Friday, January 26, 2024

Raise the Candles High: Deceased Artiste Melanie

Melanie was a best-selling folk-pop performer who became a cult musical figure. She is remembered very fondly by those who were her contemporaries in the hippie age group and by younger people who latched onto her music later on (like myself) when she was releasing a slew of albums that found her toying around with the idea of reinvention but also always staying true to her singer-songwriter roots. 

The best-known facts about her were that she played at Woodstock when the audience lit up candles (and matches and lighters) in the rain (thereby inspiring her Top Ten hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain”) with the Edwin Hawkins Singers) and that she wrote and sang the novelty-sounding hit “Brand New Key.” What was really remarkable about her, though, was that she was a very accomplished songwriter and had a killer voice — she was indeed a “belter” in the classic sense. She also recorded a broad array of covers, some of which are instantly forgettable, but others (including her epic take on “Ruby Tuesday”) are better than the original versions. 

My own fascination with her music began in the late ’70s when she had come back from a hiatus where she continued to record but didn’t tour, as she was raising her children. By the time she returned to full-fledged activity as an artist, the recording industry had moved on. 

There were also difficulties with record labels (this after she had run her own indie record label, Neighborhood Records, with her producer-husband Peter Schekeryk) — the oddest notes one finds online about her recording career are that two full albums were recorded in ’75 and ’79 and were kept by the studios they were recorded in because the bill for the recording time hadn’t been paid. This coincides with accounts of difficulties (not, I must stress, in any way with Melanie herself — there are no bad stories I’ve ever heard about her) that were relayed to me by a person who collaborated with her at one point.

One major obstacle was chronicled in an article sadly called "Look What They Did to Her Songs" that appeared in The Australian on June 5, 2014 (article behind a paywall). It turned out that Schekeryk sold the publishing rights to every single song Melanie wrote before 2004 without telling her. The story is reprinted here and it's a rather stunning betrayal but, since she was not aware of what he had done, their marriage was seemingly a happy one, as it lasted from 1968 until his death in 2010.

I got into her music at the point where she was no longer having hits but was a steady presence on the concert scene and on television. One of the two times I saw her perform was when I cut some classes in HS to see her receive the “skate key” to Manhattan from borough president Andrew Stein. (She performed a solo concert after the rather dubious ceremony.) 

I then saw her again, several lives later, at the B.B. King Blues Club on 42nd Street in the early 2010s. Her voice was pitch perfect as she belted out her best-known hits, as well as a bunch of new songs and covers.


In honor of her really underrated body of work — there are indeed a few dozen albums with hidden gems hidden everywhere — I thought I would offer a dozen videos as a “survey” of her work. 

A little note here about which videos were chosen: I haven’t done a blog entry on a musical figure in many a year, but now I prob rarely (if ever) will, as way too many music clips on YT can’t be embedded in a blog. Thus, in some instances I had to pick videos that had nothing going on visually because I wanted to include the song and the better video for the song is verboten as far as embedding. I’ll list a few interesting Melanie YT channels at the end, but I wound up not using videos from two of the best because they turned the embedding feature off.

I’ll start out with the first song I heard from her on record. The two-record set “The Best… Melanie” from Buddah was a collection of the most notable songs from her time with the label (1968 to ’71).
From Steve
music board.

What is most impressive about the set, and any subsequent of “best of” that Buddah put out, was that they included non-hit album tracks that showed the raw, folkie side of Melanie and also her initial forays into pop tunes with orchestral backing. (Count me as a sucker for strings and horns on a pop tune.)

The Buddah comp was later released with a rather ridiculous cover concept — you could fold over the cover and make a cube with color drawings of Melanie! Rather bizarre, but perhaps this was thought of by the same person who included the famous line “Rub gently to release the magic of Melanie’s garden” on the cover of the U.K. release of her later Buddah collection Garden in the City

The first track on the collection was this somber, emotional cover of George Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me.” Quite a note to start off a greatest hits package!


A YT poster who has put up some dazzlingly rare tracks by Melanie (anyone want to hear her singing at four? Or the single for a girl band she wrote before her own recording career began? Or her mom Polly singing?) put up this collection of 1968 demos. Two of these songs became fan-faves, and there’s also an early version of her earthy cover of “Ruby Tuesday.”


There is no way in hell I can embed the very entertaining video versions of her doing “I’m Back in Town” (a very Broadway-esque tune, done with proper B’way-pit orchestra backing), so I’ll opt for this item instead, which finds her performing a song that was a hit in France before she’d had a hit in the U.S.! French TV had certain ways of framing female artists, and here she visually resembles nothing less than a ye-ye girl, albeit a seriously folkie ye-ye.


