Barry Manilow

Barry Manilow performs during the German music award Echo ceremony in Berlin on Thursday, March 22, 2012. (AP Photo/dapd, Axel Schmidt)

Like a good neighbor, Barry Manilow doesn’t forget you when you’ve done him a good turn — even if it was 37 years ago.

In November 1975, Manilow was at the dawn of his solo-superstar career; his first single, “Mandy,” had hit No. 1 that winter.

And the 6-foot New Yorker with the feathered hair was rocketed into an unlikely pop sensation.

Suddenly, Elton John — the era’s reigning male pop star — had some stiff competition from a fellow piano man.

His rival’s sold-out concert at Illinois State University that fall was a night to remember — even now (to cite a key Manilow anthem).

“Normal was the first big arena show I played, or at least one of the first colleges I’d ever played,” he recalls via a flashback that might have happened just yesterday.

“I remember that, because my band and my singers and I had to run out the back way down a little grassy knoll to a waiting limousine — because the crowd was so wild.”

We’re like that here, of course.

 And we don’t give up easily.

“They kept following us,” he continues. “I’ll never forget that. It was the first time that anything like that had ever happened.”

A star was born, and made to grow up fast.

Not that he minded: “It was great!”

The Pantagraph’s reviewer enthused that he came off that night as “versatile … very entertaining … witty … and extremely talented.”

Like that good neighbor, Manilow was back at ISU just a year later (1976) for a two-show encore, the record-breaking success of which remains on Braden Auditorium’s “Top 10 concerts of all time” list.

Interestingly, Manilow, who returns Wednesday for his first B-N show in 24 years, this time at the U.S. Cellular Coliseum, had already forged a direct bond with us.

Prior to his solo success with “Mandy,” he’d made ends meet as the author of catchy commercial jingles, like McDonald’s “you deserve a break today” and Band-Aid’s “stuck on me.”

Longest-lived of all, however, was the theme song he penned, but did not sing, for Bloomington-based State Farm Insurance Cos.: “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there …”

“I got $500 for it,” he remembers, almost as vividly as he does being chased down the grassy knoll after that ISU gig.

Though $500 might seem a pittance for a melody that has endured for 35 years and serves as the theme song for a corporate giant, Manilow has no regrets.

“They buy you out when you’re the writer of the jingle,” he notes. “So they gave me the $500 bucks, which was great for me in those days. I was, you know, a starving musician — and who knew that this little melody was going to last for 35 years? At the time it really seemed like a wonderful deal. I was just grateful to be paid.”

He is certain of one thing: “The girl who sang on it is probably on her third Rolls Royce now. She gets residuals.”

Of course “the one thing I DID sing on, they don’t use anymore,” he observes. “But I’m just happy to have my melodies out there.”

Manilow’s melodies have been “out there” in too many ways to process since those Madison Avenue days of yore.

Born Barry Alan Pincus 69 years ago this June, the future pop sensation studied classically at the New College of Music and Juilliard.

He wound up shortly thereafter plugging the piano for nightclub singers, performing production/arranging chores at CBS and whetting our appetites for juicy Quarter Pounders via even juicier melodies.

However, it was his four-year association as Bette Midler’s pianist-producer that allowed Manilow the wide-open avenue to personal success. The association began in the early ’70s at New York’s Continental Baths, the city’s most infamous gay bathhouse.

“The experience at the Baths was over very quick,” he recalled in an earlier Pantagraph interview advancing his September 1988 show in ISU’s Braden Auditorium (his last show here prior to Wednesday’s Coliseum concert).

 “I remember those weeks as a blur, with a lot of people in towels. When I think of my experience with Bette, they certainly aren’t at the Continental Baths; they’re on the road, in recording studios, at apartments. It was a fantastic learning experience that I would never trade away one day of.”

Once Manilow emerged from Midler’s shadow with “Mandy,” “no one was more surprised than I was — but I took the opportunity and ran with it — went for the brass ring.”

To say the least.

Several dozen Top 40 hits, 10,000 concerts and millions of record sales later, the man who writes the songs that make the whole world sing shows no signs of backing off.

There are, however, well-earned signs of wear-and-tear.

Following a seven-year, 1,000-concert stand at the Las Vegas Hilton, the singer submitted to extensive hip surgery (not replacement) in December.

“It was supposed to be a two-hour surgery, and it turned out to be seven hours,” he notes. “What they found when they went in was that I’d ripped the muscles off my hip on both sides. So they had to pull them back like you would a window shade and nailed them back to my hips on both sides.”

Ouch?

Ouch. 

“That was a big surprise and the recovery has taken, oh God, going on three months now. They said ‘you’ll be back on your feet in six weeks — pleeease, I couldn’t even get out of bed after six weeks. We had all these dates booked and I was walking around, wobbling back and forth, running for the walker every 10 minutes.”

Fortunately, that was then, and this is now, and, to paraphrase another monster Manilow melody: looks like he made it.

He’s got a new studio album out, “15 Minutes,” in which he meditates on the price of fame over 16 highly personal tracks.

And he’s back on track with what he proudly bills as “the most intimate show I’ve ever done” — the perfect antidote, he insists, for those seven years of Vegas gigantism.

 “By the time I get to you, I’ll be in great shape. I wouldn’t say all the way back to normal …”

(After all, the concert IS in Bloomington, not Normal, for the first time in his Twin Cities history.)

 “… but yeah, it’s coming back … I’m walking around, and I’ll be able to do it.”

Please, though: No chasing him up and down grassy knolls after the show.


It could be magic

Highest-lights from the life and times of Barry Manilow:

First big arena-type show he remembers: November 1975, Illinois State University Braden Auditorium

Longest-running commercial jingle: State Farm Insurance Cos.’ “Like a Good Neighbor”

Biggest hits (all No. 1): “Mandy,” “I Write the Songs,” “Looks Like We Made It”

Big hits (all Top 10): “Could It Be Magic” (6), “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” (10), “Weekend in New England” (10), “Can’t Smile Without You” (3), “Copacabana” (8), “Somewhere in the Night” (9), “Ships” (9), “I Made It Through the Rain” (10)

Biggest year: 1978, when five Manilow albums were on the charts simultaneously, tying records set by Sinatra, Mathis, Springsteen and Jacko.

Triple crown: Emmy, 1977 (“The Barry Manilow Special”); Tony, 1977 (“Barry Manilow on Broadway”); Grammy, 1978 (Best Pop Male Vocal Performance, “Copacabana”)

Lone thespian lead: Starring in the 1978 TV-movie adaptation of “Copacabana”

Biggest surprise: His only No. 1 charting studio album was 2006’s “Greatest Songs of the Fifties”; his only No. 2 charting studio album was 2006’s “Greatest Songs of the Sixties”; the highest he charted during his hit-making years was 1978’s “Even Now,” which went to No. 3 (a concert album, “Barry Manilow Live” went to No. 1 in 1977).


At a glance

What: Barry Manilow concert

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: U.S. Cellular Coliseum, 101 S. Madison St., Bloomington

Tickets: $19.99 to $119.99

Box office: 800-745-3000

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