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Singer and songwriter Melanie rose to fame in the late 1960s, making her breakthrough with an appearance at the 1969 Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the rock festival that came to typify the hippie ethos of the era. While Melanie certainly seemed like a flower child in both creative vision and temperament, her singular blend of folk-rock, art song, purposefully playfully pop, and daringly personal introspection set her apart from her peers, delivered with a smokey, quavering passion that made her more serious numbers all the more incisive. 1970's Candles in the Rain -- which included the singles "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" and "Ruby Tuesday" -- would become her commercial breakthrough and defining work. 1971's Gather Me, which included the number one hit "Brand New Key," would prove to be her best-remembered album, but she was remarkably prolific, recording and performing well into the 2020s and never straying far from the creative vision that gave her an audience. Born Melanie Safka in Astoria, Queens, on February 3, 1947, her mother was a jazz vocalist, and young Melanie made her first public appearance at age four on a radio show called Live Like a Millionaire. Her family moved to New Jersey, where her new schoolmates were puzzled by her bohemian attitude, and for a spell she ran away to California. She eventually returned to complete high school in Red Bank, New Jersey, where she was denied her diploma for failing to return a library book. She enrolled at the New York Academy of Fine Arts, and soon mounted a singing career while in college, performing at clubs in Greenwich Village. She signed a publishing contract in 1967, and that same year recorded her first single, "Beautiful People," for Columbia Records. Columbia saddled her recordings with slick, overblown arrangements, and after a second single, she left the label. One of the producers for Melanie's Columbia sessions was Peter Schekeryk, who was strongly impressed with her and her talent. In 1968, they married, and he became her musical collaborator, producing nearly all her subsequent recordings. Melanie landed a record deal with Buddah, who released her debut album, Born to Be, in November 1968. On August 16, 1969, Melanie took the stage at the Woodstock Music & Art Festival in Bethel, New York; her song "Birthday of the Sun" was later released on the Woodstock 2 album, and 20 years later it was released on video as part of Woodstock: The Lost Performances, alongside the work of Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Who. Soon afterward, she cut her second album, Melanie (released in the U.K. as Affectionately Melanie), which fared slightly better than her first, cracking the lower levels of the Top 200 chart. However, her commercial breakthrough came 11 months after Woodstock, when she released the song "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," recorded with the Edwin Hawkins Singers. The song, written as a tribute to the audience at Woodstock and displaying the feel of a gospel hymn, rose to number six on the U.S. charts, while the accompanying LP, entitled Candles in the Rain, reached the Top 20. The album also included a plaintive version of the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday," which also went Top 40, peaking at number 36. In 1970, Melanie released Leftover Wine, a live album recorded at a Carnegie Hall concert, where she was accompanied only by her acoustic guitar. She also recorded two songs for the soundtrack of the movie R.P.M., a film about student unrest starring Anthony Quinn. That same year, the New Seekers had an international hit with Melanie's song "What Have They Done to My Song, Ma," and Buddah responded by reissuing her original recording in January 1971 (which had already come out on a single as the B-side to "Ruby Tuesday"). In March, however, her next release, The Good Book, only hit number 80 on the U.S. charts, despite the presence of several impressive tracks, among them a hauntingly beautiful cover of Phil Ochs' prophetic, doom-laden self-eulogy "Chords of Fame." Melanie's contract with Buddah demanded a heavy workload, essentially calling for her to produce albums on demand, and around this time she rebelled, wanting more control over her music and career. In partnership with Schekeryk, she formed her own label, Neighborhood Records, during the summer of 1971. Her subsequent single, "Brand New Key," hit number one on the U.S. charts and became a million seller; thanks to its not-so-subtle sexual undertones, the song became a kind of "in" dirty joke in some circles, and was even censored on some radio stations, but it also made Melanie one of the top-selling artists of 1971. (It was later used memorably in Paul Thomas Anderson's film Boogie Nights.) The accompanying full-length, Gather Me, was widely regarded as her finest album, and reached a chart position of number 15, earning a gold record in the process. The huge success of "Brand New Key" and Gather Me prompted Buddah to release Garden in the City, a collection of previously unreleased outtakes. While Gather Me spawned a second single, "Ring the Living Bell," Buddah released "The Nickel Song" as a 45. The presence of two singles in release simultaneously from two different labels and distributors, each competing for radio play and listener dollars, damaged both releases, and they effectively canceled each other out -- Melanie and Neighborhood would have to contend with competing releases from Buddah for the next several years. Garden in the City rose to number 19, but her next new album on Neighborhood, Stoneground Words, only got to number 70 in late 1972. In June of 1973, her double-concert album, At Carnegie Hall, recorded the previous year, didn't even make the Top 100. By this time, Melanie had largely withdrawn from the stage, and was devoting her time to more personal and domestic concerns, having the first of three children in as many years. She re-emerged in 1974 for a short series of concerts, but her new album of that period, Madrugada, barely made it onto the charts, and her subsequent two LPs, As I See It Now and Sunset and Other Beginnings, released in 1975, barely sold. Melanie was Neighborhood's only consistently successful act, and when her sales slipped, the label went out of business. In 1976, she signed with Atlantic, and label chief Ahmet Ertegun produced her label debut, Photograph, which boasted a slicker and more contemporary sound. Sales were lackluster, and her follow-up, Phonogenic (Not Just Another Pretty Face), was issued by RCA in Europe and the U.K., and Midsong International in the United States. It failed to chart, and Ballroom Streets, which appeared on the Tomato label in 1978, would be her last effort for four years. In 1982, Melanie cut a comeback album, Arabesque, for RCA; a year later, her single "Every Breath of the Way" scraped the middle of the British charts and led to a series of concerts in England. Neighborhood was soon reactivated just long enough for Melanie to put out 1983's Seventh Wave, which appeared in the United Kingdom and Europe (where she retained a loyal following) but wasn't issued in the United States. In 1983, she wrote the lyrics for a projected musical about the life of Annie Oakley, Ace of Diamonds; the play was never produced, but several public readings of the show were staged in New York, with Melanie accompanied by actress and singer Annie Golden (formerly of the Shirts, an early CBGB band). Melanie also co-wrote the theme song to the popular television series Beauty & the Beast, which debuted in 1987; she would win an Emmy award for her work. She continued to record and release a steady stream of albums for boutique labels in Europe and the United States (over 20 appeared between 1985 and 2020), with her son Beau Jarred Schekeryk and daughters Jeordie Schekeryk and Leilah Schekeryk often accompanying her in the studio and on-stage. In 2007, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp was curating London's annual Meltdown Festival and invited Melanie to appear; her performance at the Royal Festival Hall received enthusiastic reviews and was issued on DVD under the title One Night Only. Peter Schekeryk died in 2010, the same year he produced Melanie's Ever Since You Never Heard of Me. In 2012, she debuted a musical called Melanie and the Record Man, based on her musical and personal relationship with Schekeryk, which was created in collaboration with John Haldoupis. Red Bank High School finally forgave Melanie for the lost library book that cost her a diploma in 2015, as she was inducted into their Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame. Ever Since You Never Heard of Me would prove to be the last studio album Melanie released in her lifetime -- she was in the midst of recording a collection of covers when she died on January 23, 2024, at the age of 76. Shortly after her passing, a single was released from the project, her interpretation of Trent Reznor's "Hurt."
© Bruce Eder & Mark Deming /TiVo


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