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Barry Manilow – Changing Lives Through Music

Mike Lawson • Archives • December 12, 2011

After almost four decades in the spotlight, Barry Manilow has become a household name. His wildly successful career as a performer, composer, and recording artist has spanned just about all facets of the music world. Even with over 75 million records sold, and boasting accomplishments ranging from chart-topping hits to renowned Vegas residencies to hundreds of TV appearances on everything from The Family Guy to American Idol, the Grammy, Tony, and Emmy award-winning artist only recently started a new chapter in his illustrious career.

In 2008, when he learned about massive cuts to music programs throughout the country, Barry Manilow decided that he had an obligation to help music education to continue to have a place in public schools. And so he started the Manilow Music Project, a program linked to his foundation, the Manilow Fund for Health and Hope, and later that year made his first donation, giving over $500,000 in musical equipment and instruments to the Coachella Valley School System, near Manilow’s own Southern California home. Since then, Manilow has gone on to coordinate the donation of – and personally deliver – millions of dollars worth of music gear to school districts from coast to coast, most recently in October to Joplin, Missouri, a small town that drew national headlines over the summer for the massive devastation caused by a tornado that leveled the area’s high school, along with much of the rest of the town.

In a recent conversation with SBO, the prolific entertainer spoke about his own formative experiences in a public school music program, as well as the remarkable gifts he has made over the past few years to, as he puts it, “help young people bring music into their lives.”

School Band & Orchestra: Thanks so much for taking a moment to chat! Let’s start with your own career – what were some of the early experiences that helped lead you into a life in music?

Barry Manilow: I was one of the young people who come from a poor area of Brooklyn, N.Y. My family had zilch money – nothing. There was a lot of love in the family, though, and love will get a kid through just about anything. My folks realized that I was a musical kid and they really didn’t know what to do with me. There was no money to buy me instruments. However, eventually they were somehow able to rattle up enough to get me an accordion. You can’t do too much with an accordion – although I tried, and I was good at it. What I really loved about that instrument was that it helped me learn to read music. Whenever I talk to young people, I always tell them to learn to read music, because you will always be able to work if you can learn to read music. If you’re serious about being a musician, you need to be able to read music. Otherwise, you’re stuck with your talent, and who can count on that? So I learned to read music with the accordion and that was a real gift.

Later on, my parents saved enough money to get me a piano, and then I was able to use my right and my left hand, and I was good at that, too. But the thing that changed my life was the orchestra class in my high school. I was a decent student, but I really didn’t enjoy school. As soon as I found the orchestra class, I felt like I was grounded. I knew my way around that world of other young musicians, and I just felt like I had found my home. It pointed me in the direction that I find myself in now.

When I speak to principals and school music directors, they always tell me the same thing: students who learn music learn to interact better with other students, their grades go up, and they become better people. Those were the same feelings that I had when I was a student. Music class is not just playtime; it can change these kids’ lives. It changed mine.

SBO: And you’ve gone from there into an incredibly diverse career in music. You have written jingles and hits, performed in Las Vegas and all over the world, been the music director for television shows and movies – did you ever anticipate such a wide range of accomplishments?

BM: I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s my life. I don’t know how to do anything else. I know my way around the world of music and I’ve always felt this way. My first album was a mishmash of styles that I’ve always loved. There was a Chopin prelude that I based “Could it Be Magic” on, followed by a jazz-scat piece called “Cloudburst,” followed by a country-ish song with nice guitar playing. No one knew where to put it in the record store, because it was really all over the place. I attribute that to my stepfather, Will Murphy. When my mother remarried, all I knew was the accordion, the piano, some Hebrew folk songs, and the pop music of the day, which I hated. And then Will Murphy came into my life, and he brought with him a stack of albums that might as well have been a stack of gold to me because it had every style of music that he loved. It was classical music, followed by scores from Broadway musicals, followed by jazz singers and arrangers, and it just went on and on. I memorized every single note on every one of those albums. I actually got Bill Evans’ “Lush Life” down and George Shearing’s “Lullaby of Birdland” down on the piano.

I wish every kid had a Willie Murphy in his or her life, because that’s when it’s most important for young people to have someone say, “Hey, listen to this! You might like it.” If kids don’t have someone like that, I would hope that music directors and teachers in the schools could do that for them. That’s where it all started for me.

SBO: Do you think that all of the recent proliferation of music on the internet might help kids today and tomorrow discover some of the great music out there?

BM: It’s better than nothing, but it’s not like what I’m talking about. The internet is impersonal; I’m talking about one human being to another. That will make a much bigger impact on a kid than the internet will, ever. It’s better than nothing to be able to go over to iTunes or Youtube and look up Chet Baker or whoever, but when Willie put the record on, there was no doubt that I was hearing something special.

What Willie – and the people like him that I’m hoping are out there – can do for kids is turn on their musical motor. I was able to take it from there. Then, I went off on my road to find out how I could use it on my own, what I could do with music. If kids don’t have a Willie Murphy, I hope they have a great schoolteacher. But what’s going on now, where classes and programs are being cut, is just killing me. And that’s why we’re talking.

