Part (1) of a (2) part interview:
Melanie Safka (Melanie) was once hailed as the female Bob Dylan. Her awe-inspiring lyrical connotations were accompanied by her majestic voice and an acoustic guitar. She was a lone entity onstage but radiated a powerful force that became the voice and spirit to one of the most important generations the world will ever know.
When I asked Melanie how she developed her unique and sensational singing style she said …
“I went out to imitate Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf and got it wrong.”
Melanie was born in Queens, New York to a Russian-Ukrainian Father and an Italian Mother. Her musical career began in Greenwich Village and eventfully landed her first recording contract with Columbia Records. She released several singles on the label but retained greater success after signing with Buddah Records.
Her debut album Born to Be (1968) was acclaimed for her independent music styles. It became clear that there was an exciting new singer on the block. In 1969, the single “Bobo’s Party” a track from her debut album reached #1 in France. Her second studio release Affectionately Melanie (1969) spawned the single “Beautiful People,” the song became a Top 10 hit in the Netherlands.
Melanie’s songs began gaining momentum but she was still, for the most part, considered an unknown to the U.S. music scene until August 15th 1969. Melanie was invited to perform at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair held on a dairy farm in Brethel, New York. Her mother drove her to the event. She had been clueless to the size and significance of the concert until she witnessed Sly Stone walking around and Janis Joplin sipping Southern Comfort while being interviewed by reporters. After arriving at the hotel she was separated from her mother and rushed onto a helicopter. While descending towards the stage area, she was in total disbelief over the mass of people attending the three-day event. Melanie shared a tent with folk musician and composer Tim Hardin while she awaited her turn to perform at the most famous concert event in music history.
Several hours later, she was called upon to perform after Ravi Shankar’s set. Melanie was terrified … a lone woman performer with a guitar in front of a half a million people. Without a setlist to guide her, she opened with “Close to It All” followed by “Momma Momma,” “Beautiful People,” “Animal Crackers,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Tuning My Guitar,” and concluded with “Birthday of the Sun,” a song she chose simply because it was raining.
Before and during her performance, concert organizers had distributed candles throughout the crowd. The lit candles during her performance while it rained inspired her profound composition, “(Lay Down) Candles in The Rain” (1970 #6 Billboard Hot 100 singles chart). She also inspired the etiquette of raising candles and cigarette lighters at concerts while portraying an audience of fireflies.
After Woodstock, Melanie became the concert festival queen, performing at such outdoor events as The Isle of Wight, Strawberry fields Festival and Glastonbury Festival. She was also asked to perform on numerous Television programs including Dick Cavett, Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson.
Melanie and husband/ producer Peter Schekeryk formed their own record label called Neighborhood Records in 1971.
Also in 1971, Melanie landed her biggest commercial hit entitled, “Brand New Key” (#1 Billboard Hot 100 singles chart). A song inspired after a stop at a McDonalds fast food restaurant.
Melanie also released “What Have They Done to My Song Ma’” which was also covered by The New Seekers and Ray Charles. The New Seekers also covered “Beautiful People” and “Nickel Song” composed by Melanie.
Melanie was awarded Billboard’s #1 Top Female Vocalist for 1972. She also became a UNISEF Ambassador that same year.
In 1973, Melanie spawned the hit “Bitter Bad” (#36 Billboard Hot 100 singles hit).
Melanie’s songs have been covered by countless musicians over the years.
Her latest album is entitled … Ever Since You Never Heard of Me (2010)
She has sold more than 80- million records to date.
I had the incredible opportunity to interview Melanie Safka in a (Two-Part) exclusive interview.
Here’s ‘PART 1’ of my interview with singer, songwriter, musician, Woodstock and 70’s legend … MELANIE.
Ray Shasho: Hi Melanie thank you for being on the call today.
Melanie: “Hi Ray, it’s my pleasure.”
Ray Shasho: I noticed your cell phone number had a Pinellas County area code, but you live in Nashville?
Melanie: “That was my husband’s phone; he passed away a few years ago. We had a second home in Florida which doesn’t exist right now but I kept that phone number. We lived in Safety Harbor. It was like this little cove that no one knew about. Then they started building more houses so we moved out and travelled across the bridge and decided to live in this beautiful old house in downtown Clearwater. Then we decided to move from there to Nashville.”
“Probably the longest I’ve lived anywhere was on the west coast of Florida. It was really nice and I liked it a lot. The west coast of Florida seemed like an authentic place, but now it’s been developed liked everywhere else and not as wonderful as it once was.”
Ray Shasho: Your most recent album is entitled … Ever Since You Never Heard of Me (2010) and feature’s a track called, "I Tried to Die Young."Talk about that song?
