Born Melanie Safka, February 3, 1947, in Queens, NY; daughter of Fred (a retailer) and Polly (a singer) Safka; married Peter Schekeryk (a record producer) c. 1970; children: Leilah, Jeordie (daughter), Beau. Education: Attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Penland School of Crafts. Addresses: Office--53 Baymont, Suite 5, Clearwater Beach, FL 34630. Record company--Lonestar Records, 519 Cleveland St., Suite 209, Clearwater Beach, FL 34615.
Folk singer-songwriter Melanie recorded her first album in 1967 and attracted national attention as well as a loyal fan following two years later when she performed at Woodstock, the legendary rock festival. During the early 1970s, Melanie's gentle, acoustic sound on songs like "Lay Down," "Beautiful People," and "Brand New Key" was in sharp contrast to the hard-driving, heavy-metal rock that dominated the charts. Edwin Miller of Seventeen magazine observed that her "urgent ballads bind you to her with invisible threads of emotion."
Melanie was born Melanie Safka on February 3, 1947, in Queens, New York. Her mother was a blues singer at the local clubs who fostered a love of music in her daughter and entered her in area talent contests. "My mother always encouraged me," Melanie recalled to Miller. At age four, Melanie made her professional debut on a radio show called "Live Like a Millionaire," where she sang and played the ukelele.
When Melanie was a teenager, the family moved to southern New Jersey, where despite her mother's blues influence, she was drawn to the New York folk scene and the music of artists Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. At age 16, Melanie was hired to sing at a local club where, she told Miller, "I worked Monday nights. I would sing all the Peter, Paul and Mary songs, four and five hours, for $20." After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the New York Academy of Dramatic Arts, but continued to ply her musical trade in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village.
Though the young thespian enjoyed her drama studies, she found it extremely difficult to audition for acting jobs. "I was always simply too afraid to get up and say 'this is what I am,'" she confessed in Seventeen. "So I would sit there, reading the theatrical trade papers. Descriptions of the people wanted never [fit] me." She did manage to secure an acting role, but due to lack of funds, the play was never produced.
Melanie signed with a music publishing company and was assigned to producer Peter Schekeryk, whom she later married. In 1967 she landed a recording contract with Columbia Records. Her first single, "Beautiful People," became a moderate hit, but Melanie was dissatisfied with Columbia and switched to the Buddha label, where she recorded the album Born to Be, which contained 1969's smash hit "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma."
That same year, Melanie was invited to play at the now- historic rock festival, Woodstock. Decades later, she reminisced about the event for Rolling Stone: "It was magical. I had never performed in front of so many people in my life. I had my first out-of-body experience. I was terrified, I had to leave. I started across that bridge to the stage, and I just left my body.... I watched myself walk onto the stage, sit down and sing a couple of lines. And when I felt it was safe, I came back." Performing at Woodstock inspired Melanie to write and record her 1970 peace anthem "Lay Down"-- subtitled "Candles in the Rain." She told Rolling Stone: "It started to rain right before I went on and the announcer said that if you lit candles, it would help to keep the rain away. By the time I finished my set, the whole hillside was a mass of little flickering lights."
Candle-lighting fans became a feature of Melanie's concerts, sometimes leading to trouble with authorities because of the potential fire hazard. She released Candles in the Rain in 1970. Six months later the album reached platinum status and earned her "top female vocalist of the year" awards from Billboard, Melody Maker, Bravo, and Cashbox.
In 1971 Melanie's tribute to roller skating, "Brand New Key," reached Number One on the pop charts, but critics were less than enthused with the cute, inane ditty. They were no more impressed with her 1972 follow-up, "The Nickel Song." Disillusioned by the unkind reviews, Melanie took a respite from music and focused her attentions on her family. She returned in 1975 on the Atlantic label with Photograph, an album that was, ironically, praised by the critics and virtually ignored by the public. In 1978, she released the album Phonogenic, Not Just Another Pretty Face, for Midsong International, before once again retiring from the music business.
Melanie eventually returned to the studio and recorded several albums throughout the 1980s. She sang her critically-panned "Brand New Key" in a television commercial for the Fisher- Price Toy Company. In 1989 she went on the road with the Woodstock Reunion Tour, which traveled through the United States and Europe. Melanie was also honored with an Emmy Award for penning the lyrics to "The First Time I Loved Forever," theme song of the award-winning television series Beauty and the Beast.
Though Melanie continued to release albums for the European market, it was nearly a decade before she recorded her next domestic album, Freedom Knows My Name, released in 1993. The recording was a family affair; produced by her husband, Peter Schekeryk, and recorded on his company label, Lonestar Records, the album features back-up vocals by all three of their children (who also tour with Melanie). Critics were divided on the album's merit, with Entertainment Weekly calling it a "tepid release, stuck in Woodstock-era reverie," and Philadelphia's Daily Local News concluding it was "full of vital, fresh tunes which hold up in the '90s."
Melanie's schedule remained full in 1994. She continued work on an unplugged album commemorating her 25 years as a recording artist, and had scheduled concerts throughout the United States and Europe. She was also slated to appear at "Bethany '94," a musical celebration of Woodstock's silver anniversary, to be held at the festival's original site. In spite of her strong ties with the past, Melanie has always had her sights set squarely on the future. "When people want to talk only about the good old days," she explained to People, "there's this horrible implication that you're nothing now. But I know I'm better than I used to be."
by Elizabeth Wenning
Sang in local clubs in the Long Branch, NJ, area beginning at age 16; signed recording contract with Columbia Records, 1967; performer at Woodstock music festival, 1969; took sabbatical from recording and performing, 1972-75; released critically acclaimed album, Photograph, 1975; released one more album, 1978, before retiring until 1993.
Selected top female vocalist of 1970 by Billboard, Bravo, Cashbox, and Melody Maker; Emmy Award (with composer Lee Holdridge), 1989, for lyrics to "The First Time I Loved Forever," theme song of television series Beauty and the Beast.
- Selective Works
- Melanie, Columbia, c. 1967.
- Born to Be, Buddha, c. 1969.
- Candles in the Rain, Buddha, 1970.
- Leftover Wine, Buddha, 1970.
- The Good Book, Buddha, 1971.
- Gather Me, Neighborhood, 1971, reissued, C5, 1993.
- Garden in the City, Buddha, c. 1972.
- Four Sides of Melanie, Buddha, c. 1972.
- Stoneground Words, Neighborhood, 1972.
- Photograph, Atlantic, 1975.
- Phonogenic, Not Just Another Pretty Face, Midsong International, 1978.
- Freedom Knows My Name, Lonestar, 1993.
- Daily Local News (Philadelphia), February 19, 1994.
- Entertainment Weekly, January 14, 1994.
- People, July 27, 1992.
- Redbook, September 1972.
- Rolling Stone, August 24, 1989.
- Seventeen, June 1971.