Ever since Barry Manilow arrived on the scene in the mid-’70s, opinions of the pop singer have fallen into one of two categories: love him or hate him.
However, over time, this black-and-white stance has softened. Just like Neil Diamond, longevity with good reason has painted the 68-year-old entertainer — with record sales exceeding 75 million and hit singles such as “Mandy,” “It’s A Miracle,” “Could It Be Magic,” “I Write the Songs,” “Tryin’ To Get the Feeling Again,” “This One’s For You,” “Weekend In New England,” “Looks Like We Made It,” “Can’t Smile Without You,” “Even Now” and the Grammy Award-winning “Copacabana [At the Copa]” — as a living legend.
Now the artist known for decades as the man who writes the songs that make the whole world sing returns to Northeast Ohio for a special Saturday night show at Covelli Centre. Supporting Manilow will be the Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, which actually is playing four dates on his mini-Midwest tour.
The Vindicator recently talked with Manilow about the impetus behind his new album, “15 Minutes,” which is his first original studio effort in a decade, as well as his chances of induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and what Youngstown can expect from his live show.
Q. Let’s start with the new album. What was the idea behind “15 Minutes?”
A. I had a good string of cover albums over the last eight years or so, and it was great to sing songs written by these wonderful composers. They were all very successful, but I did miss songwriting. I really did. And I have to tell you, during that eight years of cover albums, I was playing it safe. I know how to do that kind of thing. I needed to challenge myself. I wanted to write an original album based on something that I really wasn’t sure of. And that’s how “15 Minutes” started. It’s a very different-sounding album for me.
Q. Thematically speaking, what’s the narrative behind “15 Minutes?”
A. I wanted to do an album that wasn’t full of beautiful ballad standards, violins, oboes. I needed to find something that I wasn’t sure of, and that’s what this is. Nick (Anderson) is my songwriting partner. We looked around and said, “OK, what’s going on out there?” What we found was these reality shows making these young people into household names overnight. It was right around the time they were driving Britney Spears crazy; the paparazzi wouldn’t even let her get into her car to go to Starbucks. And Nick and I said, “Is that the price of fame these days? You can’t even get into your car to go to Starbucks.” So that seemed like a really good thing to write about: fame and success. How do you handle fame or success when you’re young? That’s where it started.
Q. Though you’re known for upbeat, popish material, some of the songs on “15 Minutes” are pretty dark.
A. Yeah, the story is pretty dark, and hopefully it comes back to a more positive ending, and it’s the truth. You see it all the time — these young people who want to be successful and they get it; because they have no experience, they blow it. They wind up on TMZ doing something silly, and with a little luck they start all over again with some experience. That’s what this is about.
Q. Thinking about your rise to stardom during the ’70s, how would you handle becoming a pop star today?
A. I don’t know whether I could have handled it. I had my own problems with becoming famous because when it hits you, you’re never prepared. So many of us worked so hard to get where we are, but when that moment happens and you become well-known, there is no school to show you how to behave. There’s no book to read. You better be grounded, otherwise it’s going to throw you for a loop, and it did me. I was 30 when “Mandy” came out. I was a musician and a conductor making records and performing and accompanying other people. And when “Mandy” hit, it knocked me over.
Q. Considering last year Neil Diamond finally was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, any thoughts about whether the doors will ever open up for Barry Manilow?
A. Oh geez, I don’t think I’d ever be there. If there was a pop hall of fame, I might be able to make it there — or an adult- contemporary hall of fame, I might be able to make that one; but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — I don’t think I’ll be there. That’s a stretch.
Q. Regarding your upcoming show, how much will it mirror your current Las Vegas concert?
A. Maybe the songs, but certainly not the production. We can’t move that production out of Vegas; it’s crazy. But we’re working with your own Youngstown Symphony Orchestra, so that’s a thrill to have them behind me playing “Weekend in New England.” That should be fantastic. My conductor will work with them for one full day, and that’s all they need. They just have to read it, play it well and we’ll do all four shows. So they’re my band; the 75 men and women are my band.
Q. Finally, the notion of an orchestra backing up the legend Barry Manilow seems quite apropos.