On the March 14, 1975, episode of the late-night music show “The Midnight Special,” guest host Clive Davis introduced “the newest star for America, Mr. Barry Manilow.” Rocking a powder-blue shirt with sequins, the singer delivered an earnest, piano-driven rendition of “Mandy,” his then-current hit.
At the Smoothie King Center on Friday night, 40-year-old footage from that “Midnight Special” episode was synced up alongside a live shot of Manilow, now 72, singing “Mandy.” The juxtaposition illustrated his transformation from an endearingly awkward singer-songwriter to a manicured Las Vegas showman with a permanent, impenetrable show-biz veneer.
His songs have survived the transition just fine. On Friday, he nourished his audience’s nostalgia with a polished presentation, an entertainer approaching the end of his performing career like a sunnier, more eager-to-please Neil Diamond.
His “One Last Time!” tour, now in its second year, is his long goodbye. Booking the Smoothie King Center, however, proved overly ambitious. The arena’s upper bowl was unused, hidden by curtains, and more than a few seats in the lower bowl also remained empty, despite ticket giveaways.
Early in his career, Manilow’s creative energy couldn’t be contained. He wrote and/or sang familiar jingles for the likes of State Farm, McDonald’s and Band-Aid. He composed music for TV shows. He helped launch Bette Midler’s career as her co-producer and musical director.
He found his calling in the mid-1970s as a purveyor of romantic soft rock, so-called “adult contemporary” music. He sold millions of records and remains a pop culture fixture, even if his biggest hits are long past.
“Fanilows” entering the arena Friday received complimentary glow sticks. They illuminated the club beat that preceded Manilow’s arrival onstage in an open-collar white shirt and black jacket with tails. The arbitrary dance mix quickly gave way to his 1975 hit “It’s a Miracle.” Ten minutes and three songs in, he elevated “Somewhere in the Night,” holding the final syllable for a big, sweeping finish — the first of several.
His voice effectively communicated the pathos of “Looks Like We Made It.” The lyrics of “Can’t Smile Without You” appeared on the video screen, helpfully navigated, karaoke-style, by a yellow, bouncing smiley face. “I hear you!” Manilow enthused during it.
The band behind him — guitar, bass, drums, percussion, three horns, a couple of keyboardists, three backing vocalists — was as well-oiled as he was. He started “When Will I See You Again” alone at the piano; the musicians then ratcheted up the arrangement, only to set it down for a perfectly executed soft landing.
Forty-plus years in the spotlight apparently have not lessened Manilow’s self-consciousness about his nose. From the most distant seats, he said, he “must look like a little singing, dancing nose.” Of the dozens of artists who have covered “Memory,” from the musical “Cats,” only he and Barbra Streisand succeeded on the charts, he said: “There must be some correlation between the size of one’s nose and the success of the song.”
He is clearly a fan of his own recordings, though. “Brooklyn Blues,” he assured us, has “got a great groove, great melody, wonderful lyrics.” An ode to his native borough, “Brooklyn Blues” is a 12-bar blues done Manilow-style. A tidy electric guitar solo gave way to alto saxophone showboating by the show’s opening act, Dave Koz.
Manilow’s 2015 album “My Dream Duets” is nominated for a Grammy and is “an amazing album,” he said. On it, his voice is paired with those of Louis Armstrong, John Denver, Whitney Houston, Jimmy Durante and other deceased singers. “I could have called it ‘My Dead Duets,’ ” he cracked.
“The world’s greatest entertainer,” Judy Garland, appeared on screen to trade verses and harmonize with the live Manilow on “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” a clever presentation of the album’s concept.
There is little room for spontaneity in such a tightly scripted show, but Manilow did manage to reference the first night of Mardi Gras and recount his first New Orleans performance, in 1973: “We’ve known each other for a long time, my friends.”
During “Could It Be Magic,” he invited a young woman to dance. Her enthusiastic, especially tight embrace took him by surprise. After a brief turn and a stilted exchange, she was hustled offstage.
He reminisced about the “dump of a high school” he attended in Brooklyn, New York. Neither a jock nor a gang member, he found his place in the school’s orchestra class. Now, his Manilow Music Project fosters music education by collecting instruments from fans and donating them to schools in cities his tour visits. In New Orleans, the beneficiary was the International School of Louisiana. A solo “I Am Your Child” spoke to that initiative.
For “Even Now,” he followed a big finish with an even bigger flourish, playing to the crowd with an outstretched arm and steely gaze. “I’m so glad you still like these songs!” he gushed.
Ten or so hits were compressed into a medley. “For those who were dragged here tonight,” he warned, “this medley is going to be agony.” But the segues were smooth, and the nostalgia abundant. “I Write the Songs” — which was written not by Manilow but Beach Boys bassist-singer Bruce Johnston — signaled the medley’s conclusion.
“Copacabana,” confetti streamers and a brief reprise of “It’s a Miracle” capped the show at exactly the 90-minute mark. Earlier, he had said, “We’ve got loads of music. We may be here all night!” In fact, he finished right on time.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.