Manilow can’t smile without you, ‘Fanilows’

Barry Manilow is “pretty sure” this happened: Bob Dylan walked up to him at a party, hugged him, and whispered in his ear: “Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re all inspired by you.”

“Either he was stoned or I was stoned, but . . .” Manilow, 74, recalls with a laugh. Of course, maybe all that matters is Manilow believes it happened. “The only way I could keep going were the people who kept telling me not to listen” to the critics, he says.

Manilow is refreshingly unscripted: You hear his sense of humor, his keen self-awareness, his penchant for self-deprecation.


He’s also almost painfully aware of his critics (“I really wasn’t very good. The audiences were so kind to me, though,” he says of his early days) and grateful to his devoted tribe of “Fanilows” who helped turn a jingle writer from Brooklyn (“I am stuck on Band-Aid, ’cause a Band-Aid’s stuck on me” and “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there”) into an international adult contempo superstar, whose hits include “Mandy” and “Copacabana (At the Copa).”

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We caught up with the Emmy, Grammy, and Tony winner for a wide-ranging interview, as he readies to sing old favorites and new tracks off his latest record, “This Is My Town: Songs of New York” at TD Garden Tuesday. He expects this show in Boston to go over a lot better than his first one, 40-plus years ago at Paul’s Mall.

Q. Tell me about your new album. What sparked the idea for this love letter to New York?

A. I always had an idea to do a tribute to New York. I always knew it was going to be half standards and half originals. The hard part was choosing the standards. I went on Google just to see songs about New York, and there must’ve been 500 songs.

Q. What are your first memories of music growing up?


A. I was raised by my grandparents and my mother — this was not a musical family, but they all knew I was musical, even when I was very young. They had no money, they were barely putting food on the table, and the best they could do was put an accordion in my hands, and [get me] an accordion teacher. I was good at it, I didn’t mind it, and the best thing is I learned to read music.

The beginning of my knowledge of music was when my stepfather Willie Murphy came into my life. He brought a stack of records with him that may as well have been a stack of gold. Those records were the beginning of my musical adventure. Whatever I was feeling when I would play those records, I wanted to keep that feeling forever. I was only 13. But I knew it.

Q. And you started out writing jingles.

A. [To work as] a performer and singer and a guy who makes records — it never dawned on me that that’s where I’d end up. I was happy doing everything in the background. I was happy playing for other singers; I was happy arranging and conducting for other people. I was doing real well writing jingles. They still play a few of them, even 40-something years later. I only got $500 for “State Farm is there.” [Laughs] Because they buy you out. Nobody expects it to last more than a month.

Q. Then you started accompanying Bette Midler.


A. She was just one singer I was playing piano for and arranging for, but of course she was the best of all of them. It was so obvious she was brilliant. I went on the road with her for no money. For the first few years we were all broke, going from city to city in a little Volkswagen. And [then] it just exploded, the way everyone thought it would for her.

‘I made the first record . . . and went on the road [in 1974]. I actually played in Boston, I played in a terrible place called Paul’s Mall. My God, they hated me at Paul’s Mall. That was the first gig ever, ever as a performer. I mean, yes, I agree, I was terrible.’

In the meantime, I’d started to write songs of my own, with my collaborators, and because I had no money to hire a bona fide singer, I sang my own demos. And I wasn’t bad — I wasn’t great, but I wasn’t bad. Those were the years, in the early ’70s, when singer-songwriters were really the thing — James Taylor, Carole King, Joni Mitchell, all the record companies were looking for that.

Bell Records offered me a record contract, which was crazy because I wasn’t a singer. I told Bette, “I think I got a record contract.” She said, “Doing what?” [Laughs] I said, “Singing.” She said, “You don’t sing!”

So I made the first record, and you’ve got to go on the road and promote it. So I put a band together, and went on the road [in 1974]. I actually played in Boston, I played in a terrible place called Paul’s Mall. My God, they hated me at Paul’s Mall. That was the first gig ever, ever as a performer. I mean, yes, I agree, I was terrible. I called my manager and said, “I can’t do this. I can’t go anywhere else.” He said, “Just go one more place, in Philadelphia.” I said, “OK, I’ll go to Philadelphia.” And from Philadelphia on, everything turned better. Audiences liked me. But I’ll never forget Paul’s Mall.

So I went on the road as a performer, and the records started to sell. Then we did “Mandy,” and my life exploded into a million pieces.

Q. You must’ve been blown away by the success of that.

A. It was a confusing, terrifying, and exciting time.

Q. You’ve said there was an era where you felt hated?

A. The critics were after me, oh my God. I really wasn’t very good. The audiences were so kind to me, though. When I was at the piano, I was fine, but when I got up and tried to be funny, I was terrible. But [fans] didn’t mind; they were saying, “Keep going, we like what you’re doing.” Critics couldn’t stand it. As soon as I had that number one record, oh my God, they tried to annihilate me. I’d pull covers over my head and go into self-pity. And then the band, the record company, my family, then all these strangers would tell me, “Keep going, there’s something happening.” The only way I could keep going were the people who kept telling me not to listen [to the critics].

Q. You got a lot of support from your fans when you came out about your marriage [to longtime manager Garry Kief in 2014].

A. Man, did I. We’ve been together about 40 years, and I was a little nervous about how people would react, but gee, it couldn’t be more positive. The fans I have, they care for me. It’s deeper than I would’ve ever thought. They really care about me. When they read that I wasn’t alone with a dog all my life, that I had someone with me for 40 years, and we’re two guys, and we’re still together, and still happy, they couldn’t have been happier.

Q. Do you have any other memories of Boston that are better than Paul’s Mall?

A. After [that], all those shows we did in every area of Boston were wonderful, wonderful. I played at the Wang Center, that was beautiful; we’ve played theaters, outdoor places, indoor places, I’ve played Boston so many years. And whenever I get to “Time in New England” [from the song “Weekend in New England”], forget about it. I have to repeat that line four times before I can move on. [Laughs]


At TD Garden, Boston, Oct. 3 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets from $25,

Interview was edited and condensed. Lauren Daley can be reached at ldaley33@