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August 20, 2014

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In five minutes, Barry Manilow turns out another catchy tune

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Erik Kabik/Retna/www.erikkabikphoto.com

Barry Manilow at the Clio Awards.

He has committed to a bunch of interviews on this Thursday afternoon. Twelve, in all, and 11 up to this point, when it finally is my turn to close the show.

You don't have much time. Five minutes. Six, if he's interested. But after 11 such sessions in a tightly scheduled afternoon of drive-by interviews, you wonder, "What am I going ask Barry Manilow that hasn't already been asked, that doesn't seem so far off the reservation to be stupid, but will get a good, quick, revealing answer?"

You might ask why he's an hour late for this interview, but you know the answer. Because he is Barry Manilow, and he is a superstar, and as such often works in a kind of metric schedule. Today he spent extra time fine-tuning public-service announcements to promote the reason we've been invited to talk to him at Paris Theatre: The Barry Manilow Music Project. Manilow is offering fans who bring a new or slightly used musical instrument to the box office at the Paris Theatre a ticket voucher for a Manilow performance of their choosing (for information, go to the organization's website).

For this media sprint, Manilow is dressed in all-black, an open-necked shirt, slacks, jacket. Black all over. His voice is a little scratchy, but he's in a chipper mood as you note that you did once interview him at his show at the Las Vegas Hilton. You note, "The show's a lot more sophisticated here than it was there," remembering that the flashy "Copacabana" production number at the Hilton seemed pulled from "Glee" if you'd ever actually seen, "Glee."

"It is more sophisticated," he says, "because I'm getting old!" He laughs, and you say, "Not too old to be un-sophisticated, though."

But there is a question here: When was the first moment Barry Manilow first realized he could actually entertain?

"I knew I was musical when I was this big," he says, holding his hand low below the bar stool he's sitting on at the theater concession counter. "So did my family. My musicians friends will tell you — you just know it. You don't know what you're going to do with it, but you just know it. You speak the language. I knew music. I can't even describe it, I just felt it."

Manilow's family was not wealthy, and Brooklyn was more a haven for young gang members than young musicians in those days. How did his musical gift manifest itself?

"My parents somehow rented an accordion. Every Jewish and Italian kid had to play an accordion," he says. "They won't let you out of Brooklyn unless you can play 'Lady of Spain.' So they shoved an accordion in my hand, and I learned how to read music.

"I wasn't bad at it, but there is only so far you can go with an accordion."

Manilow has talked of his "dump" of a high school, but it was a musical sort of dump.

"It had an orchestra," he says. "A public school with an orchestra, yeah. That was big, because I didn't want to join a gang, and I wasn't good at sports. When I joined the orchestra, I knew what I wanted to do, who I was. I could talk to the other students. And today, when I speak to the music directors of these schools, you know, it's not playtime. It makes them into better students. Grades go up, they become better people, they learn to interact with other kids. I've had school superintendents tell me that if they cut music classes, they won't come back to school. They drop out. That's pretty scary, and they are cutting music classes all over the country."

So what can he do about it?

"I'm just a skinny singer," he says, chuckling. "What do I do? I try to make the public aware of the problem. Get the public aware, from the stage, saying, 'Send your old instruments to the high schools. Ask what they need.' ... They'll be so grateful. Some schools don't even have sheet music to play from, or music stands. Bring it here and we'll send it out to the schools."

It doesn't seem the pendulum of public money ever will swing back to fully fund music programs in public schools. Does he feel he can inspire your fellow entertainers to follow suit?

"Wouldn't that be great?" he says. "I think we all might all be able to give back individually. I'm trying to make everybody aware of it, yeah."

He did bust out the accordion during an earlier version of his stage show.

"It was one of the funniest things I've ever done," he says, laughing. "You know how everything sounds old on an accordion? I used to play 'Like a Virgin' on the accordion."

"One more question!" calls out Manilow's PR rep Howard Bragman, of the ironically named PR firm Fifteen Minutes. "Make it a good one!"

Manilow asks it himself.

"You'd asked, when did I first think that I was a performer?" he says. "Last week."

Then he laughs. "I still consider myself one of the lucky ones. I'm a musician. On my passport, it doesn't say 'Entertainer,' it says, 'Musician.' That's where I am. I'm just one of the band."

That's it. Five minutes, 19 seconds of Manilow. Then he grins and is led out of the room. It's time to get ready to play.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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