?

A: Because I love it. I don’t really need any more applause and I certainly don’t need any more money or any more gold records. In the old days I never enjoyed it--it used to be just a job to me. But over the years, I’ve finally started to enjoy it.


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