Eight years ago, Barry Manilow was shocked to hear that a friend's daughter was futilely searching for a saxophone. The student wanted to try something new, but her school didn't have the instrument.
Manilow, the veteran singer and composer with more than 80 million records sold worldwide, was dumbfounded. But after surveying the country's school-funding issues as a whole, Manilow soon realized his friend's daughter shared the same problem with kids across the country. The issue resonated with him.
"I went to a dump of a high school in Brooklyn, [N.Y.], but it had an orchestra class," Manilow, 69, said in a recent interview. "And when I joined that orchestra class and hit the piano keyboards, I knew where I belonged. If I didn't have that, I don't know where I would have ended up."
In 2008, the "Mandy" singer founded the Manilow Music Project, which donates instruments and music materials to public schools around the country. The foundation has helped more than 70 schools around the U.S.
In late February, Baltimore City's public schools joined the list. Manilow, who rescheduled his original 1st Mariner Arena date from last September to Saturday, donated a Yamaha piano to the local school system.
But rather than end the giving there, Manilow launched an instrument drive that allows fans in the Baltimore area to donate new or gently used instruments in exchange for two free tickets to his concert. Those interested can drop off instruments at the 1st Mariner Arena Box Office (201 W. Baltimore St.) between 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Friday. (Fans can donate on Saturday, too, but should contact the arena to find out when.)
It's something he's done in each city he's visited during this year's "Manilow on Broadway" tour. For the 69-year-old entertainer, it was important to include his audiences in the effort.
"The problem won't just stop after I leave," he said. "Maybe it will stay in their heads, and next month, if they bump into an old trumpet in the attic, they'll bring it down."
Manilow says the most fulfilling aspect of his career is philanthropy.
"Fame and gold records are great, but this is much more rewarding to me as a human being," Manilow said.
If fame and gold albums — which, in his case, are actually platinum — have lost their luster for any performer, it's the heavily decorated Manilow. Those benchmarks of success are nothing new to him: He's won Grammys, Emmys, Tonys and even garnered Oscar nominations. The now-defunct trade publication Radio & Records ranks him as the top Adult Contemporary chart artist ever, with 50 Top 40 hits.
With that many hits, crafting a set list could be daunting. But Manilow sticks to the hits for the most part, because he remembers what it's like to be a fan in the crowd.
"When I went to see [Frank] Sinatra back in my youth, I would have been very disappointed had he not been singing those great songs that I came to see," he said. "I keep thinking about that. ... So I'm happy to do these very familiar songs all night long. Yeah, I love my new songs. Yeah, I love my album cuts. But I'm not there for me. I'm there for them."
That doesn't mean Manilow doesn't try to sneak in a few songs not named "Copacabana (At the Copa)" or "Could It Be Magic."
"I try putting a couple songs in from my latest album [2011's "15 Minutes"], and they put up with them," Manilow said with a laugh. "Oh, they're very polite. Then I give them 'Ready to Take a Chance Again,' and the roof blows off."
Manilow says he will switch his focus after this tour to his theater production of "Harmony," which is scheduled to open in Atlanta in September. Manilow won't perform on stage, but he's excited nonetheless, since he wrote the musical with collaborator Bruce Sussman.
But for Manilow, there's nothing like the thrill of performing on stage. He still believes in the power music can have on the soul, which is why his goal, every night, is to have audience members leave happier than when they arrived.
"My manager once said, when I was whining about too many shows, 'Barry, you can't cure cancer, but you can make them forget that they have it for 90 minutes,' " Manilow said. "Whenever I start to whine or complain, I always think about that, and everything changes."
If you go
Barry Manilow performs Saturday at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St. downtown. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; show starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $19.99-$129.99. New or gently used instruments can also be exchanged for free tickets. Call 410-347-2020 or go to baltimorearena.com.