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Oh Mandy! Barry Manilow is back, baby

Singer-songwriter's blast from past returns him to hipness — again
/ Source: The Associated Press

The first time Barry Manilow immersed himself in pop radio, he was an unknown singer-songwriter looking for his first hit with a song called "Mandy" — a tune he wasn't too thrilled about.

So he decided to check out what the competition had to offer.

"I turned the radio on and I heard 'Kung Fu Fighting' and 'Disco Duck,'" said Manilow, laughing. "I said, 'These people need me!' And that was my first entrance into pop music."

Now, some three decades later, Manilow, still disenchanted with pop radio, finds himself needed again. But instead of coming to the rescue of listeners with the sentimental, semi-schmaltzy ballads that made him famous, this time he has returned with "The Greatest Songs of the Fifties" — an Arista Records collection of classic romantic tunes, including revered songs like Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight" and the album's first single, "Unchained Melody."

"I think if ‘Unchained Melody' does what I think it can do, I think there is an audience out there that would heave a sigh of relief — that finally, there is a melody, and orchestration, production, and a vocalist that is giving them a song that they can just listen to ... and not be annoyed by the vocal acrobatics that vocalists seem to think is impressive," said Manilow, with a hint of frustration in his voice.

Winner on the chartsSo far, fans are demonstrating their relief not by sighing, but by racing to buy up his album. It debuted at the top of the charts after its Jan. 31 release and has hovered near the top spot since, outselling albums from the likes of Jamie Foxx, Carrie Underwood and Mary J. Blige.

"For him to do the great songs of the '50s and for the public to respond in that way, it's just phenomenal," said record mogul Clive Davis, Manilow's former mentor and a producer of his latest album. "The stores have just been running out of it."

Manilow's success with retro pop tunes might be compared to another aging blond pop star who has breathed new life into his career by reaching into the past — Rod Stewart, who also teamed with Davis for his "The Great American Songbook," series, which gave him his best-selling albums in years.

But Manilow, who has previously done albums featuring the music of Frank Sinatra and big bands, and who recently produced Bette Midler's tribute albums to Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee, sternly denies being inspired by the spate of singers warbling pop standards from the '40s and '50s.

In fact, without singling out anyone in particular, Manilow seems to have as much disdain for modern interpretations of those classics as he does contemporary pop radio.

"There's one part of me that is very grateful for these singers who continue to introduce these brilliant songs to a younger generation that might not know them," said Manilow. "And of course there's another part of me that is appalled by the dreadful versions of them. ... I have been in the music business for too long and I've heard the best, and I know what the best is, and when I hear people attempting to do it and they don't know what they're doing, it just ruins my day."

Initially, Manilow didn't set out to show others how it should be done. In fact, Manilow wasn't all that interested in the idea of crooning '50s classics when Davis broached the subject during a backstage visit in Las Vegas, where Manilow performs his own classics in his "Music and Passion" show.

"I hadn't really thought about the '50s; The '50s kind of passed me by when I was growing up," said the 59-year-old Manilow, dressed in black and sitting in his palatial penthouse hotel suite.

"When I began to get into music and actually find myself connecting to music, it wasn't those songs. It wasn't the '50s. It was the generation before the '50s, the Ella Fitzgeralds and the Sinatras and the writers like Johnny Mercer."

But he decided to give the idea consideration simply because Davis suggested it. After all, it was Davis who first made Manilow a star, signing him to his new Arista label 31 years ago and pushing him to record the No. 1 hit song "Mandy" — even though Manilow thought it wouldn't connect with audiences.

"Being the obnoxious, ambitious young man that I was, I turned it down, and he insisted, and I said, 'Oh, alright'," he recalled. "And our collaboration began then, and continued for 15 years, and it was one after the next. It was hair raising. Every five months it was another hit."

Manilow had his greatest successes with Davis at Arista, but left a few years ago when it became clear the pop albums that he wanted to do were not a priority.

"It is difficult for an artist of my age to do an original album, you ask anybody my age, the original albums come from the younger people," he said. "We people over the age of 35, 40 50, it's got to be an event, some kind of concept, some kind of hook."

Not interested in an event albumAnd Manilow didn't want to do that kind of event album at that point of his career. So he went to Concord Records, best known for jazz albums and its release of Ray Charles' posthumous, Grammy-winning best seller, "Genius Loves Company." There, he released two albums that had been his dream — "Here at the Mayflower," a concept album about tenants in an apartment building, and "Scores: Songs from Copacabana and Harmony," his two musicals.

"Concord was just fantastic to me. They said, 'Whatever you want to do, if it turns you on, it turns us on'," he said. "And then Clive came with this interesting idea, totally on the other spectrum of what I had been doing."

So he took Davis' suggestion — and his list of about 80 songs — and started researching the music of the era that passed him by. And he found himself enchanted.

"What I found was that they were good," he said. "They were well written, they were innocent."

And they remain timeless, resonating with listeners some 50 years after they were originally recorded.

Manilow has been so inspired by the success of that project, he is open to exploring the music of other eras as well.

"I wonder if they would enjoy a tribute to the songs of the '60s, in this style — not Herman's Hermits. Not me trying to do 'She Loves You'," he said.

"And if that works, maybe there's a 'Songs of the '70s and '80s'" — which leaves the possibility that Manilow could be recording his own classics down the line.