Manilow was born Barry Alan Pincus in Brooklyn, New York. In 1961 he enrolled in the Julliard performing arts school, while working at CBS to pay his expenses. It was around this time he he adopted his mother's maiden family name for his own professional name.
At CBS, in 1964, Manilow met Bro Herrod, a director, who asked him to arrange some songs for a musical adaptation of the melodrama, The Drunkard. Instead, Manilow wrote an entire original score. Herrod used his composition in the Off Broadway musical, which enjoyed an eight year run at New York's 13th Street Theatre. Manilow then earned money by working as a pianist, producer, and arranger.
During this time he also began writing commercial jingles and continued into the 1970s. Many of those he wrote and/or composed he would also perform, including State Farm Insurance ("Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there..."), and Band-Aid ("I am stuck on Band-Aid, 'cause Band-Aids stick on me!"). His singing-only credits include Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, and the famed McDonald's "You Deserve a Break Today" campaign. Manilow won two Clio Awards in 1976 for his work for Tab and Band-Aid. These jingles were a mainstay of his concerts for years as his "V.S.M.," or "Very Strange Medley."
Manilow's well-known association with Bette Midler began at the Continental Baths in New York City. He accompanied her and other artists on the piano from 1970 to 1971, and Midler chose him to assist with the production of her first two albums, The Divine Miss M in 1972 and Bette Midler in 1973. He also was her musical director on The Divine Miss M tour.
Manilow worked with Midler for four years, from 1971 to 1975. In 1974, Bell Records released Manilow's first album, Barry Manilow, which offered an eclectic mix of piano-driven pop and guitar-driven rock music, including a song that Manilow had composed for the 1972 war drama Parades.
Among other songs on the album were "Cloudburst," and "Could It Be Magic." The latter's music was based on Chopin's "Prelude in C Minor, Opus 28, Number 20," and provided Donna Summer with one of her major hits.
When Manilow's record company, Bell Records, merged with other labels, new entity Arista Records formed. Under the auspices of its head Clive Davis many artists were dropped. Davis was reassured by the Manilow acquisition after seeing him perform as the opening act at a Dionne Warwick concert.
The partnership began to gain traction in 1974, with the release of Manilow's second album, Barry Manilow II, originally titled "Sweetwater Jones" on Bell Records and given its eventual title when reissued on Arista, which contained the breakthrough number-one hit, "Mandy."
He has recorded a string of Billboard hit singles and multi-platinum albums that have resulted in his being named Radio & Records number one Adult Contemporary artist and winning three straight American Music Awards for Favorite Pop/Rock Male Artist.
Several well-known entertainers have admired Manilow including Frank Sinatra, who was quoted in the 1970s regarding Manilow, "He's next." In 1988, Bob Dylan stopped Manilow at a party, hugged him and said, "Don't stop what you're doing, man. We're all inspired by you."
As well as producing and arranging albums for other artists, such as Bette Midler and Dionne Warwick, Manilow has written songs for musicals, films, and commercials. From February 2005 to December 30, 2009, he was the headliner at the Las Vegas Hilton, performing hundreds of shows before ending relationship with the hotel. From March 2010, he has headlined at the Paris Hotel in Las Vegas. He has sold more than 250 million records worldwide.