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I liked Manilow before Manilow was cool

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I guess we all have our musical guilty pleasures. My friends have ragged me about some of my choices. My homegirl Kayce: "The Carpenters? Rashod, no! Your black card is so revoked." My homeboy Curtis: "Air Supply, Toto - you actually bought these CDs?"

But they don't know about my Barry Manilow jones. Sometimes when I'm at home feeling a little silly (a glass of wine or two usually brings this on), I scan the bottom shelf for his greatest hits. I jam to "Copacabana (At the Copa)," snapping my fingers and doing my two-step move across the floor. Loudly and with theatrical gestures, I sing along to "Mandy," "Even Now" and "Could It Be Magic." But after all of that is out of my system, I quickly put on something hardcore and irrevocably black - the Roots, Dead Prez, Millie Jackson - to bring me back to the world.

From time to time, I have a ball indulging my taste for syrupy, maudlin bombast. And nothing quite hits the spot like old-school Barry Manilow.

This month, the veteran singer-songwriter released his 58th album, The Greatest Songs of the Fifties, a concept CD on which he covers pop fare from the Eisenhower era. "It's All in the Game," "Venus," "Beyond the Sea" - Manilow renders those and 10 other classics in his signature slick, grand-showman style. Apparently, the public still loves him for it: The album debuted at No. 1, selling 155,630 copies in its first week. It's the first chart topper for Manilow since Live, the singer's 1977 double-LP set.

Clive Davis, founder of Arista Records and the man who masterminded Manilow's early success in the '70s, produced the new CD along with the artist and David Benson. You can love him or hate him or for it, but Davis is also responsible for the recent string of inexplicably successful standards albums by Rod Stewart. He came up with the idea for Manilow to do '50s covers.

"Clive said, 'If you do this right, this is a hit record for you,'" says Manilow, who's calling from Los Angeles. "He said those same words when he handed me 'Mandy.' He's the greatest [Artists and Repertoire] man that's ever lived. So I listened."

But the singer wasn't immediately sold on the idea.

"Clive hears the finished product," Manilow explains. "It takes me a couple of months before I hear what he's hearing. Then I slap myself on the forehead and I'm like, 'Oh, yeah, I get it.' But I still didn't get how big this album could be until we started recording. Then I was like, 'Oh, yeah, this could be big.'"

The album's out-of-nowhere success is a continuation of the Manilow resurgence that started about three years ago. In 2002, Ultimate Manilow, the first comprehensive single-disc collection of the pop star's greatest hits, entered Billboard's charts at No. 3. No new songs were added, just the old favorites. Television ads greatly helped in promoting that project and the '50s collection. While recording the new album, Manilow previewed some of the songs in his Vegas act.

"When I looked at some of the titles," he says, "I thought, 'What can I do with this?' When we got to 'Unchained Melody,' which originated in the '50s and was a big hit for the Righteous Brothers in the '60s, I wondered how I could compete with that. I thought this album could be accessible but not as successful."

The Greatest Songs of the Fifties is a safe, placid record. It's hard to believe that any aspect of it was all that difficult, given the facelessness of the arrangements. Manilow has explored bygone musical eras before. In fact, he's done that since the beginning of his career, incorporating big-band swing and Tin Pan Alley-isms into his overblown but mostly tolerable style. In the early days, Manilow, even with his limited voice, still conveyed some sense of emotion and excitement. You felt he really enjoyed his time watching crazy Lola at the Copa. As the Chopin-inspired melody swelled and receded in "Could It Be Magic," you felt Manilow's deep desire for "sweet Melissa," the angel of his lifetime.

But on the new album, the still youthful-looking 59-year-old singer phones in his vocals, and the record largely comes off as '50s karaoke. You miss all the syrup and the Broadway-style glitz of his early material. You miss the gutsiness of the young gawky vocalist.

"I've given up trying to be the best singer," the Brooklyn native says flatly. "Luther Vandross was the best we had. I can only be the best me I can be and communicate the lyrics as truthfully as I can. I think people are finally getting that I'm an interpreter."

Though rock 'n' roll rose in the '50s, Manilow ignores that style on the covers album. Instead, he centers on fluffy ballads, taffy-sweet love songs that erroneously suggest the era was hopelessly white-washed, bland and sexless. We're talking about the same period that saw the rise of macho hip grinders like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and, of course, Elvis. But Manilow gives us the Wonder Bread, Ozzie and Harriet idea of the decade.

"I don't really remember the '50s that well," the singer says. "I was there, you know, but I was a kid. It was the music my mother and grandmother listened to. I started paying attention to music when the Beatles came. For this album, I had to do a lot of homework."

Manilow takes nothing away from the original versions, but he adds nothing new. His interpretations of "Moments to Remember," "What a Diff'rence a Day Made," and "All I Have to Do is Dream" are all professional - musically polished to death, emotionally vapid but nothing really nauseating. Once you hear Johnny Mathis sing "It's Not For Me to Say," you don't need to hear another version. But Manilow does an OK job with the chestnut. It's the closest he comes to conveying tenderness on the album.

But even if his latest effort takes us nowhere interesting, something about Barry Manilow's schlock keeps drawing us. The man has sold 70 million albums worldwide, so I'm certainly not alone. What is it? Is it the boyish awkwardness of his voice? Something about it feels eternally adolescent and wide-eyed, friendly and charming. I ask him straight-up, "Why do you think people love your music so much? What is that Manilow magic?"

"I'm fabulous. What can I say?" the singer says. "Just kidding. I've never considered myself a singer, you know, always a communicator. I always thought from the beginning that if I told the truth, my truth, in every song, the audience would get it and they just might buy it."

So after years of being roasted by critics and hipsters, does Manilow feel vindicated with an album of '50s songs topping the charts?

"I feel like I was right all along," he says. "This is probably the most unromantic time in music. ... I think this album has proven that the human heart is still beating and still wants to celebrate love."

Sure. But I will still hide my Barry Manilow albums when my hip, happening friends come to visit.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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