As a young man, Barry Manilow never wanted to be a singer.
“I was going to be Nelson Riddle. George Martin of the Beatles. I was going to be an arranger or conductor or composer,” Manilow, 79, says. And, for a few years, he was. Perhaps most notably as Bette Midler’s piano player, earning a Grammy nod for his production work on her hit “The Divine Miss M.”
But in the early ‘70s — the Age of the Singer/Songwriter — when Manilow cut a demo tape, Bell Records wanted him to sing it. “I thought, yeah, sure. I’ll get my songs out there. But then I had to go promote the album. The first gig ever was at Paul’s Mall in Boston. It was a horrible experience,” he recalls with a laugh. “A horrible experience.”
Then something happened. Over the course of two weeks playing at the Boylston Street venue, Manilow found the first of his Fanilows. “Word got out that something was happening at Paul’s Mall. I was terrible; I didn’t know what I was doing. But the audience didn’t agree. By the end of those two weeks, there was a really healthy audience who was applauding, laughing,” Manilow says. “Everything started at Paul’s Mall in Boston for me.”
In a recent phone interview from his studio in California, the Emmy, Grammy, and Tony winner was candid, with a ready laugh and keen sense of self-awareness. As he prepares to bring his hits to TD Garden Thursday and Providence’s Dunkin’ Donuts Center Aug. 13, we caught up with the man who writes the songs.
Q. I love that in each city on this tour, you’re awarding a music teacher $10,000 — half to keep, half to buy instruments for their schools.
A. I started [the Manilow Music Project] when I saw they were running out of instruments in schools, and the shape of these instruments was just dreadful. The first thing they take money away from is the music department. In each city, we’re looking for the best music teacher, and whoever wins gets $5,000 for themselves, $5,000 to buy classroom instruments. Music classes will change a kid’s life.
Q. Did you have a special class or musical moment growing up?
A. For me, I was a geek in school, and when I played piano, I was a musician. They looked at me differently. And that’s what could happen.
Q. You started out on accordion.
A. I did. [Laughs] Every Jewish or Italian kid in Brooklyn had to play the accordion before they would let you out of Brooklyn. [Laughs] But you know, as corny as an accordion is, [through it] I learned to play the keyboard and to read music. I changed from accordion to piano and the rest is history. I knew as soon I hit the piano keys, that was going to be my life.
Q. How old were you?
A. 13. I was living in the slums of Williamsburg, Brooklyn — the worst neighborhood ever — and I knew music was going to be the thing that got me out of the slums. I come from nothing. But I did get out of Brooklyn and made a career as a musician, and [had] success. That’s what I see in these young people, I see myself in them. It could happen to them, too.
Q. You started singing here in Boston at Paul’s Mall. I know that was rough for you at first. Did you find your footing?
A. Maybe I got better. Maybe I got a little bit more secure on that stage. I don’t know. But by the end of those two weeks, the audience didn’t scare me anymore. They were friends out there. I think they picked up on the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. I wasn’t being phony. I was being a real guy, and I think they liked that.
Q. They loved your commercial medley. You’ve written some famous jingles.
A. I knew I didn’t have hit songs and thought, “What do I have that they’d know?” I put all the jingles together in a medley I called my “VSM.” My Very Strange Medley. And oh my God, they just loved it. It was like the biggest hit record you could have because all of them were on the radio all the time!
Q. You wrote: “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there.”
A. And “I’m stuck on Band-Aids.” I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember “You deserve a break today” for McDonald’s. I did all of those in a medley, and oh my goodness! They just loved it.
Q. Are you surprised at the fanbase you’ve got now?
A. It’s amazing that it’s still happening. I’m very grateful.
Q. There was a time you felt hated by critics.
A. Oh yeah. That was 15 years of constant hate. On that first album, I got great reviews. As soon as “Mandy” came out, and the “sold out” signs went out, there were terrible reviews. Just terrible. Every night, a bad review. Every morning, a bad review. If you want a laugh on “The Tonight Show,” you ended your comedy schtick with my name. It was over and over and over. But I tell you: It never stopped me. I had a beautiful band. I had my family behind me. I had my record label behind me. And most of all, I had the audience behind me. They kept telling me: Don’t listen to them, we like what you do. And that’s what got me through those terrible 15 years.
A. I’ll tell you what stopped it. I did a jazz album called “2:00 AM Paradise Cafe,” and the critics went bazookas. They loved it. They finally saw who I was: that I wasn’t just a pop singer; that there was more to me than “Copacabana.” But it took 15 years.
Q. Did you ever feel like giving up?
A. No, I’d pull the covers over my head every morning and go into self-pity. And then I’d go back to soundcheck and do a show. I said to myself: If you don’t like “Weekend in New England,” you’re wrong.
A. [Laughs] You’re just wrong.
Q. Bob Dylan encouraged you at a party.
A. He whispered in my ear: “Keep doing what you’re doing. We’re all inspired by you.” I’ll never forget it. Same thing with Sinatra. They said, “Who’s coming up?” He said, ‘Manilow, he’s next.” And that was when I was really getting killed. That was a very important moment for me. I needed to hear that from somebody like Frank Sinatra.
Q. I love that. And you’re also going to be in Rhode Island. Any Rhode Island connections?
A. When I was putting together the 1978 tour, we rehearsed in Providence in a big warehouse of some sort. We [kicked off the] tour in Providence — the tour that was debuting “Copacabana.” The record hadn’t come out yet. I [performed it] for the first time in Providence.
Q. And “Weekend in New England” must be a hit here.
A. [Laughs] Any time I play Boston, there’s this line: “Time in New England,” and the place goes crazy.