LIKE clockwork, the Mercedes arrived and parked at the foot of a runway in the small, posh airport that serves this air-conditioned resort city. The famous driver, with no luggage, climbed aboard a sleek little jet. Not 10 minutes later, the plane whisked past scrub and sagebrush and up through desert thermals.
And just like that, Barry Manilow was on his way to work.
The singer's home is a five-minute drive from the airport so, even though he plays five shows a week at the Las Vegas Hilton, he sleeps in his own bed. "I live in Palm Springs," he explained of the hilltop house where he lives alone. "There's just no quiet in Vegas."
A short time later, the plane banked and a sharp curtain of sunlight fell across the 62-year-old songwriter's distinctive profile, the same profile that still turns him sullen at the thought of photo shoots despite three decades of fame. Squinting, he surveyed the rugged terrain below. "It's beautiful in the light, isn't it?" he asked. Maybe we all appreciate moments in the sun more as we get older; three weeks ago, "The Greatest Songs of the Fifties," Manilow's new album (the 54th of his career), debuted at No. 1 on the U.S. pop charts, a feat he had never accomplished, not even in the days of "Mandy," "Copacabana (At the Copa)," or all the other 1970s hits that made him a star. No one was more surprised by this than Manilow. "I was floored. It's unreal, absolutely unreal."
Keeping it real is an interesting concept when it comes to Manilow. His recordings possess a spot in the popular consciousness comparable to the paintings of Thomas Kinkade: They are undeniably popular, highly polished in their craft and possessing of a trademark twinkle. That twinkle, to true believers, makes the songs magical but it makes everyone else pretty much giggle or groan.
When he catapulted onto the charts in 1974 with the melodramatic hit "Mandy," Manilow was lanky and almost girlish with his doe eyes and blond tresses, a Shaun Cassidy look-alike behind a baby grand. His handlers fibbed about his age (he was 32, not 29), hoping to enhance his affinity with the Tiger Beat crowd, and Manilow became a king of the slow-skate song. The hits dried up in the early 1980s and Manilow shifted, through age and necessity, to a stage presence more like Liza Minnelli -- head back, chin aimed at the spotlight and belting out songs of show-stopping vindication typified by "I Made It Through the Rain." In one-on-one conversation, Manilow is far less melodramatic.
"I'm good, not great," he said as the plane streaked toward the state line. "I know the difference. Sinatra is great. Judy [Garland] is great. Tony Bennett is great. I'm pretty good. But you can go far on pretty good if you work hard and pay attention."
The singer is well aware of the perception of him, which ranks somewhere between Wayne Newton and "Riverdance" for cool-factor rating. "Ask the general guy out in the public about me, he doesn't get it and the critics, well, they've never gotten it," Manilow said. "That's OK. The fans get it. And I've never been part of what's going on. I've always been on the outside."
Manilow was at a loss when asked if he knew the music of any of the other artists on the album charts today. He looked to his personal assistant. "Do I?" The singer's face was completely blank. "Wait, Mary J. Blige, I know her music, but not the new stuff." He shrugged at the rest of the names mentioned.
"The music I love, the things I care about, it's Gershwin and show tunes and standards ... I've always been separate from what was going on, even when I was getting radio hits. Even when I've been No. 1, I was somewhere else."
This time, with the new album, the somewhere else is five decades ago, singing "Unchained Melody," "Venus," "Beyond the Sea" and other jukebox selections from the Eisenhower administration. For the record, Manilow had no desire to do this album, none at all: "What on Earth are you going to do different with songs that everybody has heard a million times?"
But the idea for the album came from Clive Davis, the music impresario who has been a guiding hand in the career resurrections of Carlos Santana and Rod Stewart, the latter a rocker who was coaxed into performing standards with spectacular commercial results. Davis has been at Manilow's back since the very beginning. It was at Davis' urging that Manilow recorded "Mandy," a song the singer wasn't particularly enthused about at the time.
"When he talks, I listen," Manilow said. "Clive understands what will work, what people want, what will be successful in the market." That is not the case with Manilow. Whether he is sitting in the pressurized cabin of his Gulfstream jet or singing at center stage, Manilow is in a bubble that blurs his view when he tries to peer out. He is wary when he speaks and plainly mystified by pop culture, circa 2006.
