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Barry Manilow Reflects on Early Career, New York Talent Show ‘Callback,’ and Featherbed

Barry Manilow’s place as one of America’s best-loved entertainers was secured decades ago, but the 75-year-old shows no signs of resting on his laurels, which include nearly 50 top 40 hits, beaucoup gold and platinum albums, sold-out tours, an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony and a Clio.

His 21st century accomplishments include more SRO dates, from Las Vegas (he’s doing a residency at the Westgate) to Broadway to Hollywood (where he plays the Bowl in September), as well as innumerable charity ventures and a hot streak in the recording studio that produced nearly a dozen freshly minted hit albums.

When it’s pointed out to Manilow that his first time in Variety, back in 1968 — for a New York talent show called “Callback” on local affiliate WCBS — was only one of about a dozen ventures he appeared to be working on at the time, he quickly answers, “Nothing’s changed. I’m working on 20 different projects right now.”

What was “Callback?”

It was exactly like “American Idol,” except it was local and it was 50 years ago. I was working in the mailroom at CBS when I was 21 years old. My mail route started at the 485 Madison Avenue headquarters and then I got moved to the production center on 11th Avenue. I was already a budding musician, and all I had at home in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was a little spinet piano. But they had a beautiful grand piano at CBS and I played it on my lunch break, every chance I could. To all the CBS dancers, actors, waiters on the side, I got known as the piano-playing mail boy. I left and went on the road with Jeanne Lucas and when I left, the guy I worked for told me I’d always have a job at CBS. Then he got fired! But Ray Abel remembered me and called and asked me to be the music director of “Callback.”

Would you say that “Callback” was a major break? You were also touring and doing musical reviews and working as an accompanist.

It was one of my big breaks, because I got to do arrangements for the singers, and I’m a very good arranger — and I was then. I learned a lot about television and I learned more about arranging.

What else was on your plate in that era before you stepped out as a performer in your own right?

I met Bro Herrod who was putting together an Off Off Broadway show based on “The Drunkard,” a temperance play from the 1800s. He wanted to make it as a musical based on public-domain songs. But he hired me, and I was a pushy guy from Brooklyn, and so I put in my own songs. So it was an original musical and played for years. It still plays somewhere now and then, and I get a check for $27.

Was there a master plan in all of this activity?

I was still going to the Institute of Musical Art, which became Julliard. I was taking twilight classes because I couldn’t afford to go full time. When I grew up, Williamsburg was a slum. As far as I knew, no one had ever made it out to become famous in show business. I was living on the subway traveling back and forth to Manhattan, so it was a big deal when I got a tiny studio apartment in the city.

And then there was Featherbed.

Ha! That happened because I wrote “Could It Be Magic,” with Adrienne Anderson. It was based upon a Chopin prelude. Tony Orlando, who worked for April Blackwood publishing at the time, heard it and wanted to put out a record on it. The last thing I was thinking about was singing something. I think I was standing there when they were trying to figure out what to do, and they asked me to sing lead. It worked, and just as Tony Orlando was initially known by the group name, Dawn, they put together a group of studio musicians and used my vocals. We were Featherbed.

The idea for this interview came from Ria Lewerke, a former Arista creative director, who had worked with Bob Dylan and Aretha Franklin and many others, and she said, “Barry Manilow is the coolest guy I ever worked with.”

(Laughing). Cool is not usually the word people use to describe Barry Manilow! But Ria is right, I am very cool! And I thank her for noticing!

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