At the relatively grand old age of 66, Barry Manilow has announced that he is to start a new residency in Las Vegas that will run for two years. Manilow's 78-show engagement at the 1,500-seat Paris Las Vegas hotel will start on March 5 and will feature standards by songwriters including Irving Berlin and Johnny Mercer alongside Manilow's famous hits. "It's an all-singing, all-dancing, extravaganza that's camp and fabulous and completely non-threatening," says the music writer and broadcaster John Aizlewood. "It will do fantastically well - you forget how popular he is. He has a committed group of female fans - the Manilettes - who follow him everywhere."
But if you think this is a comeback, think again. By pop music standards he may be well into his dotage, but Manilow has never quit the stage. His residency at the Las Vegas Hilton ends this month after a four-year run. Throughout his 35-year career, Manilow has been the "dictionary definition of a trooper", says Aizlewood. Born in Brooklyn in 1946, Barry Alan Pincus (he later changed his name to Manilow) launched his musical career as touring pianist for Bette Midler. Discovered by the Arista boss Clive Davis in the 1970s, Manilow polarised opinion like no one else. At the time of long-haired rockers such as Neil Young, Manilow tossed aside rock music's masculine conventions, preferring to oil his melodies with garish orchestrations and Broadway sentimentality. He scored hits including the Chopin-sampling Could It Be Magic, Mandy (written by Scott English and Richard Kerr for F Scott Fitzgerald's dog Brandy) and the dizzy suburban disco of Copacabana.
"Listen to the lyrics and Copacabana is quite a sad song," says Aizlewood, "but most don't think of it that way. Manilow can't help but make it sound joyous and fun." Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Manilow sustained a successful career in the US and the UK, but by the turn of the century, he had lost his way. In 2001, he released a jazz-tinged concept album titled Here At the Mayflower. Taking a page from the composer Stephen Sondheim, the record detailed the lives of the people from a mythical New York apartment block. But unlike Sondheim, Manilow was not a skilled chronicler of white working-class New York. His album did not do well.
"People don't want to hear songs about couples arguing in apartments," says Aizlewood. When the CD failed, Manilow retreated. "He gave up trying to convince people he was a serious artist," says Aizlewood. To the rescue came the music industry genius - and his old boss - Davis. Davis suggested he abandon jazz and record an album of 1950s standards. The Greatest Songs of the Fifties gave Manilow his first US number one album in more than two decades. There followed hit albums of cover versions from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
"Clive Davis turned around Barry Manilow's career," says Aizlewood. "It's a staggering achievement." For all his success, Manilow remains mysterious. Intensely private, he has been plagued with ill health but underwent comprehensive plastic surgery on his face in 2003. Throughout his career, Manilow couldn't understand why some found his music ersatz or cheesy. In 1994, he sued the Los Angeles radio station KBIG for defaming his reputation by advertising the fact that the station refused to play his music. When Australian authorities recently revealed they played his songs in order to discourage delinquent youths from congregating in residential areas, he could only shrug. (But he did put out a press release suggesting some of them might have quite liked it.) Unlike The Beatles, he has not attracted a younger generation to his music and his songs and albums have never been rehabilitated.
"A new generation of musicians have come along saying they listened to Michael Jackson," says Aizlewood, "but no one ever says they are influenced by Barry Manilow." But whatever his legacy, few doubt his ability to pack a Vegas theatre, and given the current economic climate, a spot of glitzy, unchallenging entertainment may be just what the doctor ordered. "Would I go and see him perform in Las Vegas if I could?" says Aizlewood. "Yes, it'll be great. People who say they don't want to go are not being entirely truthful. It will be hugely entertaining. I would be there like a shot."