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He's hip once more

The first time Barry Manilow immersed himself in pop radio, he was an unknown singer-songwriter looking for his first hit with a song called Mandy, a tune he wasn't too thrilled about.

So he decided to check out the competition.

"I turned the radio on, and I heard Kung Fu Fighting and Disco Duck," Manilow said, laughing. "I said, "These people need me!' And that was my first entrance into pop music."

Now, about three decades later, Manilow, still disenchanted with pop radio, finds himself needed again. But instead of coming to the rescue of listeners with the sentimental, semischmaltzy ballads that made him famous, he has returned with The Greatest Songs of the Fifties, a collection of classic romantic tunes, including revered songs such as Elvis Presley's Are You Lonesome Tonight and the first single, Unchained Melody.

"I think if Unchained Melody does what I think it can do, I think there is an audience out there that would heave a sigh of relief, that finally there is a melody and orchestration, production and a vocalist that is giving them a song that they can just listen to . . . and not be annoyed by the vocal acrobatics that vocalists seem to think is impressive," Manilow said, a hint of frustration in his voice.

Fans are demonstrating their relief by racing to buy his album. It debuted at the top of the Billboard chart after its Jan. 31 release and has hovered near the top spot since, outselling albums from the likes of Jamie Foxx, Carrie Underwood and Mary J. Blige.

Manilow, who has done albums featuring the music of Frank Sinatra and big bands and who recently produced Bette Midler's tribute albums to Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee, sternly denies being inspired by the spate of singers warbling pop standards from the '40s and '50s.

Without singling out anyone, Manilow seems to have as much disdain for modern interpretations of those classics as he does contemporary pop radio.

"There's one part of me that is very grateful for these singers who continue to introduce these brilliant songs to a younger generation that might not know them," Manilow said. "And of course there's another part of me that is appalled by the dreadful versions of them.

"I have been in the music business for too long, and I've heard the best, and I know what the best is, and when I hear people attempting to do it and they don't know what they're doing, it just ruins my day."

Manilow hadn't been that interested in crooning '50s classics when record mogul Clive Davis, his former mentor, broached the subject during a backstage visit in Las Vegas, where Manilow performs his classics in his Music and Passion show.

"The '50s kind of passed me by when I was growing up," said Manilow, 59.

"When I began to get into music and actually find myself connecting to music, it wasn't those songs. It wasn't the '50s. It was the generation before the '50s, the Ella Fitzgeralds and the Sinatras and the writers like Johnny Mercer."

But he decided to consider the idea because Davis suggested it. Davis made Manilow a star, signing him to his new Arista label 31 years ago and pushing him to record the No. 1 hit Mandy, even though Manilow thought it wouldn't connect with audiences.

Manilow has been so inspired by the success of his new album that he is open to exploring the music of other eras.

"I wonder if they would enjoy a tribute to the songs of the '60s, in this style. Not Herman's Hermits. Not me trying to do She Loves You," he said.

"And if that works, maybe there's a "Songs of the '70s and '80s.' "