DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Barry Manilow says it's hard for him to listen to pop music these days.
BARRY MANILOW: What we hear now is great-sounding records, with great-sounding grooves and loops. And the sound of these - records are irresistible, but the craft of songwriting is just about over.
GREENE: Still, pretty much everyone knows at least some of the words to Manilow's songs - like this one.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAN'T SMILE WITHOUT YOU")
MANILOW: (Singing) You know I can't smile without you. I can't smile without you...
GREENE: And who can forget this woman?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPACABANA")
MANILOW: (Singing) Her name was Lola. She was a showgirl with yellow feathers in her hair, and her dress cut down to there. She would ...
GREENE: Think what you will about Barry Manilow and his music - he's been at it for four decades. We called him up to chat about holiday music. He recently released "The Classic Christmas Album"; we'll hear about that next week. Let's begin today with a related question.
What defines a classic Barry Manilow song?
MANILOW: You know, as a musician, you would think I would say, it's got to have a great melody. And it does. But as a performer, it really needs to have a lyric that I can crawl into. You know, when I did "American Idol," I tried to tell these kids: You have to tell the story of the lyric.
Otherwise, closing your eyes and trying to show us how many notes you can fit into a bar - no one's going to care about it. But if you tell the story of a lyric, then I think you've got a chance of connecting with an audience. I think that's the difference between the kind of songs that I've been doing all of my career - I listen to the lyric of "Mandy"; I try to put myself in that situation; and then I sing the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDY")
MANILOW: (Singing) I remember all my life, raining down as cold as ice. Shadows of a man, a face through a window, crying in the night; the night goes in to morning, just another day...
GREENE: Can I confess something to you?
MANILOW: Oh, all right.
GREENE: "Mandy" is my go-to karaoke song. (LAUGHTER)
MANILOW: I can't wait to hear that. (LAUGHTER) Do you try to hit the high F, at the end? (Singing) And I need you. Do you do that?
GREENE: I do. I kind of squeal a bit. (Singing) And I need you.
MANILOW: Oh, I see.
GREENE: I go falsetto a little bit.
MANILOW: You go into your falsetto. Ah, very good.
GREENE: Does that work?
MANILOW: Very smart. Yeah, sure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDY")
MANILOW: (Singing) And I need you.
GREENE: You've made me speechless, by critiquing my version of "Mandy." I don't know what to do with myself.
GREENE: You know, I read an interview with you - from The Guardian newspaper, earlier this year. And there was a quote that stuck out, to me. You said - talking about your routine, when you're on the road - I'm in a hotel room, sold out at Radio City, private plane, 30 years of hotel rooms - by yourself. I mean, what keeps you going?
MANILOW: I love music. I love any opportunity I have to make music. You know, people ask me: What do you do, to relax? And I am so boring because I go up to my studio, and I create.
GREENE: Doesn't sound boring.
MANILOW: Well, maybe to other people, it might. You know, they might expect me to say, I go play golf or ...
MANILOW: I don't. I don't do that. I love working with my band. I love working with musicians. I tell you something - the part that I like the least, is the performing part because I never started off wanting to be a performer. I always wanted to just be a musician or a songwriter, or an arranger. And that performing opportunity came out of the blue, and a big surprise. And I was terrified for so many of the early years, and I didn't know what I was doing on that stage. And over the years, I've really - I've learned how to do it, and I've embraced it. And I've learned how to love it. But pin me to the wall, and I would be happy playing in a band.
GREENE: Do you still enjoy the performing, though, when you're out there, or...
MANILOW: I do.
GREENE: ...really, it's just a job?
MANILOW: I do. I'll tell you what changed, for me. I found gratitude. I am a very grateful man that there's still an audience out there, that is interested in hearing what I have to say. And so I really - I look forward to the performances. But in the beginning, it was so confusing. I really didn't know why they were applauding.
GREENE: Well, can you help us define Barry Manilow? I mean, you have this huge, huge fan base, as you mentioned; sold millions of albums. And then there's some people who can hear the name Barry Manilow; and they kind of role their eyes a little bit, and try to define you in their own way.
MANILOW: Less and less, by the way. Thank goodness. They're probably saying, oh, all right, already. Leave him alone. But in the beginning, yeah, there were a lot of people who just didn't like what I was doing. But, you know, the public was always on my side. They've always been on my side. So, you know, I'm still here.
GREENE: You're still here; and you're returning to Broadway next month, as I understand - for the first time in maybe, like, two decades.
MANILOW: Yes, how about that? I just wanted to do it one more time before I croak; I wanted to play...
MANILOW: I wanted to play a Broadway theater one more time. I come from New York; and before the performing and record career hit, I was in the pit - in the pits of all the Broadway theaters. I was the piano player. I played for every singer's audition. You know, I know that world so well. That - what I'm looking forward to, I'll tell you - isn't this strange? - I'm looking forward to walking into the stage door every night, and then walking out of the stage door and going to Joe Allen's; and being in New York, in the theater world of New York, because that's where I began. So that's what I'm looking forward to, the most.
GREENE: And Joe Allen's, for those who don't know New York that well...
MANILOW: It's a theatrical restaurant that everybody goes to, after their shows.
GREENE: Before I let you go, you wouldn't fulfill my bucket list and sing a bar or two of "Mandy" with me - would you?
MANILOW: With you?
MANILOW: God, I wish I could put this microphone down here. Wait a minute - your technician is going to hate me. Hold on a second.
(SOUNDBITE OF MICROPHONE BEING SET DOWN)
MANILOW: Can you still hear me?
GREENE: I can still hear you.
(SOUNDBITE OF MANILOW PLAYING PIANO CHORDS)
GREENE: Oh, my goodness. (LAUGHTER)
MANILOW: OK, ready? (Singing) Oh, Mandy...
GREENE: (Singing with Manilow) And you came and you gave without taking. But I sent you away, oh, Mandy.
MANILOW: Well, you're in tune.
GREENE: You're very generous.
MANILOW: That was great.
GREENE: Thanks. You were great too, Mr. Manilow.
MANILOW: (LAUGHTER) Call me Barry.
GREENE: Barry Manilow, this has been quite a pleasure. Thanks so much.
MANILOW: Thank you. This has been a great, great honor for me. Thanks a lot for asking.
GREENE: Barry Manilow - he performs on Broadway, starting next month. His latest record is "The Classic Christmas Album." We'll hear from that album, and other holiday music, in the days ahead. This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MANDY")
MANILOW: (Singing) ...and nothing is rhyming. Oh, Mandy. Well, you came and you gave without taking. But I sent you away. Oh, Mandy. Well, you kissed me and stopped me...