In the first 80 seconds of Barry Manilow's debut album, you will either come to think of his Grandpa Joe as an unlikely hero, or the root of, if not evil itself, then everything that was evil about 1970s pop. Here's an old man who's taken his grandson into one of those little recording booths in Times Square with the idea of making a record of little Barry singing a song, whose title ("Happy Birthday"?) is now obscured by the scratchiness of the source recording and Grandpa Joe's thick Polish accent - though honestly, by the frustration apparent in the poor man's pleas, at this point, any song will be satisfactory. And then, there's little Barry, ever the bratty little refusenik. We hardly hear his 6-year-old voice at all, except for a few decidedly non-verbal cues, but we get his message loud and clear: No way am I singing into that record-making contraption, old man!
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The opening track of Barry Manilow (later issued as Barry Manilow I), cutely titled bit of audio-verite, "Sing It", is like a scene from a black-and-white movie (maybe by Woody Allen) set on what I imagine to be a cold and windy Saturday in New York City in 1948. The rest of the album, though resolutely set in 1973, the year of the album's first release (it was resurrected with added Roman numeral after the surprise success of Barry Manilow II in 1975), is colored by that nostalgia - and plays like a triumphant rags-to-riches story. Look at me now, Grandpa!
And I have to say, it's a pretty wonderful record - especially if we can imagine it in its original form, if we can hear it with more innocent ears, unencumbered by Manilow's subsequent reputation as a one-man cheese factory to put the family operations in the rural hamlets of Green County, Wisconsin (home of the Monroe High School Cheesemakers!) to shame. That said, Barry's debut is less a work of pop music than it is of pop musicology - no doubt, a product of his original dream career as a producer-conductor-arranger (and, as Grandpa Joe learned the hard way, not a performer). It's also a reflection of who he was working with (Bette Midler), and who his main audience was at the time (gay men wrapped in white terrycloth). He even goes so far as to reprise one of Bette's early signature numbers - "Friends" - which appeared on her own debut album a year or two earlier.
Here, you'll find the frenetic 1940's USO show vocal jazz of "Cloudburst" (a song revived by the Pointer Sisters on their debut album, released the same year as Barry's), Appalachian-flavored folk ("Sweetwater Jones", which I could totally hear Emmet Otter and his Frogtown Hollow Jubilee Jugband playing in their Christmas Special), contemporary glitter rock ("Flashy Lady" cuts the difference between The Sweet and Tom Jones), and Frederic Chopin bookending the album's one magnificent hit: the seven minute epic "Could It Be Magic", very possibly Manilow's greatest achievement as producer, performer and songwriter. The song is so elaborate, and so lovingly fussed over, and ultimately, so emotionally cathartic, that you can almost hear this as Manilow's sole incentive for stepping out into the spotlight at all.
There may be something a little schizo about the song selection, but it's all bound together by Manilow's enthusiasm, and his slick (however fledgling) studio professionalism. It's not always convincing (see the Manilow original "Seven More Years", a first person tell-her-I-love-her plea from one prison inmate to another), and not everything here sticks; but those who are most put off by the treacle that made Manilow a household name later on ('tis most difficult for me to separate his name from my memory of lemon Pledge spray and my mom's vacuum cleaner), will find very little here to complain about. Yes, of course, it's still Barry Manilow, and even though the album is called Barry Manilow, it's not necessarily, y'know, BARRY! MANILOW! It's a modest little album, and it has a wide-eyed sense of naive purpose to it - that being the big-time living-the-dream stuff he sings about in the triumphant closer "Sweet Life". Really, Grandpa, look at me! I'm singing it! I'm singing it!
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Sony BMG Legacy's 2006 remaster of Barry Manilow I reproduces the album artwork from both the original Bell Records release and the 1975 Arista reissue of the album; but though the 1973 artwork is featured on the front cover, this reissue actually uses the slightly modified 1975 mixes of the album's songs. Further blurring the issue is a reproduction of the Bell Records album label on the CD itself. The booklet is embellished by various bits of contemporary ephemera, and an adoring liner note by Rolling Stone's David Wild. The CD also adds 4 bonus tracks including the non-LP (non-charting) single "Let's Take Some Time to Say Good-bye"; two tracks that sound like leftovers from the last Partridge Family album ("Caroline" and "Rosalie Rosie"); and "Star Children", a late entry into that dubious pantheon of songs about rock stars who died in the early 70s. These are all fun curiosities, and nothing more.
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BECAUSE YOU NEED TO KNOW:
"Barry Manilow I" by Barry Manilow
Arista - Legacy Records
Originally released 1973, 1975
Reissue released 10/10/06
Produced by Barry Manilow and Ron Dante
SONGS: Sing It - Sweetwater Jones - Cloudburst - One of These Days - Oh My Lady - I Am Your Child - Could It Be Magic - Seven More Years - Flashy Lady - Friends - Sweet Life - Caroline - Rosalie Rosie - Star Children - Let's Take Some Time To Say Good-bye
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MORE BARRY MANILOW:
Tryin' to Get the Feeling (1975)
The Greatest Songs of the Fifties (2006)