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Barry Manilow bringing smiles to Hard Rock Live

Barry Manilow wasn’t one of the cool kids when he arrived at Eastern District High School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in the late 1950s. But he went from outsider to insider once he sat down at the keyboard.

“When they learned I could play the piano, suddenly I was in great demand. I became a popular geek,” Manilow says, laughing.

In a conversation early last week, in advance of a Wednesday, Feb. 21, concert at Hard Rock Live, the pop-music icon mused on the transformative potential of arts education and its critical role as an outlet of expression for students such as himself. He also vented his frustration over funding cuts that he believes disproportionately target school arts programs.

A decade ago, Manilow started putting his money where his mouth is with the Manilow Music Project, which provides musical instruments to high schools and middle schools, as well as college scholarships. It was inspired by a conversation with a friend whose daughter’s wish to play saxophone in school went unfulfilled because the school didn’t have one.

“I realized that most high schools and middle schools were running out of instruments,” Manilow says by phone from his home in Palm Springs, Calif. “Music and the arts are the first to go. We have music classes running out of instruments. That really upset me.”

When Manilow arrives in South Florida for his Hard Rock show, he will have a Yamaha keyboard that he will donate to South Broward High School. Hoping to inspire a local instrument drive, Manilow will provide two free tickets to his show to anyone who donates a new or gently used musical instrument, which will be accepted in the high school’s main office between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. The school is at 1901 N. Federal Highway, in Hollywood. For information, call the school at 754-323-1800.

“I believe in the importance of music education for our students,” said Olayemi A. Awofadeju, principal of South Broward High School, in a statement. “Getting more instruments in the hands of students is a great way to get more of them interested.”

Manilow’s concert is special for other reasons: He was part of the vanguard of artists, dominant for decades on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary Chart, who have announced they will stop touring. They include fellow Brooklyn singer-songwriter Neil Diamond and Elton John.

Diamond’s announcement in January, citing a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, stunned Manilow, 74, who says he was more fan than friend of the 77-year-old Diamond.

“We crossed paths. He was a great guy. It’s a heartbreaking story what’s going on with him. I was in a real funk for a time,” says Manilow, who remembers buying Diamond’s debut single, “Solitary Man,” in 1966. “He’s a wonderful performer with a tremendous catalog of music. I hope [the Parkinson’s disease] is easy on him.”

Via mutual friends, Elton John and Manilow have been in more frequent contact over the years. John announced in January that his extended Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour (with two performances in Sunrise and one in Miami) would be his last.

“We’ll see about that. I know he wants to take time off and be there to raise his kids. But then, he announced a three-year tour,” Manilow says, laughing. “We’ll see if he actually stops.”

Manilow has so far been able to stick to his decision to stop doing major tours after a 2015 trek that coincided with the 40th anniversary of "Mandy," the first of 16 top 10 hits between 1974 and 1981. The Hard Rock concert is one of the “one-nighters I’ll plug in every once in a while,” he says.

While not the focus of the announcement of Manilow’s final tour — a 2015 Billboard interview with him about the tour did not address it — the singer now says a principal motivation was to spend more time at home with husband and manager Garry Kief.

An intensely private person, Manilow went public with his 40-year relationship with Kief in a People magazine interview last April.

“Everybody knew that Garry and I were a couple. You can’t hide for 40 years, not that I ever would,” Manilow says. “I’m a private guy. I don’t want people knowing what my dogs ate. I don’t like people knowing where and how I live. I’m very public, but there’s some parts of me that I’ve kept to myself. It’s the only way I’ve been able to survive.”

Manilow admits that for a time he was reluctant to talk about the relationship for fear of disappointing his fans. But the reaction was something he calls “a beautiful experience.”

“They really care for me. And when they found out that I was happy and not sitting alone in some big mansion, they were very happy for me,” he says.

Manilow says there is one song that he’s looking forward to performing at Hard Rock Live on Wednesday night.

“Boy, I never would have said this years ago, but it’s ‘Can’t Smile Without You,’ ” Manilow says of his 1977 ballad. “I’ve never seen a happier crowd. I never really respected it as much as I do now. It’s an amazing thing that happens, night after night. I think people in that audience forget all the negative stuff that’s outside the arena when that song hits. And that’s really what I’m there for. That song starts that feeling, and from then on, it’s a big party.”

Parkland strong

The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and Hard Rock Live will donate this week’s proceeds from Barry Manilow ticket sales to the GoFundMe page created by the Broward Education Foundation to support the victims of the shooting in Parkland and their families, which can be found at GoFundMe.com/StonemanDouglasVictimsFund. In addition, proceeds from sales of a specialty cocktail sold during Manilow’s performance will go to the fund. For more information, go to SeminoleHardRockHollywood.com/Parkland-Strong.htm.

Barry Manilow will perform 8 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21, at Hard Rock Live at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, 1 Seminole Way, in Hollywood. Tickets cost $65-$180. For more information, go to MyHRL.com.

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