Manilow owes his career to Bijou Cafe debut

Manilow says of the Bijou: "It was wildly successful by the end. The reviews were like love letters."
Manilow says of the Bijou: "It was wildly successful by the end. The reviews were like love letters."
Posted: August 10, 2010

There is no debating that in the 1970s, Philadelphia was as important to the development of musical careers as anyplace on earth. That Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, David Bowie, Yes and Genesis all found stardom here before breaking out across the country is well-known to music fans and historians. But another megastar who is seldom mentioned with the others also owes much to the ears of Delaware Valley music fans.

"I broke out of Philadelphia," proclaimed Barry Manilow during a recent phone interview.

If it were up to him, Manilow admitted, he would have never made it to Philly in 1973 for a weeklong run at the old Bijou Cafe at Broad and Lombard streets. During the '70s and early 1980s, the Bijou was our city's premier showcase for up-and-coming artists (among them Bette Midler, Steely Dan, Jerry Seinfeld, U2 and Prince).

At the time, Manilow recalled, he wasn't convinced he wanted to be a singer. After all, he had established himself as a leading composer of TV ad jingles (including the iconic McDonald's ditty that began, "You deserve a break today"), and he was having fun serving as the then relatively unknown Midler's musical director.

His first foray as a front man at a Boston venue called Paul's Mall hardly changed his mind.

Remembering the club as "a dump," he compared his singing debut - as the ostensible opener for jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard - to such disasters as the San Francisco earthquake and the sinking of the Titanic. The booking, he explained, proved particularly nettlesome to Hubbard.

"Freddie Hubbard hated me," recalled Manilow. "He said, 'I will not go onstage following anyone who does [commercial jingles].' So we had to make a deal with him that I would do the early show and he would do the late show."

Manilow struggled through the engagement and was ready to declare his singing career DOA. "And then my manager said, 'Just give it one more week.' And we were coming to the Bijou. So we got to the Bijou, and . . . you know who was opening for me? [The late absurdist comic] Andy Kaufman! Another great booking!"

According to Manilow, Kaufman did not put the opening night audience in a receptive mood. "By the time he's done, people are throwing rolls at him. They're throwing food at him! Now I have to come out."

And there at the Bijou, Manilow struck gold.

"We came out [and the audience] liked it. By the end of the week, we were sold out, and people were on their feet screaming . . . It was wildly successful by the end. The reviews were like love letters.

"It started for me right then. If Philadelphia hadn't done that, you would have never heard from me again. I would have gone back to Bette, I would have gone back to doing commercials.

"From there on in . . . my life changed."

- Chuck Darrow

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