A great half-hour concert that aired on U.K. TV. I wish the poster had not “stretched” it to fit a rectangular screen (TV images look dreadful when stretched), but the live performances here of six of her best songs are great.


Her biggest hit was this tune, which appears in various permutations on YT, including a version where the vocal is isolated (that shows how she did sing the hell out of this little ditty). There was also a cartoon made of it, but that features the Sonny and Cher cover of the song. (As it was made for their CBS show.) Here’s the version that became Melanie’s biggest hit.


Most of the videos on Melanie’s own YT channel are forbidden to be embedded, but here’s one that can be properly placed on a blog, and it’s an amazing one. Melanie guests on the Everly Brothers’ own variety show (!) in 1970. The other guest stars, with whom she and the Everlys sing “This Little Light of Mine,” are (culture shock 101) Tina Turner on her own and Bobby Sherman!


Here’s footage of one of her several appearances on the laidback Mike Douglas Show. She performs “The Nickel Song,” an incredibly catchy reflection on the music business (in the guise of a human jukebox, namely the performer). This is the medley version of the song, where she starts out with an older nickel song, Teresa Brewer's "Music, Music, Music," and then moves into her own composition (which is another one of the many Melanie fan-faves). I’ve always been very fond of the line “They’re only putting in a nickel, and they want a dollar song...” 


And speaking of covers, Melanie did two perfect covers of Phil Ochs songs. She performed both at the concert that was held at the Felt Forum to commemorate his life. The first, more serious one (which is definitely worth a quick search on your fave music platform) is “Chords of Fame.” Here is the lighter of the two, the cryptic, bouncy, and absolutely blissful “Miranda” given a great “reading” (as they used to say) by Melanie here. 


 A really great video featuring Melanie post-“comeback” (no, she never really did go away, but this is when she was touring again) in ’77 singing her rousing and very emotional cover of “Ruby Tuesday” with a full band. Whoever edited the clip uses that footage as the base but then flashes back to the Sixties with various images, including the younger Melanie.


During the height of her pop stardom, Melanie was on Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan a few times each (clips from some of those appearances are on her YT channel). When she came back she needed to appeal to a younger demographic so somehow she was booked on… the Brady Bunch variety show? Well, at least the song, “Cyclone,” is a very solid one that she also promoted on American Bandstand. NOTE: Every single video that contains the longer version of this song, or is visually interesting (or is jarring, like the Brady Bunch one), is un-embeddable. So it’s not included here. 

Three last videos to highlight Melanie’s influence on others. First, one of the songs she sang with Miley Cyrus in a backyard concert that is up on YT as individual songs. Here, Melanie and Miley duet on a hard-driving version of one of Melanie’s greatest and most timeless songs, “Look What They Done to My Song, Ma.” It was nice to see Miley introducing her fans to Melanie with some of her best-remembered songs.


Here's a perfect matching of composer and singer: Melanie doing vocals for a project by Stephen Merritt, he of the Magnetic Fields. Merritt writes beautifully heart-wrenching little numbers and Melanie had just the right voice to sing one of them. And so she did for "The 6ths" (a Merritt project) on this number in the year 2000. Here definitely is Melanie in a new milieu, being perfectly suited to the material (although the plunking behind her is a bit maddening). Thanks to friend Steve for this one.

And for the closer, an album track that wasn’t a hit when it came out, but it was fondly remembered by Melanie fans. Melanie’s version recently popped up on an episode of the brilliant “Black Mirror” series, which was a really nice surprise. It’s an incredibly catchy tune, with a flute-and-strings backing. 

It turns out that Charlie Brooker and his “Mirror” compadres didn’t actually dig this one up completely out of the blue — the original recording was heavily sampled by an Australian group called the Hilltop Hoods for their 2003 song, “The Nosebleed Section.” As with a lot of songs that use *incredibly* catchy hooks from elsewhere, it’s obvious this tune wouldn’t’ve existed without the Melanie original. 

Single nicest sight in the Hoods'  video? The band’s younger female fans singing along with the part of the song that contains Melanie’s original vocals. (Processed with filters to sound like a 78.)


Some last links: 

 —Melanie’s own YT channel, featuring a lot of great footage. 

The gent who put up the super-rarities from Melanie’s mom’s stash (!).

A super fan's collection of rare concert videos and tunes on TV.

Another fan's Melanie video-trove.

—And… a “missing” album recorded in 1979. (As noted above, the studio was never paid so the tapes were kept by the owners!) Some very nice mellow vocalizing here; this shows Melanie going down a different path that she didn’t pursue. Thankfully, the album is now in the hands of the public.