Melanie: “I love irony and playing with words and “I Tried to Die Young” … yes, I was a very self -destructive person in my youth. Not in the ways of 60’s youth culture, I wasn’t a druggie and didn’t abuse myself in those ways. I did crazy things that could’ve been risky and I didn’t play the music business game very well. My husband would always cringe when I said certain things. He was the one that got me out there; I never would have done this. I would have been a potter in North Carolina. I was an introvert and hated being recognized or being seen, he pushed me out there. I love making the music and knew what it was that I had to do but all that in- between stuff wasn’t my thing.”
Ray Shasho: I’ve witnessed your musical influence and style in so many women artists over the years … Stevie Nicks is one good example.
Melanie: “Stevie Nicks, Cyndi Lauper …Joanna Newsom.” She set a whole other trend for that super breathy thing that engineers can’t get microphones far enough down somebody’s throat. I feel like I need to apologize for it … it just took over.”
Ray Shasho: Melanie, you’ve always had such a beautiful voice, incredibly attractive, and thousands of guys fell in love with you.
Melanie: “I was so shy and always felt ugly and never ever felt like I was pretty. I look at my photos now and say, what was I thinking? I felt fat, ugly and my nose wasn’t right and didn’t see anything that would attract anybody. I was married and my husband always told me that I was gorgeous but I thought that was just him.”
Ray Shasho: I must have been extremely naïve growing up because I never got the sexual innuendo implied by the press about your classic number one hit “Brand New Key.”
Melanie: “I never thought of it … it just came right from the top of my head. But I do often write beyond my intellect. I think art is not about how clever you can be. It has become valuable in the world of art … especially when you’re promoting. If you can articulate about what you’ve done, a lot of people can read that into what you’ve done and it makes what you’ve done that more valuable. I’ve never been a great articulator; I just do the music part.”
“Of course I can see it symbolically with the key, but I just thought of roller skating. I was fasting with a twenty seven day fast on water. I broke the fast and went back to my life living in New Jersey and we were going to a flea market around six in the morning. On the way back …and I had just broken the fast, from the flea market, we passed a McDonalds and the aroma hit me, and I had been a vegetarian before the fast. So we pulled into the McDonalds and I got the whole works … the burger, the shake and the fries … and no sooner after I finished that last bite of my burger …that song was in my head. The aroma brought back memories of roller skating and learning to ride a bike and the vision of my dad holding the back fender of the tire. And me saying to my dad …“You’re holding, you’re holding, you’re holding, right? Then I’d look back and he wasn’t holding and I’d fall. So that whole thing came back to me and came out in this song. So it was not a deliberate or intentional sexual innuendo.”
Ray Shasho: Did you think the song would become as popular as it did after you wrote it?
Melanie: “No. I did it as a little ditty. It was my husband the producer who was always looking for the hits. I was mortified when I saw what he was doing; he was going to make this record a hit. At first I became reactionary to that song because it was all anyone wanted to know about. They didn’t remember Melanie with the all black choir singing “Candles in the Wind,” they didn’t remember “Beautiful People” or anything else. It was all about “Brand New Key.” People kept saying …when are you going to come up with another one of those? I guess next time I go on another twenty seven day fast. I have eaten at McDonalds with hopes it would turn on but it never did. That unique combination just never happened again.”
Ray Shasho: I told Tom Rush in an interview I did with him and it also applies to you …there is nothing like watching a lone musician up onstage with a guitar, a song, and a story.
Melanie: “Oh God yea. Over the years every major label wanted to superimpose my voice on what they thought was the next commercial hit. Clive Davis said put down your guitar down and be the 80’s woman …and I didn’t take that job (All laughing). Melissa Manchester did, I always wondered about that, it was the strangest transformation. She was a singer and songwriter … earthy, sat down at the piano, sang and wrote songs, and all of a sudden she got this Clive Davis hit and it was like a Las Vegas type act. So I made some very expensive decisions in my life. It’s hard enough to get up night after night and do what you love, but to get up and do something that you didn’t love would be absolutely horrendous.”
Ray Shasho: Who were some of your early musical influences growing up?
Melanie: “Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee … Brenda Lee was a big influence in my teens and I loved her voice. I sang a couple of Brenda Lee songs that were real pop hits and then I discovered Edith Piaf. I loved Joan Baez but couldn’t have that pure little voice that she had, it was so beautiful, I tried but it just didn’t come out that way. I went out to imitate Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf and got it wrong …I guess that’s where my style came from.”
Ray Shasho: Melanie, what is your perception of performing at Woodstock?
