In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
I spent years writing about American Idol — partly because I was being paid to write about it, and partly because I was fascinated. The American Idol conception of pop music — ballad-centric, based on modern standards, built around the vocal virtuosity of the singers — was foreign to my experience. And yet American Idol was our highest-rated television show, by far, for many years. This idea of pop music had legs.
There were many things about American Idol that reliably drove me nuts, but nothing hit me the way the constant smiling did. This wasn’t true across the board, but plenty of American Idol contestants would always smile when they were singing — big, toothy, plastered-on pageant smiles. It wouldn’t matter if they were singing sad songs. They were selling themselves, not the songs. The judges never commented on it. It drove me nuts.
I don’t know if Barry Manilow was smiling when he recorded “Mandy,” his first hit. But “Mandy” might be the first example in this column of that American Idol siging style. On paper, “Mandy” is a sad song. But that’s not how Manilow delivers it. Instead, Manilow uses it as a showcase for his whole down-the middle style, right down to the Idol-style big note at the end. There is something grimly effective about this singing style, and it clearly moves a whole lot of people. But I can’t help but find it bloodless and remote.
“Mandy” wasn’t always “Mandy.” Once upon a time, it was “Brandy.” The British singer-songwriter Scott English co-wrote “Brandy” with Richard Kerr, and he released his version in 1971. In English’s hands, it was a big and sweeping folk-rock ballad, with a choir welling up behind him on the chorus. In its original form, “Brandy” was still a fairly cheesy ’70s pop song. But English did his best to convey Van Morrison-style hiccuping soulfulness. He sounded like he’d thought about the words he was singing. English’s “Brandy” was a pretty big hit in the UK, making it up to #12, and it scraped the bottom of the Hot 100 in the US. After that, it could’ve easily disappeared forever.
Barry Manilow was never going to disappear. He was a show-business hustler, determined to succeed. Manilow had grown up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in that neighborhood’s pre-gentrification days as a Russian Jewish enclave. He didn’t especially like rock ‘n’ roll, instead learning about music through his stepfather’s jazz and Broadway albums. Manilow studied music at the New York College Of Music, and later at Juilliard. He got his first break scoring an off-Broadway play in 1964, and he went on to write music for TV. He had an especially lucrative hustle writing ad jingles. (The “like a good neighbor, State Farm is there” song, which continues to haunt us to this day, is one of his.)
Eventually, Tony Orlando signed Manilow, and he recorded a few singles with a band called Featherbed, which didn’t go anywhere. When Bette Midler blew up as a cabaret singer at the Continental Baths, a famous gay club in New York, Manilow was her pianist. He went on to produce Midler’s first two albums, and he was the musical director on her first tour. (Midler will eventually show up in this column.) Those Midler records were successes, but Manilow’s own self-titled debut album, released in 1973, did nothing. “Mandy” was what turned things around for him.
Manilow didn’t much want to record a cover of “Brandy,” but Clive Davis, who’d just been installed as boss of the new Arista label, insisted. David and Manilow changed the song’s title to “Mandy,” since Looking Glass had already gotten to #1 with “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl).” They gave it a grand, syrupy, orchestral read. English hated it at first, but he learned to like it when the royalties poured in.
Manilow co-produced “Mandy” with Ron Dante, the guy who’d sung lead on the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar.” In their arrangement, you can hear that Manilow had always been more of a Broadway guy than a rock guy. (Manilow had attempted a bunch of rock songs on his first two albums, and all of them are profoundly unconvincing.) “Mandy” is a song about regret and lost love. The narrator is a guy who fucked up a relationship and who didn’t realize what a good thing he had while it was happening: “Oh Mandy, well you came and you gave without taking / And I sent you away / Oh Mandy, well you kissed me and stopped me from shaking / And I need you today.” But Manilow never sounds regretful. Instead, he’s focused and assured — a man who knows what he wants, not a man whose memories haunt him.
In a lot of ways, “Mandy” follows the classic power-ballad blueprint, starting as a quiet murmur and building toward crashing bombast. It’s the work of professionals who know what they’re doing. They key change hits at just the right moment, and Manilow reaches up to the cheap seats with his big glory note: “And I need yoooouuuu.” But there’s no punch to it, no intensity. So that’s gonna be a “no” from me, dawg.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s a couple of slightly altered versions of “Mandy” that Homer sang on a 1993 episode of The Simpsons:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Me First And The Gimme Gimmes’ 1997 cover of “Mandy”: