You may consider the 1970s as the treasure trove of sentimental romantic ballads, known for their slick and lush production and sweeping, heart-stopping choruses. Up to now, they have remained popular. Several radio stations around the world still play these 1970s love songs, even many years after they faded from the Billboard pop charts.
When you think of the 1970s ballads, the name “Barry Manilow” would almost automatically pop in your head. Indeed, Barry Manilow was one of the bankable artists of the decade. Thanks to his talent, onstage charm, and of course, his songs that made his millions of female fans swoon, he enjoyed massive commercial success. Who cares about music critics when you’re amassing million-dollar sales from your hit songs and albums, right?
Just look at the numbers: Manilow has recorded and released 51 Top 40 singles on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, including 13 that reached number one, 28 singles in Top 10, and 36 singles in the Top 20. He has released 13 platinum and six multi-platinum albums and sold over 85 million records worldwide. Although not a critics’ favorite, Manilow has been praised by fans and fellow artists, including the late Frank Sinatra.
Early life and music career
Barry Manilow was born Barry Alan Pincus in Brooklyn, New York, on June 17, 1943. He is of Russian Jewish and Irish descent. His father left the family when he was two years old, and many years later he adopted his mother’s maiden name, Manilow.
Manilow was exposed to music at a young age, taking up piano and accordion and becoming an accomplished musician. His stepfather’s influence brought Manilow to the world of jazz and Broadway show tunes.
Manilow enrolled in the City College of New York, where he studied for a time before enrolling in the New York College of Music (now part of New York University) and then to Juilliard School of Music.
To support his studies, he worked in the mailroom at CBS, which eventually led to other jobs for the network’s local affiliate, first as a film editor and then as a musical director of a talent show. Throughout the rest of the 1960s and the early 1970s, Manilow worked as an arranger, a television commercial jingle writer and singer, and a composer and arranger of songs for an Off-Broadway theatrical production. He also worked as a piano accompanist for other artists in several performances, auditions, and recording sessions.
In 1971, Manilow met singer Bette Midler and soon became her accompanist, musical director, and producer of her first two albums, The Divine Miss M (1972) and Bette Midler (1973).
Singing and recording career in the 1970s
While working with Midler and other artists, Manilow launched his own music career in 1973 with his eponymous debut album on Bell/Arista Records. The album consisted of songs of diverse styles ranging from piano-driven pop to guitar rock.
While his first album sold pretty well, Manilow found breakthrough success with his second album, Barry Manilow II, released in 1974. The album’s lead single, “Mandy,” rose to number one on the Billboard pop and adult contemporary charts.
“Mandy” was originally titled “Brandy,” a song written by Scott English and Richard Kerr. It was originally recorded by English in 1971 and then by New Zealand singer Bunny Walters in 1972. When Manilow recorded the song, the title was changed to “Mandy” to avoid confusion with the Looking Glass hit single “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”
Following Barry Manilow II’s success, Bell/Arista remixed and re-released his debut album as Barry Manilow I (1975).
Manilow went on to enjoy a string of hit albums throughout the 1970s: Trying to Get the Feeling (1975, double platinum), This One’s for You (1976, double platinum), Even Now (1978, triple platinum), and One Voice (1979, platinum).
Those hit albums featured singles that placed on the Billboard Top 10 and Top 20 pop singles chart: “It’s a Miracle,” (#12), “Could It Be Magic” (#6), “I Write the Songs” (#1), “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” (#10), “Weekend in New England,” (#10), “Looks Like We Made It,” (#1), “Can’t Smile without You,” (#3), “Even Now” (#19), “Copacabana (At the Copa)” (#8), “Somewhere in the Night,” (#9), “Ships” (#9), and “When I Wanted You” (#20). Almost all of these singles went to number one on the Billboard adult contemporary chart.
Despite being a songwriter in his own right, many of Manilow’s hits were penned by other songwriters (apart from “Mandy”). For instance, “Trying to Get the Feeling” was written by David Pomeranz; “Looks Like We Made It” and “Somewhere in the Night” by Richard Kerr and Will Jennings; “Can’t Smile without You” by Chris Arnold, David Martin, and Geoff Morrow; and, ironically, “I Write the Songs” by Bruce Johnson. “I Write the Songs,” by the way, won a Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1977.
A skilled entertainer, Manilow headlined several sold-out North American and international concerts and tours to promote and support his albums. In 1977 he received a Special Tony Award for his Broadway concert.
The 1980s and 1990s
During the first half of the 1980s, much of Manilow’s singles and albums did pretty well. Although they weren’t as successful as his releases during the 1970s, Manilow’s 1980s output remained relatively strong Billboard chart placers, especially on the adult contemporary side. He continued to be a successful performer, enjoying one sold-out concert and after another. At the same time, he sought to become more stylistically diverse and develop his artistic craft further.
Manilow opened the decade with his seventh studio album, Barry, in November 1980. It became his first album not to reach the Billboard top 10 album chart, peaking at #15. However, it yielded a Billboard top 10 single, “I Made it Through the Rain,” which he co-wrote. He followed it up with another album, If I Should Love Again (1981), which contained two Billboard Top 40 pop singles, “The Old Songs” (#15) and “Somewhere Down the Road” (#21); both of them also went to number one on the Billboard adult contemporary chart.
In 1984, Manilow treaded a new musical territory as he moved away from mainstream pop. He released his 10th studio album, 2:00 AM Paradise Café, a jazz-blues collection of barroom songs recorded in one live take in the studio. The album featured guest appearances by Mel Tormé, Gerry Mulligan, and Sarah Vaughan.
In 1985, Manilow made his acting debut – and starred in his only lead acting role – in a TV movie Copacabana (based on his 1978 hit song of the same name), aired on CBS. After releasing four albums on RCA Records, Manilow returned to Arista in 1987 with a new album Swing Street, which presented a mixture of traditional and techno jazz.
He continued recording and touring during the 1990s. His holiday album, Because It’s Christmas (1990) was a platinum success. He continued to seek further inspiration from the pre-rock era, and it was especially manifested through his albums Showstoppers (1991) and Singing with the Big Bands (1994).
The 2000s and present
As with many artists, Manilow’s album sales started to decline in the mid-1980s the 1990s. But like many great artists, he experienced a recording resurgence during the new millennium. He released another holiday album, A Christmas Gift of Love (2002), which was certified gold. In 2006, he released his 20th studio album, The Greatest Songs of the Fifties, which found him singing the songs that became popular during his youth. It became Manilow’s first number one album in almost 30 years and is the second chart-topping album of his career so far.
He continued to cover songs that proved to be popular, as demonstrated with his subsequent albums The Greatest Songs of the Sixties (2006, gold) and The Greatest Songs of the Seventies (2007). His 28th studio album, 15 Minutes Fame… Can You Take It? (2011) was a concept album containing original tracks; it peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200 chart. My Dream Duets (2014), his 30th studio album, accompanied tracks by deceased artists such as Judy Garland, Whitney Houston, and Louis Armstrong. In 2013, Manilow made his first Broadway appearance in more than two decades with the concert series “Manilow on Broadway.”
In 2020, Manilow released Night Songs II, which opened at number 32 on the Billboard 200 chart. It also marked as the sixth consecutive decade of Top 40-charting albums starting from Barry Manilow II.
While Manilow’s deftly crafted and heartfelt ballads have won him legions of fans, he is not without his critics, who dismiss his music as schmaltzy and bombastic. In 1987, he released his autobiography Sweet Life: Adventures on the Way to Paradise, which is still in print.
Check out the related article: Top Male Artists of the 1970s.