Why Barry Manilow Loves Christmas Music

Dec 17, 2012
Originally published on December 17, 2012 9:39 am

With Christmas looming and the traditional soundtrack to the holiday becoming unavoidable, pop legend Barry Manilow — who has recorded three albums of Christmas music and just released a compilation of them called The Classic Christmas Album — spoke with Morning Edition host David Greene about the season.

Manilow says he has recorded so many Christmas songs because most of them come from the Great American Songbook — written by people like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin. "Whenever I get an opportunity to do an album full of standards, I jump at it because I miss it," he says.

He uses the opportunity to stretch the definition of a "Christmas song," saying one of his favorites is "Violets for Your Furs."

"I thought, 'Well, it's a winter song, it's close enough.' And people should hear songs like that!" Manilow says. "It's a lovely song. Sinatra did it on one of his earlier albums. My stepfather showed it to me, and I never quite got over it."

Manilow says there's something in that song that's missing in a lot of contemporary music. "It's a great idea for a song: 'I bought you violets for your furs in December,' and now it feels like spring, because he's in love with her," he says. "The melody is just delicious, the chord changes are something from heaven, and the melody is so memorable. We don't hear this anymore; we just don't hear it anymore."

Manilow says he doesn't think "Violets" is melancholy. "I think it's romantic. If you listen to the lyric, it's a lovely idea: that in the middle of winter, it turned to spring for them. On that song, since Sinatra did it — I'm a friend of Barbara Sinatra, his wife, and I knew that he had done that. When I finished doing the record, I brought it over to her house, and I said, 'Hey, listen to this, Barbara.' And she put it into her CD [player], and she stood there crying. She told me this story that they were in New York at Rockefeller Center, and he bought her violets and sang the song to her standing in front of the Christmas tree."

Manilow considers Joni Mitchell's "River" a Christmas song by a similarly unorthodox rationale. "It's not really in the same world as 'Jingle Bells,' but, you know, it's about a breakup during the Christmas season."

He says he has always loved the song and wanted to do it his own way, in a pop version. "I wonder whether Joni would like it," he says. "She's like a lion protecting her cubs when it comes to her catalog of music, and she should be. I changed it around a little bit, but I hope she knows that I did it out of love and respect."

Manilow is returning to Broadway next month, and hopes to bring the musical he wrote, Harmony, to the Great White Way next year.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are diving into the holiday season here at MORNING EDITION by bringing you some holiday music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANTA CLAUSE IS COMING TO TOWN")

BARRY MANILOW: (Singing) You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout, I'm telling you why.

CHORUS: (Singing) Why?

MANILOW: (Singing) Santa Claus is coming to town...

GREENE: Today, we hear from Barry Manilow's latest Christmas record. And he has had a few. This one is appropriately titled "The Classic Christmas Album."

MANILOW: For a Jewish guy, I have recorded a lot of Christmas album's, isn't it?

GREENE: Well, what got a Jewish guy into recording Christmas albums?

MANILOW: First of all, I love the time of the season. It's the only time of the year that everybody stops hollering at each other and everybody thinks about giving and receiving. And I just love the whole feel of this time of the year.

But musically, the reason I love these Christmas songs is that most of the standard Christmas songs were written by composers and lyricists who knew how to write a song. People like Irving Berlin and George Gershwin and the rest. I was born too late and...

(LAUGHTER)

MANILOW: I was. So whenever I get an opportunity to do a Christmas album, I jump at it.

GREENE: Well, as I understand it, one of your favorites on the new album is "Violets For Your Furs."

MANILOW: Yeah, it was written by Matt Dennis, a wonderful, wonderful songwriter. And it's not really known as a Christmas song. But it's a winter song, so I thought, well, it's a winter song - it's close enough.

It's a lovely song. Sinatra did it on one of his earlier albums, and my stepfather showed it to me. I never quite got over it. And so I put it on one of the Christmas albums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIOLETS FOR YOUR FURS")

GREENE: So Barry Manilow, tell us what we're hearing here in the writing and the lyrics that you really loved, that you feel is missing in a lot of music today.

(LAUGHTER)

MANILOW: A melody, and a lyric.

(LAUGHTER)

MANILOW: I mean, you know, it's a great idea for a song: I bought you violets for your furs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIOLETS FOR YOUR FURS")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIOLETS FOR YOUR FURS")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT MY LOVE TO KEEP ME WARM")

GREENE: That was Barry Manilow. His latest Christmas record is called "The Classic Christmas Album." And you can hear songs from the album at NPR.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.