Before there was MTV, there was Manilow TV, and now BARRY MANILOW: THE FIRST TELEVISION SPECIALS DVD box set gathers together five of Manilow's early network television specials from 1977 to 1988, over a decade in the career of one of music's most enduring artists. Taken as a group, these outstanding shows didn't simply win Emmy's and score big ratings, but they also beautifully showcase the man's remarkable range as a musician, entertainer and creative force. Manilow is joined by special guests ranging from Ray Charles, to John Denver, and Dionne Warwick to Kid Creole and the Coconuts, yet in the end there is no doubt who the true star of these shows is. Turn on BARRY MANILOW: THE FIRST TELEVISION SPECIALS and get the feeling all over again. Disc 1: (1977) The First Barry Manilow Special
Disc 2: (1978) The Second Barry Manilow Special
Disc 3: (1979) The Third Barry Manilow Special
Disc 4: (1980) One Voice
Disc 5: (1988) Barry Manilow: Big Fun On Swing Street
Barry Manilow: The First Television Specials
includes five television network specials broadcast over 11 years, each one more interesting and adventurous than the last, and all built around the crowd-pleasing talents of singer-songwriter Barry Manilow. This five-disc set begins with 1977s "The First Barry Manilow Special," in which the plucky, New Jersey-born entertainer mixes live concert footage with studio sets, familiar hits with lesser-known numbers. Manilow spends some time recalling his days as a lounge pianist at sundry establishments, and even includes a sketch--co-starring Penny Marshall as a weary waitress--in which he shares insight into how discouraging his dues-paying period could be. Besides lavish renditions of "Mandy" and "Could It Be Magic," Manilow includes a novelty medley of famous jingles he wrote for McDonalds, Dr. Pepper, State Farm, and much else. He also introduces his passion for the music and style of the 1940s--a theme that pops up again and again in his subsequent TV work. "The Second Barry Manilow Special" from 1978 reveals a more athletic-looking star, and Manilow appears to be having fun taking a much different approach to his craft. Instead of playing before big crowds, the casually-dressed singer performs solo in an empty theater, addressing the home audience right through the camera and telling engaging tales about his life and love of music. Highlights include a funny, opening bit in which Manilows mother bends the ear of a cab driver by bragging about her boy; a jaunty "Daybreak" that includes kids and seniors singing along; a duet with Ray Charles on "Its a Miracle;" and a touching scene in which Manilow plays a shy, single guy meeting a lonely girl at a wedding reception.
"The Third Barry Manilow Special" (1979) also opens on a comic note, featuring Manilow as a neurotic student in a drivers education course, swerving dangerously on the road above LAs famous "Hollywood" sign. Some very nice tunes ("Weekend In New England," "Why Dont We Try a Slow Dance") are supplemented by a cute question-and-answer session with an group of diehard fans, and a sweet medley of Everly Brothers hits performed with John Denver. Program four, called "One Voice" (1980), is solid but peculiarly downbeat, including sad song cycles on such themes as separation, breakups, and fathers and sons. For the latter, Manilow comes very close to raw emotion recalling an experience in which the father who abandoned him at two years of age made a brief, "hello" appearance backstage at a concert, then was never heard from again. A little ray of hope and light is woven around a guest appearance by Dionne Warwick, who does a sexy "Déjà vu" with her host. Finally, "Big Fun On Swing Street" (1988) is something of a time capsule on 80s obsessions with music videos shot on big sets, garish lighting, and a forced sense of retro-style. Still, this special has the most to offer musically, as it includes such luminaries as Stanley Clarke, Phyllis Hyman, Carmen McRae, Diane Schuur, Gerry Mulligan, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, and Tom Scott. Manilow gets his share of screen time, but hes quite generous toward his guests, making sure they get to play some serious jazz. Put together, all five of these shows make it clear that Manilow is an all-around entertainer, a versatile music man who gets bored repeating himself and likes to challenge fan expectations--to a point. --Tom Keogh