"Television is just -- ugh -- I can't bear watching anything anymore since 'Laverne & Shirley' went off the air." The shows he enjoys most these days are archival collections of old variety shows, some on kinescope. Davis has him working now on a list of 1960s songs for the logical follow-up to "Greatest Songs of the Fifties." Don't expect to hear anthems of the counterculture. Woodstock doesn't echo in Manilow's ears.
"When it comes to the music of the 1960s, it's Andy Williams," he said without a trace of irony. "Andy Williams was the 1960s."
Firing the shot first
MANILOW has got the Palm Springs look down. He arrived for the plane trip in a pristine windbreaker, black slacks ironed to a razor crease and wide silver rings on two fingers. Like many of the fans he plays to, he has turned to makeup and plastic surgery to keep his appearance as youthful as his outlook. But despite all of that, it's easy to hear the workaday inflections of the Brooklyn neighborhood where he grew up. Manilow has been beaten up by critics for so long it'd be easy for him to turn severe or go reclusive. Instead he sports the same strategy as William Shatner -- mock yourself before the other guy does.
"I don't take myself seriously, and I haven't for a long time. But maybe in the early days, in the 1970s; back then, after 'Mandy,' there were these reviews that were really, really brutal. I didn't understand the whole thing, how these people could say something so cruel and personal to someone they didn't know. I didn't do anything to them or to their mother, but they were tearing me up for what I did, the way I dressed, my hair, everything. And I thought I was doing great. I still do. I'm proud. But you do have to stop taking yourself seriously or it will just tear you up."
Manilow shifted in his seat and made a sour face. He didn't want to talk anymore. "My throat, I'm getting hoarse."
A few moments later he was back in a comfortable spot in his bubble of music culture. "Dean Martin is so underrated," he said during a long discussion of Vegas performers. He began dissecting Martin's stage shtick, the banter and the false appearance of effortlessness. The next topic was Liberace, a performer Manilow thought very little of until he recently viewed some old performances.
"Man, he could play the piano; I gained a lot more respect for him," Manilow said. He held his hands up and began to describe Liberace's deftness by playing the air in front of him. "Forget all of the rest of the stuff -- the costumes, the candelabra on stage, all of it -- he was an amazing pianist. He was playing this complicated Chopin piece and there was not a single clam, he killed it."
Manilow questioning the cultural heft of Liberace might invite thoughts of how much in common they share, but if this occurred to Manilow, it was never apparent in his expression. The plane touched down smoothly in Las Vegas. A short drive later, Manilow stood at a rear entrance to the Hilton, the same building where Elvis Presley famously performed during his strange career twilight in the city of casinos.
"This, this is my life here, walking in with the garbage," Manilow said. He was passing by a loading dock behind the hotel's huge kitchen and the stench from the dumpsters was overpowering. The unfinished cocktails and discarded mounds from the buffet had been putrefying in the desert heat all day. As some Hilton security people watched with unease, Manilow stopped, strolled over to the trash bins and asked for his picture to be taken. "It'll be great! If you don't use it you can send it to me." He gave a wan smile and stuffed his hands in his jacket pockets. After the flashes stopped, he walked toward backstage in silence.
IT'S hard to fathom the highs and lows Manilow must feel when he looks out on his image reflected in pop culture. He's a bright man, so it cannot escape him when he is mocked. A typical swipe at the former jingle writer: Robert Hilburn in The Times in 1977 wrote, "I still think this guy hit his peak when he wrote the State Farm Insurance commercial. I wonder if they have a policy protecting us from sentimental sludge like this." When the Ray Stevens spoof song "I Need Your Help, Barry Manilow" came out in the late 1970s, the singer's name was already synonymous with saccharine. Adding insult to injury, the face of Beavis, the cartoon moron on "Beavis and Butthead," was partly based on Manilow's features.
But the only thing worse than bad press is no press. The publicity material he sends out contains a line from Rolling Stone magazine from two decades ago that acknowledged that "most probably he's the showman of our generation," but the latest edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, a reference of the first order in pop and rock music, ignores Manilow completely. Not a single album is reviewed. The guide has enough ink to include reviews of every album released by Neil Diamond, Celine Dion and ABBA -- not to mention appraisals of 'N Sync, Vanilla Ice and Milli Vanilli.
