Don’t call what Barry Manilow is doing at the Wells Fargo Center a “tour.” The singer, songwriter, pianist and arranger gave up the road’s long slog in 2015 when he married his manager, Garry Kief, turned 72, and decided his 50-year career — writing and producing commercial jingles, playing piano for Bette Midler at New York’s Continental Baths, selling over 80 million records worldwide — should slow down.
Yet, he’s dropped a new album, This Is My Town: Songs of New York that hit the Top 10 upon release, is readying another record, and continuing his instrument-giving Manilow Music Project, in which he trades musical instrument donations for free tickets to his show (drop off any instruments to the Wells Fargo Center box office through Friday, or call 800-298-4200 for more information). “Bring them down to the Wells Fargo,” Manilow says. “We’ll fix them up, and give them to a school that need them.”
So you got married, took a break, but it didn’t wind up as much of a break. Did you get bored?
Yes and no. A new album was part of the plan, as were one-off shows — maybe a weekend or two — as I never want to stop performing. I just wanted to get off the road and hotels. I’ll never do that again.
Throughout the time that you were a touring artist, you never had a chance to sightsee. Now, that you’re chilled, have you gone anywhere?
No [laughs]. I just didn’t feel like leaving home. Getting those suitcases out, emotionally, kills me. And I never got to truly enjoy my home until now. I can live my life now.
Age is a number. From the Rolling Stones and the Who to Tony Bennett and Marilyn Maye: They maintain, carry on, create and have aesthetically rewarding careers. Is there a career you’ve watched grow up gracefully that acted as inspiration?
You’re right about age as I just can’t seem to connect with that number. Luckily, nothing has changed about me. Not my hair, my weight. I’m still skinny, the hair is full and I have all this music in me. Projects galore are set to follow. I feel like I’m 35, so I’m not getting old. Not yet.
Concerning the New York album, Did living in San Diego make you yearn for the NYC you remembered?
Well, that was my beginnings, and so exciting, realizing that I could have a career in music. When I got out of Brooklyn as a piano player, then going form gig to gig and recording studios in fast cabs for another company I had to jingles for — so thrilling.
What gave life to this new album then, because it is not the pop sound of our youth or yours?
When I slowed having pop hits, the albums that followed Read ‘Em and Weep were … well I couldn’t keep doing records that just had 10 love songs. I would bore myself with that. I had to find a concept that turned me on. 2 A.M. Paradise Café, Showstoppers, they all had these big ideas to them. Since I always wanted to pay tribute to my hometown, I ran the idea by Danny Bennett [Tony’s son, who runs the Verve label] and he loved it.
You wrote and/or co-wrote nearly all the songs on the new album. After the thousands already out there, how does one write an original song about NYC?
When I looked up New York songs on Google I had to stop at 10 pages, because I did want to make the new album half my songs and half others. And there are amazing, legendary songwriters who’ve tackled the subject. I just kept it personal. I loved Coney Island, because that was my coming up. I stuck to my experiences and came up with “On the Roof.” Sometimes, I work with a lyricist [Bruce Sussman], but the ideas are mine, so only two New York guys could’ve come up with “This is My Town.”
Because you are a quote-unquote pop legend, people forget how talented an arranger you are. You really sink your teeth in here, as the arrangements subtly merge bop, Broadway and orchestral music. What are you looking to do, as they don’t sound like anyone else?
It’s an amalgamation of all the styles I’ve loved. Big band, jazz, Tin Pan Alley pop — I think that I’ve put all of that into my arrangements. I can’t do rap and you won’t hear hip hop, because that isn’t me. You’ll always get big modulation, strings where they’ll surprise you, you’ll always get a grand finale, because that’s the Broadway stage in me.
“The Brooklyn Bridge” has you sampling Mel Torme’s voice, but using your arrangement on his version of the track. Sinatra did it before him. What’s your relationship with that tune, and Torme too, as you guys worked on Paradise Café together?
Right. Sinatra did it as a ballad and Torme bopped it up. I was trying to re-arrange it, but couldn’t hear it without Mel. I put my own stuff underneath, but it was very close to his — I couldn’t make it better. He was great, one of the few encouraging people when I came out of pop, into jazz. He was the guy who told me ‘It’s about time, Barry,’ when I mentioned doing jazz.
You were a behind-the-scenes musician at your start. When did you realize that you could be out-front?
Seriously, at the old Bijou Café in Philly. I was playing for Bette who was the greatest entertainer ever, and was just starting to sing out, first doing openers for Bette’s tours. I couldn’t figure what to do with my legs, I was terrible. But during the end of our run there, I did “Could It Be Magic” and a commercials medley and the audience was so welcoming. After that, I got confidence. I learned on the job. But Philly was crucial.
We have to discuss your Philly instrument-gifting program, the Manilow Music Project.
Whenever I play, I donate a piano, and then during my show, I’ll ask the audience if they have any old instruments gathering dust [and donate to those in need]. As a musician, I can’t stand seeing kids without instruments.
7:30 p.m. Friday, Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St.
Information: 800-298-4200, WellsFargoCenterPhilly.com