Melanie: “It was many things … it was the experience that I shared with 500,000 people, or seemed like at least that many. I was pretty much an unknown person; I had one record “Beautiful People” that was being played on WNEW FM at most, it hadn’t hit college radio stations or underground stations in America. I had been played a bit by pirate stations in the Netherlands and John Peel in England. Other than that, most people didn’t know who Melanie was. I hadn’t been on television yet and never performed for more than 500 people before.”
“I was in England and had been asked to do a film score and been working in the studio right next door to where The Rolling Stones were. I had the London Symphony Orchestra in the studio with me and my husband was the producer and I was deciding whether I should go back and do this Woodstock thing. I had pictured …three days of peace, love, and music was going to be more like a picnic with kids, families, arts and crafts, and going shopping … I had no clue!”
“My mother drove me to Woodstock. We went to the wrong place and then finally found the hotel and I was all by myself with my mom. So we got to the hotel and there’s Sly Stone walking by. Then surrounded by media was Janet Joplin drinking Southern Comfort and all of a sudden, now I know this was something really big. That traffic wasn’t just an accident ahead it was something really-really big and I was going to have to sing in front of it.”
“We were told that we needed to go in a helicopter. I had never been in a helicopter before so I asked why can’t we just drive like everyone else. So we get into the helicopter and they stop my mother … they asked who is she and I said it’s my mother. They said no mothers, just the performers and mangers. I didn’t even have the smarts to say oh yea she’s my manager (All laughing). I said bye mom and we were separated.”
“So I went off in the helicopter and then began descending onto a field. I looked out the window and asked the pilot what is that? He said it was the people. Then he pointed to the stage and it looked like a football field. I thought … I’m going to die, get me out of here!”
“Once we landed I was led to a little tent. There was an upper echelon tent and then the miscellaneous people. I was put in a tiny tent with Tim Hardin who was way more known than I was. Richie Havens was onstage singing and I knew he was terrified because I think he was in his twentieth minute of “Freedom.” I started thinking …oh my God, how can I possibly do this? I wouldn’t be able to get up in front of all those people and not a possibility. They kept coming in between acts and saying …you’re next… you’re next! I developed this deep bronchial nervous cough and it just sounded like the demons were coming out of me. Joan Baez who was in the upper echelon tent heard me coughing and sent me tea. I thought Joan Baez … oh my God! She was my idol. Her sending me the tea was my Woodstock moment.”
“Hours and hours later … it started to rain and the other side was just beginning to light up with candles that Hog Farm was passing out. Right before I went on the announcer made kind of an inspirational message about the lighting of the candles and keeping the light alive. I really thought when it started to rain everybody was going to pack up and go home. I thought it was going to be my reprieve and I was going to be saved. Every ounce of me was praying that I didn’t have to do this. I thought … if there is a God, prove it, I have to get out of here! (All laughing) I was one girl with a guitar and an unknown one at that, and I’m going to be thrown on the stage! Right after Ravi Shankar and the announcement, I was called.”
"Woodstock was a life changing experience. I really sensed a connectedness with the people. I felt a positive wave and human power throwing into me and can never forget that. The people who will ever experience that … and I think Richie was one and really felt that too. There were so few that didn’t come away from Woodstock with a very cynical attitude. I didn’t have that. It wasn’t a career move for me, I was just one person and didn’t have a point of reference and didn’t have a manager out there saying you got to do this or that. I was just me and I went out onstage and didn’t even know what I was going to do. I had no recollection of what I did out there. I did one song that I had never sung in front of people in my whole life … it was called “Birthday of the Sun.” I never sing it anymore; I sung it at Woodstock because it was raining and I just wrote it. (Laughing) I didn’t have it out on a record; I wasn’t promoting anything and didn’t have any other agenda except that I had to get through to these people, whatever it is, it was my defining moment. I didn’t know if they were going to stone me or throw tomatoes. Or this might be it, my last moment on this earth. And I came away from that with this glow of warm, beautiful, human energy and I was probably the only straight person at Woodstock.”
“I had an out of body experience when I walked out on that stage. I left my body. I didn’t hear a thing; I wasn’t there and was hovering above my body and at some moment felt one with myself again. It was the extraordinary circumstance that I was put in."
Melanie Safka official website at www.melaniesafka.com
Melanie Safka on Facebook
Melanie Safka on Twitter
Melanie Safka on Myspace
Very special thanks to Beau Schekeryk and Kim Reilly of SeaSide Music Management
Coming up NEXT… 'Melanie' Safka exclusive: “My mother drove me to Woodstock” (Part 2)
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