Barry Manilow: I'm a secret Irishman
Published 21/05/2012 | 06:00
WHEN the legendary singer-songwriter Barry Manilow steps out on stage in Dublin's O2 next Wednesday night, take a good look at him and imagine how his life might have taken a different turn. We may know him as the dazzling performer who gave us great hits such as Mandy, Copacabana, Bermuda Triangle and I Write the Songs, but the quintessential New Yorker, who was raised by his mother Edna and his Russian immigrant Jewish grandparents, is actually half-Irish. That side of him may have been suppressed, but there's no escaping the genes. Barry is tall and slender, just like his late father, Harold Kelliher, an Irish truck driver. Because of his humble occupation and his lack of Jewish credentials, Harold was not welcomed into the Manilow family. The complaint about the job was a bit rich, as Barry described his own background to me as "beneath humble".
"The fact that Harold was an Irish truck-driver was hidden from the family," says Barry. "It was considered a terrible thing for my mother to have done. They wouldn't even allow my name to be Kelliher," he shrieks in disbelief. "They changed it immediately. When I was born, I was called Barry Pincus. They had to dig deep into my father's family to find one Jewish relative. They went back to the 1800s and they found one uncle, a Jewish guy called Pincus. My mother made my father change his name to Pincus.
"Right now it sounds stupid but back then they thought that having a Jewish son was the most important thing.
"To me, it means nothing. As a matter of fact, it would have been interesting if my name was Barry Kelliher and if I was raised half-Irish and half-Jewish, but I wasn't. The Irish part of me did not exist. It was gone and forgotten."
Barry's parents divorced when he was still a baby. He was known as Barry Pincus until a few weeks before his Bar Mitzvah, when his grandfather brought him to have his surname changed legally to their family name Manilow.
The grandparents played an instrumental role in rearing Barry, lavishing him with love and adoring his every move, all the while telling him that his biological father was "a monster father".
"That's what I was told, and also that I shouldn't have anything to do with him," he says.
But hindsight can often change your view.
"I don't think he was a monster father at all," says Barry. There is a touch of tenderness in his tone. "I think he was a good guy. He tried to get in touch with me, but they wouldn't let him in my world."
One day, Barry was walking around Brooklyn when a man called him by his name. There was something familiar about him and then he connected this face with the one stray photo of his father which he had seen.
"It was my 11th birthday. He handed me a tape recorder and ran away and got back into his truck. I didn't see him for many, many years after that. They just would not allow me to have anything to do with him."
Did they ever meet again?
"He came backstage after a show -- a quick conversation. He kept trying to get into my life, but it was just too late, too late," he says ruefully.
Barry's mother hooked up with another Irish truck driver -- Willie Murphy. The pair may have spent a lot of their time drinking, but it wasn't all bad.
Barry listened to Willie's wonderful record collection and, later, his stepfather and his mother clubbed together to buy the talented boy a piano. It cost $800 and took five years to pay off, such was their love for the young Barry. He had already showed a talent with music.
"They did a great thing," he says.
It took a long time for Barry Manilow to make it big. He had a day job working as a log clerk in CBS and the very notion of packing in that sensible job to become a performer seemed like a crazy option. Eventually he took the plunge. He had been writing songs for many years. "I would send my songs out but nobody wanted them because they wanted to do their own songs.
"I made my first album and it was good but I thought that was the end of that, but then Clive Davis [the producer] came in and he found Mandy for me.
"I remember the day that Clive gave me my first royalty cheque. That morning I had bounced a cheque at the grocery story and then Clive handed me this big cheque. It just didn't compute. I used it as a bookmark at first. I was a professional by that time, but it hit me like a ton of bricks.
"My life changed in one day. I kept thinking it's got to stop, so I can get back to my regular life. I kept resisting and I was trying to hold this tidal wave of success, but I finally had to make friends with this new life and this new image I had become."
Success wasn't all it was cracked up to be. Barry noticed that people were treating him differently.
"You are one person one day and the next you are your image. Then the image becomes so big that people treat the image but they don't know who you are. That's what f*cks everything up. You feel like you're behind a brick wall saying, 'Let me out. I'm here.' It's lonely and frustrating. My advice to young people when it hits you is to keep your family and your old friends close."
Barry tells me that he became a brat, demanding that rooms were cleared before he would appear, but this, he now realises, was because he was lost.
"I think I turned into a brat because it was all fear and confusion," he says.
"The day it finally dawned on me that I was lost was an evening in Florida. I was sitting on the beach and I realised that everyone in the house that we had rented, everyone was on my salary. I had a cook, an assistant, a housekeeper, my agent, my manager and my publicist. I looked up and I said, 'Where did I go? What happened?'
