Life these days couldn’t be sweeter for Barry Manilow.
With five decades of music business success to his credit, he received the BMI Icon award Tuesday night in honor of that legacy, which boasts 85 million albums sold, 50 Top 40 singles, 12 No. 1 hits, and induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, not to mention Grammy, Tony and Emmy awards. And he’s just released “This Is My Town: Songs of New York” (Decca), his 31st studio album, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart in April.
To paraphrase one of Manilow’s hits, when did he realize he had finally made it?
When: 7:30 p.m. May 17
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“Last week!” Manilow says, chuckling. “I’m still working. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt that feeling that I finally made it. … I don’t think there has been a moment like that in my life because I’m always thinking about the next one. … I feel like I’ve made it when I sit at a piano and come up with a great chord change! That is as high as it gets for me. It starts and ends with the music. Not the fame or the legends, or awards. That’s great and I couldn’t be more grateful for it, but that’s not why I’m here.
“I never want to disappoint the fans. First and foremost, [my goal] is to give them work that they can be proud of. But most of all I want them to be proud of me as a human being. I’m very, very aware that there’s a lot of people who’ve been standing up for me and by me for years. And I never want to disappoint them, not only as a musician but most of all as a person. I’ve always tried to be a gentleman and a decent man [so] the people who’ve stood up for me can be proud of me.”
Never has Manilow felt the love and support of his fans more profoundly than the past few weeks after he very publicly acknowledged his 40-year relationship with his longtime manager, Garry Kief, who in 2014 became Manilow’s husband in a private ceremony at their Palm Springs estate. While news of the nuptials broke soon after the marriage, it wasn’t until April that Manilow publicly discussed being gay via a People magazine cover story.
Suggestions that he kept his sexuality a secret for decades are ridiculous, Manilow insists, since it was never really secret.
“Nothing has changed from the day before [the article in People] to the day after,” the singer says emphatically. “It’s been my life for 40 years. Everybody has always known that Garry and I have always been a couple — my band, my crew, my family, my friends. And 90 percent of the fans knew, and it really is no big deal. … I’m a 73-year-old guy, I’m not married to a woman and I love Judy Garland. You do the math. … It’s just that these days it really is no big deal [for an artist to reveal his or her sexuality]. … For me, there’s never been anything wrong with it. I could not be prouder of being a gay man and having a beautiful life and a great partner for 40 years.”
That beautiful life and partnership has also included raising a daughter, Manilow happily confirms.
“We have a daughter, Garry’s biological daughter, Kirsten, and we raised her together all these years. He was married with a 1-year-old daughter when we got together [Manilow was married briefly to his high school sweetheart, Susan Deixler, in the mid-1960s]. Kirsten’s turned out to be one of the most beautiful and smartest women you’ll ever meet.
“It’s so funny, not one interviewer over the years has asked me about my personal life,” Manilow continues. “Nobody from a record company ever brought it up and [yet] everybody knew. We went out to dinners and parties and nobody ever brought it up. … There was one guy in the ’70s that was interviewing me and just nailed me [on it] and of course I lied because that’s what you had to do back in those days. No [other] interviewer has ever asked, and if they had I would have been proud to answer.”
“Back in those days” was the 1970s, Manilow says, when he feared coming out would erode his female-heavy fan base or possibly end his career. “It was very difficult to do that [back then], to have a conversation like we’re having, because it would have [resulted in] a very negative article. … My fans have been so supportive, standing by me through all the bad reviews, the lousy shows. I couldn’t do that [to them] — to have them stand up for me with this [revelation] during those times where it would have been terrible news.”
Manilow is hoping the love and support of his fans will translate into an appreciation of his new album, his love letter to New York — from the tough Williamsburg, Brooklyn, neighborhood where he was born and raised, to the bright lights of Manhattan and Broadway, which would come to embrace him and his music.
“After the pop singles stopped, which was [around 1981] with “Read ‘Em and Weep,’ … the world of pop music started to change. It went from my kind of big ballads to the worlds of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. They stopped playing my records on the radio just as I was done with the world of pop radio. So it really wasn’t any choice. I had to figure out what to do if I was gonna continue to make records. And so I did the ‘[2:00 A.M.] Paradise Cafe’ album. And every album after 1984 had a [concept] to it. So that led to ‘Swing Street.’ After that it was a tribute to the big bands. After that it was a tribute to Broadway with ‘Showstoppers.’ And [amid all of those] one idea always was to do a city album. I had different songs for different cities that meant a lot to me. New York was always the [top of the list]. It was always, ‘Some day I’ll do a New York album.’ This was the right time.”
The new album, co-produced with David Benson, features a combination of classics and Manilow originals, including a rarely done (but familiar to Manilow music fans) medley cut— all of them about his beloved New York.
“When I started off making this album it was gonna be a little four-man combo jazz album,” Manilow says. “I started looking up the standards and I found there were a lot of standards written about New York. A lot of them were pop. So my idea of a little jazzy album went out the window. Then the whole album went wacky because there were a lot of different styles. There was the Broadway stuff, the jazz stuff, the R&B. And I was like, well, New York is a melting pot of different styles so [why not] an album having different styles of music?”
As always, Manilow went to work on the arrangements, his one true musical love (“I’ve never considered myself a singer”). “I always wanted to be Nelson Riddle,” he confesses. “When I was listening to the Beatles when I was younger I was really listening to George Martin, who was the guy who invented the string quartet behind ‘Eleanor Rigby.’ That’s the guy I wanted to be.”
The album’s lineup takes the listener on a journey through all of New York’s five boroughs, from a subway train ride to Coney Island to Manhattan to a virtual duet with the late Mel Torme on a rarely recorded song about a very famous bridge, using Torme’s “perfect arrangement.”
“When I decided I would do [‘The Brooklyn Bridge’] I could not figure out any arrangement that would be any better than what Mel did. He was an arranger like me.”
As for his personal life, Manilow says it remains rock-solid, even though some would argue having one’s husband for a manager is not always a good idea.
“That’s the miracle of this relationship. It’s a relationship built on respect, and we’ve never bumped heads about anything,” Manilow says. “Garry’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met. He’s a great manager. He takes care of my career on the business level and I take care of the music and we plan out what we’re want to do together. … [As for the People article] it’s about two guys who made it through 40 years. … Maybe that will make people feel good. Maybe it will inspire some young people that they can do it, too. [Ours] has been a very positive love story. … [Laughing] We’re still talking to each other!”