Barry Manilow kicked off a series of concert dates recently in Moline, Illinois, but he isn't calling it a tour. After years of grinding it out on the road, the singer doesn't believe that performing two weekends out of the month qualifies as touring. But his current jaunt will take him to cities he hasn't played in a long time, since he's spent the last few years performing residencies in Las Vegas. Along with the challenge of creating a whole new show, the 69-year-old is recovering from a "major" operation to re-attach the muscles to his hip. In his first post-surgery interview, Manilow spoke to Rolling Stone about his health, his upcoming performances and his admiration for Bruno Mars.
How is your hip feeling these days?
It's coming back slowly – too slowly for me. But I was able to get through six shows. As soon as I'd finish, the curtain would close and I'd fall back into a wheelchair and they'd wheel me back into a dressing room. I'm not ready to do this yet, but I did it. I got through it and I'm better than I was three weeks ago. Everybody thinks I had some sort of a hip replacement; that wasn't it. I had ripped the muscles off my hip on both sides and they had to pull them back and nail them back into my hips. So that kind of surgery, which was supposed to take two hours, took seven hours. It was major surgery and it's a long recovery period. I don't know how I got through those six (shows), but I just couldn't cancel it. These people were out there. They were so excited, I just had to go through this. They say when the spotlight hits you, you don't feel anything. I always thought that was full of shit, (but) it's true.
Tell us about the current production.
The Paris show was so produced. It was so big, I couldn't get any bigger. This show I'm traveling with is the smallest show I've ever done. I just needed to shake it up. I could have played it safe and done that same big show, and the audiences probably would've had a good time. But I just don't like playing it safe. So I went the other way, which is kind of scary. It's a small band and just me at a little teeny piano, which is at the very end of the stage. It's as close to a one-man show as I've ever done. It kind of excites me and scares me, and I need to do that. If I am gonna continue to work I can't phone it in.
Does this allow you to mix up the set list and bring in songs you haven't done in a while?
That was another reason I chose to go the more intimate way, because when we went out with the big orchestra, I was again stuck with a set list that I couldn't change easily. I had 75 guys there, and it was chaos if we hadn't rehearsed it. Same thing with the Paris shows. I was stuck with one set for two years there. Just during these last six shows, I've done more changes than I have in five years. One night it was "Fools Got Lucky," the other night I did "If I Should Love Again," which I've always wanted to do. I've got changes galore. I did ‘Tryin' to Get the Feeling," and I can't remember the last time we did that one. So that's part of the fun for me and my band, because my band knows every part of my catalogue.
Are there songs you're particularly excited to do?
"Tryin' to Get the Feeling" has been a revelation. I'd forgotten how powerful that was. I'd forgotten how deep I can crawl into that one, and maybe because I'm older it means even more. "If I Should Love Again" – I was just so impressed with myself writing something like that. It wasn't a single and people didn't really know about it, but it's a beautiful song and that's part of what I'm loving.
Did the response to you last album, 15 Minutes, encourage you to take your music in a new direction?
I believe in my writing. I don't believe in my writing as a hitmaker; I've had really good luck, and because Clive (Davis) was always my commercial ear, I had a great guide. But I'm going to do original songs from now on. That's who I am. I'm a songwriter, and just like all the other people in the commercial world, we have to fight to get our stuff out there. Elton (John) and Sting, these geniuses, they've been fortunate enough to just stick to their own stuff. I haven't been that fortunate, but from now on it's original material.
Does that mean we'll hear new material soon?
Yeah, I think I'm gonna tackle a Volume 2 of 2:00 A.M. Paradise Café. That was another original album that was very a important experience for me, and it was very well received. I don't know whether I'll match that first Paradise Café album – that's heavy competition. But I'm gonna tackle it and if I make it, that's going to be a very rewarding project.
Is there anyone you'd like to perform a double bill with, in the vein Elton John and Billy Joel?
There have only been a handful that make sense, like Elton and Billy Joel make sense. I am in a little world of my own. My style of music is the great American songbook meets the pop world of the Seventies and Eighties. The only two artists I could think of would be Neil Diamond or Bette (Midler). Other than that, I've never been able to come up with another name.
Are there younger artists that come to mind?
Bruno Mars is so great; that would be fun. I think we would have a good time together.