We gathered in the Las Vegas equivalent of the Versailles “Hall of Mirrors,” near the hotel registration desks of the Paris Las Vegas resort. Just nine people in line, more than an hour before showtime in the venue’s main 1,500 seat theatre. Like the golden ticket holders in “Willy Wonka”, we each held in our hands a “Platinum Experience” ticket that promised an evening that few concertgoers ever receive.
In exchange for a sizable contribution to our favorite singer’s charitable foundation (which makes gifts of musical instruments to schools, in part with our money), we had lined up as instructed and were about to be ushered into the backstage inner sanctum.
Tickets and identification badges were checked and compared with a prepared list. We were given special stickers that opened all of the doors. We were led past the ushers in the theatre, who beamed at us. They knew this was a very special evening, indeed.
Once backstage, we were shown to a very comfortable room with well-stuffed furniture. A staff member poured from a freshly opened bottle of champagne, and then came the briefing: remember that our favorite artist is a human being, so don’t grab him. Be polite. Think ahead about what you’d like to say. A roster was read, noting who would go first, who would come next, and so forth. Like batters at the ballpark, we were brought out to be “on deck” once the fan in front of us had his or her audience in an adjacent room. Finally, it was my time.
Standing in the hallway, I handed over to a staff person the 30-year old concert program from the 1980 tour that I’d brought along to remind me how much this artist had influenced my love of music – the really melodic, singable kind of music you can belt out in the shower and still sound good.
It’s the kind of music that made me and a colleague draw applause while singing karaoke on a houseboat in Asia. We’d dropped anchor near a Pacific island not far from Hong Kong as we celebrated the New Year with our colleagues. I’m not sure they knew the words to the songs Barry Manilow made famous, but they appreciated the effort with loud applause and grins.
And then with a whoosh, the door opened and I walked in. And standing in front of me with a huge smile on his face and a ready handshake was Barry Manilow. For real.
I was ready. I’d thought about what I would say if this moment ever came. I wanted to thank him for how he has inspired so many musicians, and relay some of my own experiences with his music.
For a few minutes, we talked about the choirs that I accompanied in high school and my friends who sang Manilow songs in the 70’s and 80’s. Gracious, engaging, smiling, and keenly interested in what this fan had to say, I told Barry Manilow how my piano teacher had first purchased sheet music for “I Write The Songs” to find a way for me to connect with something more popular than Chopin or Bach.
“You know, I took great care with that sheet music from those early songs,” he relayed. “I notated the music EXACTLY like I played on the record so that you could play it just like I do.” Most artists rely on someone else to listen to a recording and pluck out the notes so that amateur musicians can approximate their favorite music. Not so with Manilow.
As we talked about Manilow’s music, I was thinking of high school classmate Scott Freeland –probably the biggest Manilow fan in our troupe. He sang “Could It Be Magic” at a particularly memorable concert all those years ago, and I accompanied him on the song based in part on a Chopin piece in the key of C-minor. Scott passed from this earth more than a decade ago, but the memory of his voice and his love of songs like “Could It Be Magic” stay with me.
Barry and I talked about his concerts at Deer Creek concert pavilion near Indianapolis, and his assistant correctly recalled that this was the spot where Lyle Lovett got married. “And all of that corn,” said his assistant. The last time Barry Manilow played in that amphitheater (17 years ago – on my birthday) it WAS surrounded by cornfields, but now it’s circled by a busy outdoor shopping mall and hundreds of homes.
He is taller than he looks, and thinner. But even in his late 60’s, this powerhouse pianist, singer, arranger, producer, and showman is brimming with energy. He still plans concerts around the world (with trips to London and Australia coming this year) and a busy year of shows at Paris Las Vegas.
With a Sharpie in hand, he autographs a stainless steel photo album that is a memento of our visit. Our time together to talk about music and its impact was brief, of course. He grabbed my arm, called in a professional photographer, and we posed for the camera. And as quickly as it started, my time with this incredible artist was done.
A few minutes later, after being escorted to the front row of the theater, the show began. And for the next 90 minutes, we were literally just feet away from the artist who brought so many hits to life.
We sang along on “Can’t Smile Without You,” and “I Write the Songs.” We remembered the first time we heard “Weekend in New England,” and “Even Now.” We heard “Mandy” sung by the man who first introduced it on the radio 35 years ago.
For an instant, I was transported back to Market Square Arena in Indianapolis and that 1980 Barry Manilow concert. Our guidance counselor in high school had excused two of us from class in order to stand in line to get tickets to that show, in the days before Ticketmaster and the Internet. In exchange, he handed us cash so that we could buy him Pacers basketball tickets from the same venue, after we had our concert tickets in hand. That was a good deal!
I’m sure that others in the audience were thinking back to times they’ve heard these songs, whether on the radio “back in the day” or on today’s modern equivalent of the 70’s channel on satellite radio.
We applauded Barry’s renditions of the all-time best love songs from the most recent album, and heard his life story woven from New York memories with his grandfather. And, at the end of the show, we jumped to our feet to dance around with “Copacabana” – the novelty song written on a lark that perfectly sets the mood for an evening in Las Vegas.
Alone in Vegas a couple of nights later, I made a last-minute decision to see the Manilow show again – this time from a great seat in the seventh row. If I’ve learned anything over my lifetime — and particularly the last year — it’s to seize the moment!
I’m not afraid to admit that I love Barry Manilow’s music, and my respect for this artist has grown considerably through this incredible experience.
Thank you, Barry Manilow, for providing an avenue for your fans to share their thanks for your many years of singing some of the most memorable melodies of a lifetime. And thanks for sending those contributions on to where they can do the most good – to the music classrooms where a budding Barry Manilow might now be learning to pour his own heart into music.
Dave Arland, February 2011