Written by Musgo Del Jefe
The first question I asked myself when approaching Barry Manilow – The First Television Specials was "What artist could pull this off today?" In the pre-MTV days of the first special from 1977, Barry was in his mid-30s with a string of what today would be called Adult Contemporary hits. This wasn't a huge gamble for ABC at the time because of the ratings success of variety shows in the late ‘70s. But like my previous reviews of comedic anthologies (Love American Style), crime anthologies (The Untouchables) and the historical mini-series (Roots: The Next Generation), the musical special is a dead art on today's network television. Is it because of over-exposure of the artists on the web and DVD? Or are we lacking the mainstream artists to pull off a full hour of just musical performances? I believe it's a little of both. Barry Manilow was an experienced, mature artist that could entertain for a full hour, but do the performances still hold up today?
The First Barry Manilow Special aired in 1977 on ABC to a whopping 37 million viewers. The special opens with "It's A Miracle" in front of a live crowd. It's a great high-energy song that was also a known hit. There's a well thought out flow to the performances. We go from the energetic opening to a subdued set piece for "This One's For You" which we find is dedicated to his Grandfather. This is followed by "Jump Shout Boogie" in an American Bandstand-type setting including a dance routine with Penny Marshall. The halfway point is celebrated by his popular live song, "Very Special Medley" that combines his extraordinary run of commercial jingles from KFC to Band-Aid ("I'm stuck on Band-Aid") to Dr. Pepper to McDonald's ("You deserve a break today").
But it's the final set piece that defines what set Barry Manilow apart from other artists of his day. There's a set of three songs – "New York City Rhythm," "Sandra," and "Early Morning Strangers" – that all have a common New York setting. The special uses a simple set that looks like a cheap, local play. That simplicity forces you to listen to the lyrics of the songs. In "Sandra," Barry tells a simple yet powerful story of a stay-at-home mom that wonders about what her life might have been.
But if I hadn't done it as soon as I did
Oh there might have been time to be me
For myself, for myself
There's so many things that she wishes
She don't even know what she's missin'
And that's how she knows that she missed
Those simple words are what make this special so engrossing. Barry doesn't have the best voice, his piano playing isn't amazing, and his personality is corny at best. But he can capture an emotion and tell a story that moves you in a short period of time. By the time Sandra "accidentally" cuts herself on a glass at the end of the song you feel like you know this character in a mere four minutes. It's the same talent that Billy Joel and Elton John have used to make multi-decade careers. The First Special finishes with another high-energy song, "I Write The Songs," performed in front of a live crowd.
The success of the First Special led to The Second Barry Manilow Special in 1978. Here, he's started to improve the formula that worked so well earlier. But you also start to see what will eventually become the downfall of his specials. Barry opens with the up-tempo, "Daybreak." For some reason he feels the need to throw in the corny combination of kids and senior citizens singing the song with him. We are treated to an interesting version of "Copacabana (At The Copa)" in its pre-hit days. Here it isn't a disco hit, it's portrayed with a 1940s theme without any dancing that morphs into a Vegas-style show. The most brilliant move is having Ray Charles take on "One Of These Days" by himself and "It's A Miracle" as a duet. Ray brings an incredible amount of soul to these songs that makes me wish Ray had done a whole album of Manilow covers. The Second Special finishes again with a live crowd and the energetic, sing-a-long songs of "Can't Smile Without You" and "Looks Like We Made It."
The Third Barry Manilow Special from 1979 received the most praise and awards but also marked the beginning of the end for Barry's run of specials on ABC. After a painfully bad sketch playing up Barry's bad driving, we start with the energy of "Ready To Take A Chance Again," a real crowd pleaser. Then we're transported to a more intimate setting for the powerfully evocative "Weekend In New England." The lyrics of that song, "I feel a change comin'" are prescient. The Third Special contains a weird Broadway musical version of "I Write The Songs," John Denver singing his own song "What's On Your Mind" and an entertaining but out of place duet between John and Barry doing "Everly Brothers Medley." The problem for Barry is that between the specials, "Copacabana (At The Copa)" has become a huge disco hit. The performance here is completely different from the earlier performance, the disco elements are really played to the hilt. Luckily, The Third Special is saved by ending with a nice tender moment, "Even Now."
The remaining specials, One Voice (1980) and Barry Manilow: Big Fun On Swing Street (1988) abandon the formula that worked so well between 1977 and 1979. In One Voice, there's the feeling that Barry is just trying too hard to disco-up his songs like "Who's Been Sleeping In My Bed." These specials are more "produced." It's not just Barry and a piano. That's where he works best. There's a moment in One Voice with Barry and Dionne Warwick at a piano playing her hit "Deja Vu" that reminds you why his earlier work was so entertaining. The combination of two father-related songs, "Ships" and "Sunday Father," are beautifully done and emotionally powerful.
By the time Barry reached 1988, he had moved beyond his disco experimentation with two Big Band releases 2:00 A.M. Paradise Cafe and Swing Street. This special has the feel of a loosely connected musical, but the songs don't carry the same emotional impact of Barry at a piano singing "Even Now" or "Sandra." The special is well produced and predicts his later Songbook albums and Vegas shows. His future A&E specials would take their clues more from this special than his earlier ABC work.
I can't imagine anyone short of a Celine Dion or Carrie Underwood carrying a special like this today. But they can't tell a simple story that connects on an emotional level the way Barry Manilow figured out in the late 1970s. This Rhino release is a great find. It's like holding hands again with a longtime love. It's a simple gesture that contains the deepest emotion. Like Barry says, "Maybe the old songs will bring back the old days."