New York Entertainment Magazine (Nice Paper)
By Robert Jazz
My real name is not Robert Jazz, and I've spoken to Melanie Safka, better known under her professional triple-syllable first name Melanie, for well over an hour on the telephone. Tins Is the set-up for a friendly little article about: A) Melanie's music, B) The new Best Of collection of Melanie's songs recently released on Rhino Records, and C) My occasion to talk with Melanie courtesy of the accommodating people at Rhino.
Robert Jazz, a/k/a me, had been up all the previous night preparing artwork for the latest edition of the Nice Paper, thereby ensuring me no sleep until about 9 or 10 the following morning. Melanie was due to call me at 12 noon. This gave me about two hours to sleep and five minutes to prepare myself and my tape recorder for Melanie's call.
The first words of the conversation (after I grogged out a tired "Hello) were "Hi, this is Melanie. Is your real name Bob Petrella?" Dizzy eyed and sleepy as I was, and a little scared of perhaps having forgotten some long-ago, never-repaid debt to the singer/songwriter (yeah, I've always hated that term too). I sleepily answered "Yes, it sure is-why?" To the amazement of my intellectual control panel Melanie exclaimed, "Hey, y know something, I went out with a guy named Bob Petrella. I swear to God, it was my first boyfriend! When Brett [at Rhino Records] said I'd be doing an interview with a Bob Petrella I said 'Get out!' "
No, I've never gone out with Melanie. He (the original Bob) was a New Jersey native ten years my senior and I guess he did Melanie wrong. Not me, no, but I might as weli have been a close friend of Melanie's, for as dazed and obtuse a state I was currently in, our taik still managed to include over an hour's worth of insightful and fun conversation ranging in scope from Melanie's background as an aspiring actress in New York City to taiks on the Velvet underground, Neil Young, Sonic Youth and the importance of being musically open minded and true to self.
I too was unaware of Melanie's Greenwich Village folk club origins, mistaking her delicate yet forcefully raspy vocal style for British. "Nobody knows where I'm from. When I first started my career really booming, I had a hit m England and everybody thought I was British. Before I had a hit in England I had a hit in France so in England they thought I was French and the French thought I was English . . . "
Far and away from playing to 500 people in a small club, Melanie was asked to perform at the Woodstock festival in 1969. A very frightened but intensely focused Melanie walked onto the stage at night after Ravi Shankar's set to a crowd of a hell of a lot of people. Now for the part of the story that makes my mouth smile: As the rains poured down, announcement was made over the PA system encouraging the crowd to light candies in an effort to stop the rain. When Melanie looked out at all the candles and the quieting rains, she was inspired to write her majestic single "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," which included, at Melanie's insistence, vocal backing by the Edward Hawkins Singers gospel choir, fresh from their own hit single "Oh Happy Day." The combination of spiritual and humanistic childlike optimism in "Candles" is weaved throughout ail of Melanie's songs. "Animal Crackers," "Beautiful People," "The Good Book," "Ring the Living Bell" and "Peace Will Come (According to the Plan)" are just some of her songs that giggle and warm the spirit of love and innocence.
The record company flower power image image imposed upon Melanie was not, to her, truthful, but that of a stereotypical media-influenced phoniness. While not really immersed in the New York/European rooted Andy Warhol/Velvet Underground clique, Melanie was fully aware that there were other movements going on besides those that required flowers in your hair.
In 1971, Melanie formed her own record label, Neighborhood Records, with her husband/producer Peter Schekeryk. Breaking away from any sport of a "serious female artist" image that might have restrained her songwriting, Melanie released the first single on her new label, a cute bubblegum song entitled "Brand New Key." This unashamedly catchy number became the highest charting hit of her career. Future albums, while still maintaining fine material, were lost under the clouded cute image that "Brand New Key" had now created. She has, however, continued to write and perform throughout the late '70s and '80s in 1989, Melanie received an Emmy award for the lyrics to "The First Time I Loved Forever," a song included on the television series Beauty and the Beast. Record company politics prevented Melanie from singing the song on the final soundtrack, but nevertheless, the award was recognition of her talent and a much-needed boost to her career.
Here in 1990, Melanie has put her official approval stamp on the 18-song best of collection from Rhino Records. The rare eight-minute version of "Lay Down" is included Melanie remarked that the recording of the song with the Hawkins Singers was so much fun and so spiritual that during the take they all kept on singing long after the tape had run out. Extensive liner notes and photographs complete the collection, but it is the digital remastering of the songs which brings out Melanie's gorgeous and unique voice, the resplendent highlight of the disc.
Having a conversation with Melanie is akin to listening to her songs: warm, personable and filled with a loving immediacy, as though an old acquaintance were filling me in on recent developments in their life (I know, the boyfriend coincidence, but that's beside the point-or is it? [You wish, Bob-ed.]). Melanie is still writing and performing, promising a new album on a major label as well as an upcoming tour which will bring her to the East Coast. Meanwhile, the Rhino anthology is an important one for the Melanie fan and a great fun sampler for the curious music listener unfamiliar with Melanie Safka's work. Anyway, I figure that old Bob Petrella really lost out on a wonderful woman.
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