Weekend Read: Barry Manilow

I was a kid. I cared about volume. And the tears that flowed as (in Band) we went for the crescendo. From the radio I wanted to hear the big chords, the big drums, the big horns. I didn’t know there was a such a thing as being manipulated by the right pauses — I liked Clive Davis’ ear and Clive Davis’ work and I didn’t know yet who Clive Davis was. Michael Jackson was a world apart, a king, but my regular high school favorites were Prince and Rick James, and by the time I hit college, aside from Run-DMC, Sade and Luther Vandross, I was about Whitney Houston, who in 1978 was singing backup disco for the Michael Zager Band. This was seven years before Davis would re-apply what he’d learned making hit after hit with Manilow to the woman who would become one of the most loved and bestselling artists of all time. Listen to Manilow ballads, then listen to Houston ballads. Check, as we used to say in hip-hop, the technique. If it wasn’t broke Davis saw little need to fix it. The songs Davis made with Manilow and Houston are the songs I loved. Besides, what other way had I to judge? My mother, after all, had to tell me when I was 13 who Booker T. Jones Jr.’s dad was. I thought like I used to think about all songs when I was young — that every artist’s song was purely autobiographical, and so 100 percent meaningful. And if I categorized at all, it was based on what radio station played what. So I thought Barry was rock ‘n’ roll — and not rock in a “white” frame. Rock in a frame marked “real.”

Danyel Smith on Barry Manilow at NPR’s The Record.

This is a sprawling (overused word, I know) piece that, because I’m so preoccupied with other stuff right now, I haven’t absorbed fully, but it is dynamite, the kind of music-critical piece I tend to fall hardest for, blending as it does the personal, the historical, the contextual, the musical, and, perhaps by inference — it is Barry Manilow, after all — and in the best way possible, I mean — the revisionist.  The sort of piece you can tell the writer has kept stored in her head for 20 years.


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