"I hadn't heard from my friends and my family because it was all about the work and the new guy that I had become."
Barry had been working very hard, but it was all about the music. He was too caught up in it to look at his bank balance, until he discovered that he was in serious financial trouble. Then it happened again six years later.
"It just goes to show you how little importance I place on the material part of this career that I have.
"One part of me is kind of proud that I went broke twice. Money still means so little to me and money at that point meant even less. I had come from bouncing cheques. All I cared about was making the most beautiful music and working with the band. You'd think I'd learn, but I did it again. But I was lucky to have a career that was still successful. I was able to pull myself back together."
These days, Barry lives alone in Palm Springs, alone save for his two dogs.
"That's all you're gonna get about that," he says, before I even press for more. "I won't even tell you their names. After 35 years the thing that keeps me sane, in the middle of all this craziness, is my private life. The door closes."
In his autobiography, Sweet Life, he wrote about his brief marriage to a girl called Susan. He blamed the breakdown of their relationship on the pull of the music. He couldn't do both. Something had to give and it did. His only commitment was to the music.
"I've seen it happen to other artists and that's what happened to me," he says. "If you were married, it would be like taking your spouse to the office."
But he is sphinx-like about his life now, except to say that he has great friends.
"For 30 years, I was on the road, living out of hotels. I would put together a tour because I was always promoting an album. Being on the road like that really gets you down.
"When I stopped being away from home, I got happier.
"The success didn't make me happy -- the success was just money -- but happiness is being with the dogs, going to the movies and sitting outside in the sun."
Barry Manilow is still beavering away. It's just like he tells me -- "I'm a creator."
He has just released a new album, 15 Minutes. He completed a hugely successful radio documentary on legendary Broadway songwriters entitled They Write the Songs and he is looking forward to getting out on stage.
He is busy, and that's the way he likes to be. This is also because he is incapable of relaxing.
"I live in this great place and I've got a swimming pool with chaises longues all over the place. I've never even been on the chaise longue. I try. I really do. On a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon when the sun is out I take a book out there and I can last about 10 minutes. Then I go back to the keyboards." He has a good sense of humour and most important of all, he is able to laugh at himself.
Barry Manilow will be 69 this year.
"It's so confusing because the number is terrifying, 69," he says. "It doesn't make any sense. I look at myself in the mirror and I look exactly the way I looked 20 years ago. I've got my hair. I haven't got a pot belly and I've got the same energy I've always had and the same passion for the work."
Did he ever get any work done to his face?
"Many years ago they were removing a cyst from my forehead and a cyst from my cheek and the guy said, 'We can get rid of those jowls'. I said 'Sure' -- and that was that. But they came right back. That kind of stuff doesn't last. Then many years ago all of LA was running for Botox, and I did too. I gave it a try, but I just didn't like it. It didn't look right for me."
These days, Barry has been criticised in the press for his appearance, with rumours that he has had plastic surgery.
"They think I'm the Joan Rivers of the guys, which is ridiculous. But I've had this nasty hip problem for the last 10 years. I've had three surgeries, the last one four months ago. I didn't want to limp out on stage at the Grammys and the only way I got any relief was by steroid shots, right into my hips. But then your face blows up and looks odd."
I tell him that I believe him, because if Barry Manilow was going to get plastic surgery wouldn't he go off and get his nose done? It has been jeered at for years. "I never even think about what I look like. I'm a guy. As far as my nose goes, yeah I've got a big nose, my family has big noses. I like my big nose. It's a chosen nose."
Manilow enjoys mocking himself. The singer has learned many life lessons over the years, the most important one is about thinking about the big picture and about others.
"I've learned over the years that at the beginning of your life it's all about me, me, me. 'Look at me, look what I can do, look how great I am'," he says. "Then somewhere in the middle, mid-30s or maybe later for me, you realise that now it's gotta go the other way. The arrows have to stop pointing towards yourself. They have to flip around and point out -- and that's not just for a performer, that's for everybody. If you wind up being 40 years of age still showing everybody how great you are, it's very unbecoming."
It's a good thing it didn't happen to him.
Barry Manilow will perform at the O2 Dublin on Wednesday. Tickets priced €91, €76, €54.65 and €33.50 are available from www.ticketmaster.ie and all Ticketmaster outlets nationwide. 24hr Credit Card Bookings: 0818 719300 (RoI) 0844 277 4455 (NI)
Barry's 'Live in London' CD and DVD has been released by Stiletto Entertainment and Dress Circle. 'Live in London' is available now at Dress Circle shop in Covent Garden and www.dresscircle.co.uk.
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