SBO: So let’s get into the Manilow Music Project. What was the catalyst for this coming together?

BM: Well, the “Manilow Music Project” may sound like some big official thing, but it’s really a simple grassroots organization made up of me and three or four of my friends who work with me. When I realized in 2008 that they were cutting music and arts and orchestra programs in schools all over the country because of budget problems, it was killing me. All I could think was, “How can I help?” Those are four great words! So I put my little team of people together to see what we could do to help out. People such as my music director, my stage manager, my business manager, and I order club sandwiches and sit around and talk about how we can help this situation. That’s how it started, and it’s still that way. It is turning out to be very successful, and I’m considering taking it to the next step and making it an even bigger project. Right now, though, it’s still a small organization; I’m just one skinny singer doing what I can to help young people bring music into their lives.

SBO: How did you decide on the best way to assist music programs?

BM: We raised money in various ways, and then we pick an area to focus on. The first time we did it was in an area where I live, down in Palm Springs. The Coachella Valley is an area that has a lot of schools – maybe 20 schools – and I thought we’d start here because this area has been so good to me. I have a deal with Yamaha and Hal Leonard Publishing, and, through them, I raised the money myself. We picked these schools and sent them a letter saying, “We’d like to give you some brand new musical instruments because we hear you’re having some financial trouble. What do you need?” We included a long list of instruments that we knew we could get a hold of, and they could check off what they needed, up to 100 points. And we got everything they asked for – drums, pianos, synthesizers, horns, flutes, strings! We loaded the instruments into five huge trucks and on a brisk Thursday morning, in front of all of these young kids and their teachers and the school staff, we went out to all 15 or 20 schools to give these kids brand new musical instruments. I wish I could do that every morning!

SBO: I imagine a number of schools out there wish you could do that every morning, too! Have you stayed in contact with these schools that you’ve helped?

BM: Oh, yes. I get letters and cards – you can only imagine what it does to these young people. And I go to listen to them now and again and they’re just beautiful! Beautiful little orchestras or jazz bands doing the best they can. I am so glad I could help them out. That was the first one, and since then, we’ve gone to about 10 other areas where we have done the same thing – in Las Vegas, Seattle, New York, L.A., the list goes on and on. Some of the donations are smaller than others, of course. The latest was in Joplin, Missouri, an area that was hit incredibly hard by a tornado that blew the school away. They lost everything – all the instruments, all the sheet music, everything. We put our brains together for the last couple of months, raised a lot of money, and were able to send a lot of musical instruments to the kids in Joplin. Hopefully that will help them bring music back into their lives.

SBO: What do you look for when selecting communities to assist?

BM: I look for some kind of personal connection with me, whether it’s a place that’s near to where I live, where I work, where I am touring, or somewhere I’ve been – I need to know that I have some sort of connection with the area. If we get bigger than this, it’ll take on a whole other dimension, but right now it’s a very personal selection.

SBO: And so what’s the future of the Manilow Music Project? What are some ideas for how to continue to help out or possibly even expand your efforts?

BM: Maybe soliciting grants or donations from bigger organizations to make this into a bona fide organization – something it really isn’t yet, at this stage. We’re doing the best we can, and it’s very, very rewarding on a personal level, but it seems to be working so well, that maybe it’s time to blow it up a bit and get more instruments in more schools on a much bigger level.

SBO: Would you talk about the impact that this has had on you, being able to take a look at the faces of those kids as they receive shiny new instruments and all of this special attention?

BM: It’s overwhelming to see all these young people so excited about music. Some of them are finding their passion and others just becoming better students and better people through music. It’s very, very rewarding. I see it, I get the letters, I get the big thank you notes and videos, I watch the orchestras playing, and it couldn’t be more gratifying.

SBO: How about to band and orchestra directors – do you have any particular message that you’d like to share with them?

BM: Oh, please! In my world, these men and women are heroes. They stay up into the middle of the night trying to fix broken down instruments, they buy kids instruments, they do so much of it themselves – they’re really the heroes to me. When I meet them, all I can do is shake their hands and thank them for all the wonderful things that they do.

SBO: And how about for music students, any particular messages that you’d like to pass along?

BM: Like I said before, learn to read music. That’s a really important message to get across – it’s just such an important skill. If you really are serious about making any kind of career in music, you need to learn the language, which means learning to read music. Then you can decide if you want to do it for real or not, but you will never know if you can’t do that. People who can read music are always the ones who are much more in demand, even for singers. I spent so many days as a background singer and doing jingles and studio work. I wasn’t that great a singer, but I was able to read really well and I could sing in tune, and I made a lot of money that way. You can make a great career out of that. You may not wind up being the latest Lady Gaga or something, but you can have a career. The way to start is by taking it seriously, giving it a couple of years, and learning how to read music.

Barry Manilow’s latest album, 15 Minutes, was released on June 14, 2011. Inspired by the Andy Warhol quote that “in the future, everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes,” this “energetic, guitar-driven pop album” explores the “perils and pinnacles of fame’s double-edged sword.” 

For more info on the Manilow Music Project, visit www.manilowmusicproject.com.

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