Jan 1997

Listening anew to an old, familiar voice

By Douglas Imbrogno


from http://wvgazette.com/Beat/IMBRO130.html

A couple of people winced when I mentioned Melanie was coming to Sunday's "Mountain Stage."

All they could recall about a singer with more than 30 albums to her name and a remarkable, powerhouse voice that could rattle the walls of Jericho were two things: '60s flower child mushiness and her novelty hit "Brand New Key."

People of a certain age will recall the hit - they couldn't avoid it. The song barged into the No. 1 spot on the Billboard charts for three weeks in December 1971, and burned itself into the nation's synapses: "I've got a brand new pair of roller skates/you've got a brand new key ... "

She wrote it in 15 minutes as a toss-off, an up-tempo concert ditty to throw in between more serious stuff. Her voice on the tune - cutesy, lilting up into a higher, almost falsetto register - was uncharacteristic of her usual emotion-laden, shake-the-rafters range.

But part of the die of U.S. public perception was cast. The rest of the die was forged at Woodstock in 1969, where Melanie appeared and sang in a rainstorm. This inspired her first hit, "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," turbo-powered by the gospel choir backing of the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Gold records and international hits followed: a version of her famous tune "What Have They Done To My Song, Ma" a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday" her "Nickel Song" among many others. She toured the world. A flow of albums and hundreds of concerts followed.

But in 1997, those old hits and that old decade dog the heels of a singer and songwriter who deserves - perhaps more than many people who are already there - to be admitted into the pantheon of great voices in 20th century popular music.

The image

"My first public image was appalling to me," says Melanie. "So cute and precious. A flower child. I was serious! I didn't want to be perceived as some Woodstock fluff."

She is speaking by telephone from her home in Clearwater, Fla. She used to love to come to Clearwater's beach as a young, long-haired folksinger off tour and later decided to strike roots. Slightly less-long-haired these days and now blonde, it's where she lives with husband Peter Schekeryk, two dogs, two cats, and the occasional drop-in by their three children. (Two of whom now have their own group and sometimes appear on stage with their mother).

As the story goes, in May, 1969 the young Melanie Safka was headed to audition for "Dark Side of the Moon" in New York City, and entered the wrong office - Schekeryk's. He saw her guitar and asked for an impromptu audition. Impressed, he landed her a deal with Buddah Records, and became her manager, producer and husband.

Her Woodstock appearance at Yasgur's Farm before a sprawl of millions of people happened three months later. The train of her international fame had left the station.

"It's amazing when you have a hit," she recalled. "You get an audience you wouldn't necessarily invite. It's not necessarily people who really are your wavelength or kindred spirit. So then you're a hit record maker."

But you can lose the essence of yourself when you have a hit, she said. "I felt in a way it happened. I don't think people heard my best stuff. My very best album bombed." She said that was her 1976 disc "Photograph."

"It was one that seemed destined for success. Art Pepper played his last solo on it. All the members of Toto played on it before they became Toto. I'd written the songs over eight years. It was picked as the Top 10 album of the year by The New York Time s. And it just bombed!"

Then the "dark ages" of the '80s kicked in, she said. That was "when it felt like the great wall had come down on anybody who seemed 'organic' or had been at Woodstock. In the '80s it was like, 'Why aren't you dead yet?'"

But it was only the press who had written her musical obituary, she said. She continued to do clubs and festivals, continued "connecting" with audiences. Her fan base in Europe, for example, is a devoted following of young people aged 16 to 25.

She released the wryly-named album "Old Bitch Warrior." ("My fantasy person for five minutes at a time," she says). She did the Winnipeg Folk Festival this summer and routinely headlines major European festivals.

"I don't feel like I lived and died in the '60s. It was just something that happened. Woodstock happened. And other things happened. I continued to write."

The voice

And sing. If you haven't heard it lately, or have never heard it, it's worth a stab at trying to describe Melanie's voice to a new and potentially receptive audience. After all, the last 10 years have seen a resurgence of strong female pop singers with great voices - Joan Osborne, Tracy Nelson, K.D. Lang, to name a few.

Melanie - who turns 50 the day after "Mountain Stage" and is still in fine voice - was one of the first out of the box. "I think I was one of the early white girls to belt out a song," she said.

Forget hippie-dippie coffehouse girls with guitars, Melanie Safka had quite another role model in mind when she began her career: "I think I went out to imitate Billie Holiday - and got it wrong."

Smoky, cabaret singer Edith Piaf was another inspiration. (Melanie's own mother was a jazz singer in New York clubs and would sometimes haul her young daughter to gigs).

In her lower, quieter ranges, Melanie's voice is tremulous and near to cracking, an offbeat, worldy cabaret crooner's instrument. When she belts, it has some of the rocketlike quality of Joan Osborne's strong voice, with a little Joplin thrown in, minus the gravel but retaining the grit.

She said she hopes people can hear her music fresh, or maybe hear it for the first time ever - and she doesn't mean just new young listeners.

"I think the only way to 'get' an artist is to come and see," she said.

"When it comes right down to it, I want to get up in front of people, sing, and interest them in some of the bizarre or humorous or serious or sad ways I see something. I want to go away knowing I've really put out more than I even needed to, you know?"

Melanie appears on "Mountain Stage" along with her daughter Jeordie and guitarist Frank Usher. Also appearing are former Stoney Lonesome lead singer Kate Mackenzie, bluesy singer-songwriter Laura Mann and swing-jazz singer April Barrows. The show starts 6 p.m. Sunday at the Cultural Center, Capitol Complex.

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