STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
“It doomed me to being cute forever,” said Melanie Safka — better known as Melanie — who turned 69 last month.
The “it” was the 1971 No. 1, gold-selling smash “Brand New Key,” which lives on in popular culture through multiple cover versions, and being featured in commercials and movie soundtracks (“Boogie Nights,” “Jackass 3D,” “The Little Death”). “I’m good with it,” the singer clarified. “I’m totally OK with the song still being played.”
The New Seekers’ hit from that same era, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” was written by Melanie. “Look what they’ve done to Toyota. Look what they’ve done to Ramada. Look what they’ve done to Lifebuoy. Remember Lifebuoy?,” she said, quoting commercial jingles over the years that were set to her catchy melody.
On www.melaniesafka.com, there are videos of the singer/songwriter and Miley Cyrus performing “backyard” versions of “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma” and “Peace Will Come (According to Plan).” The latter was one of six hits Melanie landed in the Billboard Top 40 between 1970 and 1973.
When asked what Cyrus was really like, Melanie acknowledged that she showed “only the part she wanted me to see,” but proclaimed her to be “very accommodating” and “totally real.”
“Music, to her, is most important. Her heart is really in the music. The true test of character, for me, is if your heart is in the music,” she added.
The informal performances were done to raise awareness and donations for Happy Hippie, a charity project helping homeless LGBT youths. Melanie thinks the collaboration has a lot to do with why she’s seeing more young people in the audience at her concerts. Accompanied by her son, Beau Jarred Schekeryk, Melanie will take the stage at Sellersville Theater — “a cozy, old-fashioned theater,” she called it — on March 19.
She recalled that during one of the previous times she appeared there, the Sellersville Theater staff presented her son with a cake to celebrate his birthday.
“I still enjoy getting up on stage. That’s a lot of fun,” said Melanie, whose coming out party came in the pouring rain at Woodstock in 1969.
“I believe Woodstock is a living thing,” she said of the festival’s spontaneous vibe and communal goodwill that she won’t ever forget. “I don’t believe it was about who was playing. It was more a mass coming together of like-minded kindred spirits. The moment I got on stage (after having her slot continually getting bumped back by the organizers), I was in such terror. I believed everybody was going to pack up and go home (because of bad weather).”
Melanie’s first hit, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” was about being enthusiastically received by the Woodstock crowd, even though she was a virtual unknown at the time, and a shy person to boot. “That wasn’t an audience, that was a country,” she quipped. “Once I was on stage, I felt connected. I’ve never felt anything like it before or after.”
Giving “Lay Down” its distinctive sound was the backing of The Edwin Hawkins Singers, who were on the hit parade thanks to the song “Oh Happy Day.” “I was a white girl singing with 46 big, strong, gospel, black singers … and nobody mentioned that part,” she said of a rare interracial collaboration for that time.
Well, nobody mentioned it except for “Rolling Stone,” who she said always published harshly unfavorable reviews of her music. “Unfortunately, Buddah Records had gotten a bad reputation … from the underground (because of “bubblegum” records like “Simon Says” and “Yummy, Yummy, Yummy”), and I instantly got pegged as … something,” said Melanie.
Her husband, Peter Schekeryk, took over as her manager and liberated her from being beholden to the record labels, which she said became increasingly corporate and less artist-friendly.
Schekeryk passed away in 2010 during a family road trip/concert tour. The couple had been married 45 years, and with the phone interview for this story falling on Schekeryk’s birthday, there’s a noticeable sadness in Melanie’s voice when she talks about a leather-bound journal that he gave her before that fateful road trip. What she’s been writing in the journal, she hopes to turn into a book. Schekeryk gave her the journal to encourage her to write an autobiography, she said. The opening line, so far: “Sometimes you don’t have a story until it has an end.”
One “sad story” that should make the book surrounds the 1989 Emmy Award she won for “For the First Time I Loved Forever,” the theme song for the CBS-TV series “Beauty & the Beast.” She did not attend the awards ceremony because “I wasn’t looking right. I wasn’t feeling good about myself.”
“I didn’t know I would win,” she said. In a strange twist, according to Melanie, the man who accepted the trophy on her behalf at the ceremony refused to turn it over to her. After learning that she could request a duplicate from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Melanie finally received her Emmy last year.
When you come to the show, be advised she’d appreciate it if you put your phone down. “I’m a performer — I like it to be a performance. How can you be there when you’re holding something up? We’re so visual now that people aren’t even listening, and that’s kind of dangerous,” Melanie said of the thousands of YouTube videos of her playing live that make her cringe because “it’s never recorded right, it’s shaky and the sound is terrible.”
But you won’t catch Melanie making an onstage reprimand. “If you have to do it, just keep it to yourself,” she said.