Barry Alan was born to Edna and Harold Pincus, of Russian-Jewish descent. Harold left the family when Barry was only two years old, prompting him to adopt his mother’s maiden name of Manilow, at his bar mitzvah.
He grew up in the low-income Williamsburg part of Brooklyn, New York and his musical interest started early. He was age seven when he learned to play both the accordion and the piano (which he preferred), and was singing by age thirteen.
Following Manilow’s graduation from Eastern District High School in 1961, he was accepted into the illustrious Julliard School of Music. He had to pay for his own schooling and he did this by working in the CBS mailroom.
After some time, Manilow managed to meet the right people and he was given the opportunity to become musical director of 'Callback', a CBS show. To supplement his income, he also wrote, produced and performed advertising jingles for clients including State Farm Insurance, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, Dr Pepper soda, and Stri-Dex anti-acne medicine.
In 1964, Manilow married Susan Deixler, but the wedding was annulled in 1965. Manilow met Bette Midler in 1971 and she hired him as her pianist, arranger and musical director. It was a collaboration that brought Manilow his true opening into the music world. After supervising Midler’s first two albums, his debut opportunity arrived in the summer of 1972, at Midler’s show at the Carnegie Hall. Manilow showcased some of his original material, which led to the fledgling Bell label offering him a record deal. They released the debut album 'Barry Manilow' in 1973, although it did not sell very well.
Bell underwent a transformation, becoming Arista, with new label head, Clive Davis. He asked Manilow to record a pop tune called 'Brandy', which had been a UK hit for co-writer, Scott English. Manilow changed the tune into a ballad and renamed it 'Mandy' (mainly to avoid any confusion with the Looking Glass hit 'Brandy You’re a Fine Young Girl'). 'Mandy' was released on 'Barry Manilow II' (1974) and was a number one hit in early 1975.
Manilow’s second number one hit was in early 1976, with 'I Write the Songs', off the 'Tryin’ to Get the Feeling' (1975) album, which went triple platinum. His rise to stardom was again confirmed with the concert double-LP 'Live' (1977), which was to be his first, and only, number one album, with sales of over four million copies. ABC aired his first prime time special, 'The Barry Manilow Special', (1977) for which he won a Grammy award. That same year, he won a Special Tony award for his own show at the Uris Theatre (now the Gershwin), on Broadway. 'Even Now' (1978) was another triple platinum album, with three top ten singles, including the legendary 'Copacabana'.
It seemed everything Manilow touched turned to success, but his next album, 'One Voice' (1979) wasn’t quite up to scratch. It sold well and had one top ten hit, but seemed to lack something of its predecessors. Manilow remained a very popular touring act and maintained a presence on the contemporary hit charts but his prime, it seemed, was over.
Seven albums and five years later, Manilow decided to change musical direction, releasing the swinging jazz album '2:00 AM Paradise Café' (1984). It featured the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Shelley Manne and Gerry Mulligan, all big names in the world of jazz. Manilow was to repeat this foray into swing, vocal jazz and traditional pop with the albums 'Swing Street' (1987), 'Showstoppers' (1991), 'Singin’ with the Big Bands' (1994), and 'Manilow Sings Sinatra' (1998).
In 1985, Manilow played the role of Tony Starr in the television series 'Copacabana'. His experience with stage musicals came with 'Copacabana: The Musical' (1994) and 'Harmony' (1999), both of which toured the US and the UK extensively.
For nearly three decades, and throughout his career, Artista records had been Manilow’s stalwart. However, with his increasing interest in the jazz sound, it was time for him to take a directional shift. Manilow signed to the jazz-oriented Concord label and debuted for them with his concept album, 'Here at the Mayflower', in late 2001. Manilow’s music was evolving further and even touching on a pre-rock pop sound.
It was time to stoke the media engines and increase Manilow’s public exposure. In 2002, he performed 'Let Freedom Ring' at a pre-game show at the Super Bowl, and benefited from television advertising. Things were looking up and 'Ultimate Manilow' (2002) sailed in at number three on the album charts that March. To follow was the release of a DVD of the collection, and a two-disc set of live music, '2 Nights Live!' (2004), recorded over a weekend in New Jersey.
2005 found Manilow back in collaboration with producer, music mogul and friend, Clive Davis. Together, they recorded 'The Greatest Songs of the Fifties' (2006), a nostalgic and diverse collection of tunes from the 1950s, covering three discs.
Manilow may not always be viewed as an exemplar of hip, some would even call him kitsch, schmaltzy and camp, but he remains one of the most successful contemporary singers in terms of longevity and record sales. He continues to maintain a large and dedicated fan base, particularly in the United States, and with his recent shift into higher gear and a resurgence on the charts, he certainly seems here to stay. Some say, he may even be starting to achieve the status of retro-cool.
Manilow maintains a number of residences, including in Manhattan and Palm Springs, California.