Last week, we conducted a phone interview with pop icon Barry Manilow, who will take a break from his ongoing Vegas run to play a benefit concert for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation at Everett's Comcast Arena this Sunday, March 15. Following is an edited transcript of that interview, for all you Manilow Maniacs out there interested in the creative process that went into his fourth decade-specific cover album, Barry Manilow: The Greatest Songs of the Eighties.
Seattle Weekly: What is it about the cystic fibrosis cause that motivated you to do this show?
Barry Manilow: I've got this very dear friend who runs the entertainment division of the [Las Vegas] Hilton, where I work, and I've gotten very close to him and his family. His daughter has cystic fibrosis. It stinks. I'm happy to be able to do it. I do as many benefits as I possibly can.
SW: I recently heard an interview with you on TV where, when asked if you'd do an album of cover songs from the '90s, you said something to the effect that there were no songs in the '90s. Can you elaborate on that statement, and then speak to what it was about the '80s that you found particularly inspiring in selecting songs for this album?
BM: I should have said I think there are no songs for me from the '90s. Do you really want to hear me sing "Smells Like Teen Spirit"? Maybe I'm just missin' 'em -- "My Heart Will Go On" and Mariah's beautiful melodies, they're out there, but they're overdone. The songs I did from the 50s, 60s, and 70s didn't seem as overdone. And the '90s are too close [chronologically]. But I'm not really good at this; it's Clive Davis' brainchild. Everything might change if he came back to me and said, 'Here's 12 great songs where I think you would be fantastic.'"SW: What inspired the ultra-jazzy arrangement of "I Just Called to Say I Love You"? You play it pretty straight on most of the other songs, yet on this particular tune you really take it in a different direction.
BM: I do that kind of thing to every one of my songs for all four [cover] albums. I go far away from the original, and pull myself back, because the public doesn't want to hear and upside-down version of a song they love. This one happened to work out fine.
SW: Are you nostalgic for the time, not all that long ago, when crooners like Sinatra, Como, and Bennett were more prevalent in popular music? Do you feel like the last crooner standing at times?
BM: When you mention that, it is kind of lonely up on that stage. There aren't that many people doing what I do.
SW: Do you view your extended run in Vegas as a sort of homage to the likes of Sinatra?
BM: No. It's mine.
SW: Then what appeals to you about the Vegas gig?
BM: Not going on the road.
SW: (Starts to ask question, but Manilow interjects before anything coherent is uttered)...
BM: There never has been [anybody like me], by the way. I have my own little piece of pie; it's small, but it's mine. My first album has so many different styles to it, they didn't know where to put me. I've done that kind of thing for as many years as I can.
SW: Compare and contrast your career with that of Neil Diamond? Do you consider him to be your closest stylistic contemporary?
BM: Neil is a guitar-driven guy. I think I've heard him say one of his idols was Elvis. Elvis was not one of my idols. He was only doing four chords at best, which isn't really my thing. But I think Neil is brilliant. I mean, he's a fantastic songwriter. But I don't think we do the same thing at all.
SW: Do you consider the 12 songs on the album to be the very cream of the '80s crop, or did Clive just choose them?
BM: We did it together. They all had to be #1 songs from the decade, so when the public picks up the CD, they jump out at them. These may not be my favorite songs from the 80s, but the public's favorite songs.
SW: Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up" -- what is it about that song that made you want to include it on your album?
BM: I've always loved it; I've always loved the production. They broke all the rules on that record. They made a pop-dance record that was as catchy as any I've ever heard.
SW: Do you still write the songs of love and special things, or can we expect more cover albums in Barry Manilow's future?
BM: I'm not looking at any more cover albums right now. I've got to get back to writing my own things. My next project is two big projects of original material...These cover albums are not torture. Believe me, I love doing it. It's just that I miss songwriting.
SW: What younger artists do you count among your favorites? And is there one in particular whom you feel has what it takes to be an heir to the Manilow sound?
BM: Katy Perry, she's the real deal, she's a star. Jennifer [Hudson] is terrific too. These kids that come out of American Idol, they aren't kidding around. I've worked with them three times and they're very serious, very ambitious. But this Katy Perry, she's got me, I'm a fan.
SW: Let's say, hypothetically, that George Michael, whose "Careless Whisper" you really nail on your album, was looking to reunite Wham! and Andrew Ridgeley wasn't interested in re-establishing the partnership. Would you be up for taking his place?
BM: I ain't got the legs. Have you ever seen that video? [George] is one of the greats. The challenge to this last 80s album is it's so well-known, so close...These are wonderfully made records. In the 50s and 60s, they weren't wonderfully made records. But when you get to the 80s, man, they really knew how to make records, and George Michael's was one of the most beautifully made records.
SW: Explain, in ten words or less, the essence of "Manilow Magic."