For 40 years he’s been the Mr Nice Guy of the charts, smiling his crinkly-eyed smile whatever the brick- bats hurled his way. They’ve mocked the spangles, laughed at his perma-tan, crowned him the king of cheese – and yet he roused barely a murmur of complaint.
Yet today, with his 70th birthday fast approaching, Barry Manilow is in a strangely trenchant mood. If not exactly angry, he is certainly impassioned as he strides around his Palm Springs mansion. And for once, he is more than happy to dish out some criticism of his own.
“Let’s face it,” he says, “the art of great songwriting is dead. Most young artists today are just chasing hits. They know nothing about writing songs.
“I have to keep reminding people of all these incredible men and women from the past – the ones responsible for what we call the Great American Songbook – or I fear they’ll be forgotten altogether.”
And who better to do the reminding than Manilow himself. The author of some of the biggest hits ever known is featuring the songbook on a new radio show.
Even Michael Bublé is in the firing line. His renditions of the American classics have made him one of the hottest live performers on the planet, but Manilow is distinctly underwhelmed.
“Well, it’s better than nothing,’” he allows. ‘But I’ve lived through many decades of music and I was there when it was done the first time round by Frank Sinatra.
“All that Michael and his ilk are doing is a copy job. I’m grateful they’re even doing it at all. But I find myself thinking, ‘Well, I’ve heard it before and I’ve heard it better’.”
His ilk? “Oh, people like Norah Jones … and what’s her name? The girl with the great legs…”
That would be Diana Krall, also known as Mrs Elvis Costello. “Yeah, she’s a good pianist and a decent singer but I can’t help thinking she’s made a career out of her legs.”
There is just one surprising exception to this new indifference: “I must be Lady Gaga’s biggest fan,” he says. “I think she’s a brilliant, original talent. The way she talks in interviews is so mature and I think she sets a really good example to young people. She has what it takes to be both famous and popular for years to come. Both as a talent and as a human being, absolutely she’s the real deal. I love her.”
But this, despite the bouquets for Gaga, is not the Manilow of old, who has been so supportive of younger generations. Mention the British acts now blossoming in America after years of drought – Adele, One Direction, Mumford & Sons – and he throws up his hands.
“Okay, I admit it, I’ve given up on all of that. For years, I considered it my professional duty to listen out for everything new. Lately though it’s been increasingly difficult. Not to say these young kids aren’t talented. They’ve all got something.
“But slogging through pop radio, I find I just can’t get worked up about the latest hot girl singer or the debut album by some must-see boy band. I’m done keeping up with the new kids on the block. I’ve joined the iPod-in-the-car generation instead, playing my favourite stuff from years ago.
“These songs were the soundtrack to life for people all over the world and principally came from Broadway shows and Hollywood musicals. Composers like Gershwin and Berlin gave us some of the most beloved titles ever written. Their work exemplifies craft, style and wit.
“And the performers who sang this material uplifted the lives of ordinary people. It’s vital that we bang the drum for the great American songwriters of the past. I want people to understand their importance to the world of popular music. I don’t want them just consigned to history.”
This is why he has poured his time, knowledge and energy into the BBC’s new Radio 2 ratings hit They Write the Songs, a series of 10 one-hour specials tracing the lives and careers of some of the greatest 20th century popular songwriters.
He has researched, compiled and written each of the 10 programmes himself with the BBC’s Anthony Cherry (“The best co-producer I’ve had in my entire life”).
One edition blows the trumpet for composer Harry Warren, three-times Oscar winner, the writer of standards as diverse as Chattanooga Choo Choo and You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby, Lullaby of Broadway and At Last, yet who was largely unknown throughout his lifetime, to his chagrin. The broadcasts really are a labour of love; a night-time slot on Radio 2 is hardly Hollywood.
“I’m barely getting paid for this,” he says. “But when did I ever do anything for the money? Nor is it about me wanting to impress anyone with my knowledge.”
A graduate of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York, Manilow’s team have taken to calling him The Professor behind his back.
“All I care about is bringing these guys to a wider audience, helping to keep their achievements alive.”
Manilow has sold more than 80 million records and earned an estimated $70 million during his career and has only recently come to the end of a seven-year stint playing Las Vegas.
Yet even now he is preparing and rehearsing for a return to Broadway.
This year is a milestone for Manilow in another way, too.
“Yep, I’ll be hitting 70 in June,” he laughs.
It’s true that Manilow is as trim and, on stage, energetic as ever, his lanky frame topped off by the trademark feathery “do”.
There is endless speculation about surgical procedures he might have undergone to sustain a surprisingly youthful look, but he never comments. He does, though, admit to having finally kicked smoking. “I haven’t had a real cigarette in over two years,” he says proudly. “I vape instead.” That’s a vapour cigarette – just air and water.
“Last January you’d have found me on medication and surrounded by nurses, recovering from major hip surgery. As soon I was able I was up and out of bed, going off to rehearsals in a wheelchair, people helping me out of my seat and to the piano. I just kept going.”
Even so, he admits it is time for some re-assessment.
“Do I say goodbye to performing and produce albums for other artists? Or do I perform just as and when I feel like it? For the time being I’ve decided on the latter.”
A constant presence since his first single Mandy reached No 1 in January 1975, Manilow has achieved 50 Top 40 singles in the US.
He was surprised and moved to find that the American public reached for him particularly in the weeks following 9/11, when his Greatest Hits collection unexpectedly soared into the Top 10.
“In terrible times, people seek uplifting music,” he says. “So maybe it’s true that in some small way my songs did bring people hope and comfort . Maybe listening to Can’t Smile Without You made them feel better. I hope so.”
Even now, each new album is propelled into the charts by an army of adoring fans – dubbed Fanilows. At a recent concert a fan held up a banner which read “Pick me! And if not, pick my mom!”
Manilow’s singing voice remains as strong and mellifluous as ever.
“I have the sense that things are about to change for me,” he says. “Perhaps the radio series, teaching the public more about the kind of music I’ve loved all of my life, is a clue as to where I want to be headed.” – Mail On Sunday