STORY WRITTEN BY ROB NAGY
For Digital First Media
A vibrant member of the Woodstock generation, singer songwriter Melanie is best remembered for her hits “Brand New Key,” “What Have They Done To My Song,” “Lay Down (Candles in the rain),” her tribute to performing at the original Woodstock Music Festival, and “Peace Will Come (According To Plan).”
Nearly five decades later, Melanie vividly remembers the terror of performing at Woodstock in front of an audience of nearly half a million people.
“I didn’t know Woodstock was going to be a big deal. It was just going to be this Aquarian exhibition,” recalls Melanie, from her home in Nashville, Tennessee. “My mother picked me up and she drove me to Woodstock. Not too many people can say that. We hit a little traffic and thought, ‘Oh, it’s a weekend in upstate New York.’ But then it was ridiculous and I started thinking, could this possibly have something to do with this?’ So we go off to this hotel and we get there and it’s surrounded by media trucks and I thought, ‘Oh my God, what is this? What did I get myself into? I’m just one person and all I do is just play guitar.’ Somebody in charged must have recognized me and came up and said, ‘Melanie, let’s go to that helicopter.’ I’m thinking, ‘Helicopter?’ We start flying over this mass of something. From up there it looked like something colorful down there, like some weird plantings. I said to the pilot, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘That’s people.’ I said, ‘No, no, I mean down there?’ ‘Yeah, that’s people.’ I said, ‘It can’t be people, it’s too much! It’s not possible.’ I had never seen anything like that. I was terrified and nearly numb with fear. Now I’m thinking we’re going to land and they’re going to say I’m on!”
“I’m gearing up to face a firing squad,” adds Melanie. “It was broad daylight and there are all these people in front of the stage and I’m thinking, ‘How am I going to do this? What am I going to sing?’ I didn’t even have a set. Then someone came by and said, ‘You’re on next.’ I took a deep breath and I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to do this?’ and then I grabbed my guitar and they said, ‘never mind.’ This went on all day long. Then it started to rain and it was nighttime and Ravi Shankar was on and people were cheering wildly. I was thinking, ‘It’s raining. Aren’t people going to go home? It’s really coming down now and maybe people will start leaving and I won’t have to do this.’”
“Somebody came back to get me and said ‘It’s time’ and this time it was for real,” recalls Melanie. “I walked on that stage and I left my body and I wasn’t doing drugs. I was probably the only person at Woodstock who wasn’t doing drugs. I was too scared. It was just me and my guitar, and I left my body and at some point I came back. When I finally got up there, there was this feeling of relief. At one point, while singing “Beautiful People,” I felt so connected. It resonated with everybody. When you resonate with 500,000 people it’s a big flow of power and connectedness and this great sense of humanity and how we are part of one and connected to each other in some way. Those feelings and images never left me.”
Entrenched in the rich music scene of New York’s 1960’s Greenwich Village, Melanie signed her first recording contract first with Columbia Records and then Buddah Records. Charting with her 1969 European single “Bobo’s Party,” she peaked at number one in France.
After launching her own label in 1971, Neighborhood Records, Melanie released her biggest U.S. hit single, “Brand New Key.” The song sold over three million copies. Her follow-up singles, “Ring the Living Bell” and “The Nickel Song,” which she recorded while still signed to Buddah Records, both made the Top 40 and set a record for the first female performer to have three Top 40 hits concurrently. Melanie’s efforts did not go unnoticed. She was named Billboard’s Number One Top Female Vocalist in 1972.
“I was not a good game player as far as the music industry was concerned,” recalls Melanie. “I formed my own record label because I was upset over the image that was being pushed out there by the record label, you two bit flower child. I wasn’t relevant and being promoted as a person that wrote their own songs. “
“When “Brand New Key” came out” I was the roller skate girl, the bicycle song,” adds Melanie. “ I went from doing theaters, coffeehouses and festivals to stadiums. It crossed me over to that mass media and large groups of people coming to my shows. I kind of became reactionary to the song because it bothered me. It became the burden. I didn’t appreciate having a hit record. I didn’t understand what that was.”
“In the last 20 years I’ve come to really love that song because it’s so unique and it has a timelessness,” says Melanie. It just seems to live on. It will not go away.”
She continued to enjoy charting success with the Top 40 hit single in 1973 with “Bitter Bad.” Other chart hits during this period were “Together Alone” and a cover of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” She has gone on to sell more than 80 million records worldwide.
Melanie won an Emmy Award in 1989 for writing the lyrics to “The First Time I Loved Forever”, the theme song for the TV series “Beauty and the Beast.”
With renewed interest in Woodstock resurfacing in the 1980’s, Melanie recalls the inaccurate portrayal of the 60’s generation.
“The way the 60’s were being portrayed, as the burned out hippie, love and peace, sex, drugs and rock and roll was not accurate. That wasn’t my 60’s. My 60’s was a total spiritual awakening. The people that I knew and connected with there was a feeling that there was going to be a renaissance on earth. It turned out less than what the dream was.”
“I guess I was like a museum piece in the 80’s,” adds Melanie. “I put blue stuff in my hair and I liked wearing funny clothes. Every major record label wanted to sign me, but they wanted to superimpose my voice on some slocky song to be a hit record. They didn’t want me to do my songs. They wanted me to put my guitar down and be the 80’s woman not the 60’s flower child. I was neither one of those things. I was just me looking for my authentic self.
Performing at the Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall in London in 2007, her critically acclaimed sold out performance, entitled “Melanie For One Night Only,” was released on DVD that same year.
Most recently, Melanie was inducted into Red Bank Regional’s “Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame” (2015) and was the recipient of the Sandy Hosey Lifetime Achievement Award at the Artists Music Guild’s 2015 AMG Heritage Awards, also in 2015.
A life long supporter for social cause, Melanie, a former ambassador for UNICEF, is currently the President of “The Tennessee Chapter of the United for Human Rights,”
“I’m still very active getting human rights into schools,” says Melanie. “These are our rights as human beings. We’re born with these thirty rights. It is more important than anything just because getting along is the ultimate goal. Everything else is nothing if we can’t get along.”
“I would like to be able to serve mankind a little more,” adds Melanie. “I think you have to become more visible. Trying to figure out ways to do that because I’m nearly 70 years old. I want to make an impact for good in this world.”