Locally-Sourced Cheese

“Last time I sang in Brooklyn was at my Bar Mitzvah!” Barry Manilow said early in his set last night.

If you had told me, as the Barclays Center basketball arena was being built, controversially, that the first thing I was to see there would be a Barry Manilow concert, I would have said, “No way.” In fact, if you had said ten years ago that I’d ever buy two tickets to see Manilow  anywhere, and spend a good part of the night with my arms in the air, cheering, I’d not have understood.

Brooklyn meets Vegas.

Brooklyn meets Vegas.

If any one thing opened my palate to Las Vegas style cheese since then, it was a nosy neighbor at my old apartment in Sunset Park, who saw me walking home with an LP under my arm one day, and offered me a stack of records from his basement. Most of them I had to politely smuggle off the block and donate to the Salvation Army, but five or so of them were the great, early records of Engelbert Humperdinck. Engelbert deserves a separate post, but the summer I kept spinning his versions of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Words,” it sunk in that a whole other Sixties had happened, that didn’t make it  on the Woodstock movie.

The “squares” were making some fascinating, and high quality, music too, and I was never again going to summarily draw a line in the vinyl sand and say, “I like this, but not this music.” I was willing to bet on my adventurous taste, $1.99 at a time. Not that I always won! Engelbert before ’75, can’t go wrong; after ’75, can’t go right. 101 Strings, Morton Gould, Hugo Montenegro, brilliant. Barbra Streisand, I just don’t get. I’d rather hear Barry’s worst album than Barbra’s best.

Reading who wrote the songs he recorded, you realize Barry was of a generation of mostly Jewish, mostly New York-born songwriters who were weaned on the golden period of Broadway by way of the Brill Building. There were lots of these songwriters around, but Barry was the one among them who could sing. They never bought into the Dylan revolution, the re-imagining of the rock star as visionary poet. When you heard a new song of theirs, you knew this was the newest release from the mill, not some new revelation from a poet’s vision quest.

Barry didn’t even write “I Write the Songs”! Nor did he write one of my favorites, “Ready To Take a Chance Again”: That was by Norman Gimbel, the lyricist who wrote, among others, the English version of “Girl From Ipanema,” and Charles Fox, whose masterful oeuvre includes the 1970s theme music to ABC’s Wide World of Sports:

Barry is the spawn of a Jewish mother and Irish truck driver father during Word War II in Williamsburg. He often says his grandparents, whom he talked about last night, exposed him to the music of the 1930s and 40s. He covered “Moonlight Serenade,” and showed great taste when it came to his own catalogue. Toward the end of the show, he said he would do the rest of his hits in a medley, adding, “So if you got dragged to the show then this next medley is going to be agony.”

Cheesy? Whatever. The years his hits were all over FM radio, I was a kid arguing about the merits of Geddie Lee versus Bad Company. I saw an American classic last night and had a blast the whole time.

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