HER NAME was Lola. She was a showgirl. We all know the story of "Copacabana." Even babies who can't yet speak can sing it. But why? Why is this song lodged into the collective memory? Simply put, because Barry Manilow is blessed with a rare and powerful knack for melody and his voice is triple platinum. To date, the 71-year-old newlywed Manilow has sold more than 80 million records, with more than 50 Top 40 hits. Mr. Manilow spoke from Chicago before a concert there.
MERCURY: Hey, Barry! Thanks for doing this. I've got the all-access Manilow pass.
BARRY MANILOW: Hello. Okay. I didn't know we were doing that. What sort of access is it?
They said I get omelets in the greenroom. And Heineken.
Well if you find an omelet bar, let me know. I haven't seen one.
I think I also get organic broccoli.
You must be in a different greenroom than me. Because I don't even get that kind of broccoli. Are you sure you're talking to the right guy?
Yeah. You're Barry Manilow. You sing "Mandy." [I sing: "You kissed me and stopped me from shaking, and I need you today. Oh, Mandy."]
Not bad. I can tell there's some real emotion there. You'd have done well at the Sands in Vegas. Did you have any questions? Or did you just want to talk about broccoli and sing? [Laughs]
What's inside you that not many people know? What's the Barry we might not see?
I know I sing some softer emotional songs, but I'm closer to being a rock 'n' roller than people might realize. There's a big backbeat behind most of these ballads, if you listen to them. I never thought I made wimpy ballads. Take "Mandy" you're singing there; it's got a pretty big backbeat.
Is it really true you wrote "Copacabana" in 15 minutes?
I wrote the melody in 15 minutes. I was on vacation at the Copacabana Hotel in Rio de Janeiro. There were ashtrays and towels that said "Copacabana." Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman, the guys that wrote the lyrics, they took longer with it, writing the story.
Do you consider yourself a pop star?
I don't know where I fit in. Lots of critics have been uncomfortable seeing me as a pop star. I like to think of it as a pie. I've got my slice of this pie. It may be small, but it's mine.
What city has the best preshow broccoli? Do you get pissed if they serve the stale stuff from QFC?
More broccoli questions? Last one, right? The best broccoli was probably somewhere in Europe.
When you listen to "Mandy" does your own singing ever make you cry?
I actually don't think I sing so well. I want to connect with people, though. I'm passionate about it and try to sing that way. And I hope listeners can tell. Other singers can sing circles around me. If you listen to my songs, I want to move you. My main goal has always been to move people.
Was your success sudden or gradual? How did it change you?
When it happened, it was like a tornado. It made me an asshole at times. The schedule becomes demanding. You don't get much rest. You might say things you don't mean to say. I've apologized to many people [laughs]. I think it's harder to become a success than it is to be a failure. If you're a failure, you can go back to the drawing board with your tail between your legs and keep trying. But when you become successful and you're not prepared, it can be a bad combination. There are no preparation classes for that kind of thing.
At one point, you lost a lot of money?
Oh, I lost all of it, even after all the big records, "Mandy" and "Copacabana." I wasn't paying attention to finances. I didn't start off from money. I was bouncing checks at the grocery store when "Mandy" hit. When I made money, I got an accountant, and we invested in the wrong places. So I started over. I never felt lost, though. I figured if I could make it out of the slums of Brooklyn, I could get through anything.
Your recent album, My Dream Duets, is described as "duets with dead people." You're singing with Marilyn Monroe, Whitney Houston, Mama Cass, Judy Garland, and John Denver.
Everyone's doing duet albums. I thought, "How can I do a different duet album?" I made a list of people I've always wanted to sing with, and when I looked at it, all the people are no longer here. It was an album I never thought would happen. But musical technology has gone so far. Jay Landers at Verve Records found these genius technicians and engineers who were able to separate the vocals from the orchestras on those scratchy old records and just give me the voices. So I composed arrangements and put a brand-new orchestra under every song. I redid them a bit and did duets with the vocals. I had the best time putting it all together.
What was singing with Whitney like?
Incredible. It was really deep. It was like she was right there with this perfect, beautiful voice. I had Kleenex with me, wiping tears.