Manilow has a way with words, and music

Music: The songwriter says the craft comes to him quite easily.

April 03, 2002|By Howard Reich | Howard Reich,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

George Gershwin had it. So did Franz Schubert, Elton John, Giacomo Puccini, Neil Diamond and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

At first glance, these musicians might not seem exactly like kindred spirits, but each was born with a gift not accorded most mortals: the ability to write a tune.

For reasons unfathomable to the rest of us, the great tunesmiths know how to string together a few seemingly random pitches and rhythms so that they linger in the ear long after we've heard them. Think of Gershwin's "Summertime" or John's "Candle in the Wind" or Mozart's "Voi che sapete" (from The Marriage of Figaro), and it's clear that each contains a handful of notes arranged so ingeniously that one seems to lead inexorably to the next.

How do they do it? How do musicians like these go about picking the right notes in the right order and with the right chords?

With a remarkably long greatest-hits list, Barry Manilow knows a few things about writing a hit tune.

And though his techniques, naturally, are unique to him, they shed light on the mysterious ways in which a hit song is created.

"I have to say that my songwriting tends to come quickly," says Manilow.

"I remember once I was sitting at the piano playing a Chopin Prelude," he says, referring to the block chords that drive the famous prelude in C Minor.

"Then I went away from the piano and had a glass of wine, and then I went back to the piano and wrote `Could It Be Magic?'" a plangent ballad, with lyrics by Adrienne Anderson. The piece was one of Manilow's first bona fide hits (in 1975).

"I put the tape recorder on and just played my tune. Then I called my neighbor in," adds Manilow, who was living in a small Manhattan apartment at the time, "and said, `What do you think of this?'

"When she cried, I knew I was on to something.

"Same with `One Voice,'" says Manilow, pointing to one of his most optimistic, anthemlike melodies. "In fact, I wasn't even at the piano.

"The thing woke me up, I ran to the piano, croaked `One Voice' into the cassette machine - lyric and music, and that was the song.

"When I can't get a song down like that, in basically one pass, I know that I'm in trouble. And the longer it takes for me to write the tune to some lyric, the more I know that the song won't be a hit."

"But even if I write a tune like that in one sitting, you still can see what went into it. More than anything else, my songs are about `build.' I've always loved a song that builds."

By this Manilow means a piece that typically starts low in pitch and reaches ever higher, swelling to an unmistakable climax. The technique is essential to "All the Time," but it also drives other Manilow pop tunes.

"Look at `Even Now' - it starts down in the basement," says Manilow, "and winds up all the way up here.

"And then there's another tool I seem to really like to use - minor ninths," says Manilow, referring to a slightly dissonant, jazz-tinged chord that practically cries out for resolution.

"I said to a friend of mine once, `You want to give me a present? Give me a box of minor ninths, and I'll be very happy.'"

But after all the techniques have been analyzed and the chords decoded, Manilow knows better than anyone that his tunes come down to one critical element: gorgeous, indelible melody, ingeniously designed to cling to memory.

"When it comes down to it, it's very difficult for me not to write a catchy tune. I just can't not write a catchy melody," he says.

"I would love to write one of those twisty Stephen Sondheim kinds of songs that you can't sing fast and has all this dissonant stuff going on underneath it, but I just can't get discordant. For some reason, I just like melody.

"I guess it comes from my training from writing jingles and singles; it's just so ingrained."

Maybe. Or maybe it's just that Manilow thinks in pitches and rhythms and chords the way the rest of us do in words and sentences and paragraphs.

If, as Frank Sinatra once said, a great song is "a perfect marriage of a lyric and melody," the most gifted songwriters intuitively know how to make these elements merge.

How else to explain the timelessness of songs such as Gershwin's "The Man I Love" or Harold Arlen's "Come Rain or Come Shine" or Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" or Manilow's "When October Goes" (to a lyric by Johnny Mercer)?

"That one really amazed me," says Manilow. "It was like taking dictation. It happened so quickly, it was like writing somebody else's song."

Howard Reich is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Barry Manilow

When: Sunday at 8 p.m.

Where: MCI Center, Washington

Tickets: 410-481-7328

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