"Barry has absolutely been underrated and not recognized often enough as being one of the truly timeless voices and artists," Davis said. The music executive said that through the years he often counseled Manilow and told him to try to ignore the critical barbs. "Most of the critics are of rock background and that's an insular view ... they don't appreciate people of pure pop style," Davis said. "But the pop songs define a time."
Things have changed for Manilow with the success of the new album and the Vegas show, "Music and Passion," which debuted in February 2005. The engagement at the Hilton came after "One Night Live! One Last Time!" that was billed as Manilow's last road tour. "Music and Passion" also spawned a special with the same title that aired March 9 on PBS, which will certainly push his album further up the charts this week.
"What this new album allowed me to do is get made fun of on all of the television talk shows I couldn't get on last year," Manilow said. "And that feels great. It means I'm back on their radar." Davis, the record executive, had told Manilow that the way to hammer away on the album's sales would be to run through every television appearance possible. And Manilow did just that, even if it meant singing "Copacabana" on "Dancing With the Stars" and immersing himself in the foreign trappings of "American Idol." It would seem logical to presume that Manilow seems made for these television times (How far off could Clay Aiken be from Manilow's musical core?), but the singer says the new-model shows are a mystery to him.
"I don't get this stuff, it's oddball stuff, but it's what you have to do now," he said. "There are no variety shows now, and with most of the talk shows if you get on, you're relegated to the last three minutes of the show. On ["The Tonight Show" with Johnny] Carson I used to come over and sit down on the couch for half the show. It was the same with [Carson's replacement, Jay] Leno in the early days. That's gone for music now."
Manilow's most surreal adventure of late was a visit to Martha Stewart's show. He diligently showed up as his record label had asked, but he tried to beg out when Stewart's people said the show would have him spend a good deal of the broadcast in the set's kitchen.
"How strange is it that now on television you have to sing 'Unchained Melody' in a kitchen? Honestly, that is just bizarre. And look, I don't even go into a kitchen. I was raised by people that didn't go into kitchens. My mom and stepfather were out all of the time getting drunk. They would tell me to pop a frozen dinner into the oven. So I go on the show and I'm terrified that I'm going to make an idiot of myself. I walk out and I see this big thing in the corner with a window. I ask, 'Well, what's that?' They tell me, 'That's a refrigerator.' And I'm thinking to myself, 'This is not going to go well. It didn't look like a refrigerator; it had a window on the front. What do I know?' "
Manilow has been tuning in to "Idol" more lately, and there is talk that he might have a special appearance on the show that, considering its gargantuan influence these days, is something he is excited about. How would he have done as an "American Idol" contestant? "Are you kidding? I never would have made it, not for a minute. Can you imagine me winning? I can't."
A legacy in song
A few hours before call time at the Hilton, Manilow meandered to the middle of the hotel's theater, crossed his arms and made a face. On stage, his band and singers were hammering away at the dense crescendo of a medley of songs from Manilow's album "Here at the Mayflower." The swirl of music and cross-lyric vocals is intended to create the energy of a street party, but at that moment it sounded more like a riot of conflicting musical ideas.
"It's a mess," Manilow announced. The players and singers on stage run through again ... and again and again. Manilow peels away layers, subtracting from the arrangement. He tells one player: "That long note you're playing, if I wrote that long note, I didn't mean to. I hate it." By the end, after a dozen tries, the section of the song is far crisper and more powerful to the ear. "That's it, that'll do," Manilow said.
A New York girl of Irish heritage named Edna Manilow married Harold Pincus, who was of Russian Jewish lineage, but they divorced not long after the birth of their son, Barry, who would legally take his mother's name in his teen years. She and her ex-husband's parents raised the boy and eked out a living in a neighborhood that Manilow has described as streets of laundry lines and hardscrabble lives. The boy loved music and took up the accordion. His grandfather took a profound interest in the youngster's budding musicality.
During his shows at the Hilton, Manilow weaves this family lore into the act by telling how his grandfather spent his hard-earned quarters dropping them into a novelty recording booth and coaxing the child to sing. Manilow even pauses during the show, and some of those early recordings are piped in for the crowd. There's an expected sentimental rush among the audience, which skews toward the senior citizen set and is dominated by women.
Many have been seeing him for years; the "Fanilows," as his most devout followers call themselves, are sort of like Deadheads but with AARP cards and a penchant for sequins and late-model Cadillac sedans. Despite the ardor of the audience (which lets out a mildly lusty cheer when Manilow sways his hips or doffs his shiny jacket), Manilow said the shows at the Hilton have been the hardest work he's had in decades. The crowd is watered down by high rollers, camp guests and tourists who, unlike the Fanilows, aren't screaming from the first notes. "I really have to dig most nights, so it is different. But they leave happy, and it's a great challenge."
Manilow does a show-stopping duet of "Mandy" -- which he happens to perform with himself. The song is set up by a 1975 video of Davis on the old "Midnight Special" music show introducing his great new find, Manilow, who performs with those same doe eyes and a shimmering mane of hair. The video pauses and Manilow, behind a piano that floats to center stage, begins swapping verses with himself. The crowd, of course, goes wild.
If there is a song that defines Manilow it's probably "I Write the Songs" with its over-the-top opening lines: "I've been alive forever / And I wrote the very first song / I put the words and the melodies together / I am music / And I write the songs."
It's a funny twist that Manilow didn't actually write "I Write the Songs" (it was Bruce Johnston of the Beach Boys, in tribute to Brian Wilson), but its sweeping music and soft-focus earnestness make it an anthem for the singer and his fans, who sing along at the Hilton with moist eyes. Fanilows love their idol's unabashed sentimentalism, and plenty of songs have a melancholy theme. His songs make the young girls cry, as the song goes, but he said he gets through life without too many tears.
"If I had one thing I could change, it would be the fact that I don't really have conversations and get to meet and know people," he said. He paused and chose his words carefully. "I walk into a room, or an elevator or a party or whatever, and I can't have real conversations. People can't get past this star-guy thing. It's not lonely, but if I could get anything back, it would be that -- to talk to people, you know, not just sing to them. But I've got no complaints."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Just a little bit of Barry's in store
BARRY MANILOW'S die-hard fans are notoriously passionate -- they are called "Fanilows" -- and the singer gives them plenty of ways to express their affection with cash, check or credit card.
At the Las Vegas Hilton, you can visit the Manilow store to buy a "Copacabana" bobble head, "Mandy" T-shirts, back issues of the singer's slick fan magazine, Manilow-approved jewelry that runs as pricey as $950 for a necklace or a bottle of Manilow's own brand of Cabernet Sauvignon from a vineyard in Northern California.
For $10, you can join the BMIFC (that would be the Barry Manilow International Fan Club), and for $1,000, you can attend the club's August convention in Vegas and maybe even meet the man.
Manilow is hardly the only veteran artist who has branded himself and his music (Jimmy Buffett has a chain of "Margaritaville" bars, for example), but there may be no one who does more of it. "The main thing is not to embarrass yourself," Manilow said of the revenue streams. His fans, though, are encouraged to embarrass themselves -- the Manilow Store has an elaborate recording booth where, for $20, customers can record themselves as they belt out the old hits.
He charts the songs
Barry Manilow had a successful career as a jingle writer (among them: "Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm Is There" and "You Deserve a Break Today ... at McDonald's") and became a star with a run of 1970s hits. "The Greatest Songs of the Fifties" is the first Manilow collection to hit No. 1 on the album chart since "Barry Manilow Live" in 1977 and the only one to debut in the top spot. The singer has recorded 17 singles that broke the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but none have charted since 1988. The hits and peak position:
"It's a Miracle" (12)
"Could It Be Magic" (6)
"I Write the Songs" (1)
"Tryin' to Get the Feeling Again" (10)
"Weekend in New England" (10)
"Looks Like We Made It" (1)
"Can't Smile Without You" (3)
"Even Now" (19)
"Copacabana (At the Copa)" (8)
"Ready to Take a Chance Again" (11)
"Somewhere in the Night" (9)
"When I Wanted You" (20)
"I Made It Through the Rain" (10)
"The Old Songs" (15)
"Read 'Em and Weep" (18)
Contact Geoff Boucher at calendar.letters @latimes.com.