Melissa Manchester takes Bistro honor, then tours Northeast
Powerhouse vocalist and songwriter Melissa Manchester will be presented with a Bistro Award on April 23rd at Gotham Comedy Club, for "Outstanding Contributions to American Popular Music." Longtime friend and occasional collaborator Marvin Hamlisch will present the award to her.
Manchester, born and raised in New York City, attended the High School of Performing Arts and New York University. Soon after, she met Barry Manilow on the jingle-singing circuit, who then introduced her to Bette Midler. Manchester became a Harlette, but within a few years opened her own act, introducing songs written with Carole Bayer Sager. She went on to perform in several nightclubs around the city.
In 1975, she rose to fame with her song "Midnight Blue," a top ten smash. Over the next ten years, she had several more hits, including "Don't Cry Out Loud," "Through the Eyes of Love," "Come in from the Rain," and "You Should Hear How She Talks About You," her highest-charting hit, which also earned her a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance in 1983.
Now Los Angeles-based, Manchester has continued to tour, record, write film scores, act, and write musicals. EDGE spoke with the star about her upcoming honor and all things music biz.
Soul of a New Yorker
EDGE: How does it feel to come back to your hometown and get an award for your contribution to American popular music and also to be honored as someone who came through New York’s nightclub scene?
Melissa Manchester: It is thrilling because I have the soul of a New Yorker-although I don’t know how to get a Metrocard anymore! My energy complements the energy of the city, always and still the greatest city in the world. To be given this award completes a lovely circle because I did start in New York, playing clubs in Greenwich Village, the upper west side, and at universities all across the state.
EDGE: What was that scene like in the early ’70s?
Melissa Manchester: Wow, back then you had to do two, sometimes three, sets a night, even at 2:00 a.m. when there were just two drunks in the club. My father, who was in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, would often wake up my mother and they’d dress up and come down for those late sets and cheer me on. I played Max’s Kansas City with Gene McDaniels, Elvin Bishop. A lot of memories.
EDGE: From the School of Performing Arts to NYU, education obviously played a big role in your success. Do you think that’s emphasized enough in the music business today?
Melissa Manchester: I’m an adjunct at USC and I teach what I call conversational singing. These students know how to network, how to show up with charts. They’re in a world of a new normal. The wheel has been reinvented and I’m not sure it’s round. The moniker for independent artists now is that you do four times the work. The template has changed. Before, you’d get a record company behind you supporting a tour and you could make a life for yourself. Now some exist just on the internet and that can work for them.
Working with Paul Simon
EDGE: You took a songwriting class with Paul Simon at NYU. Do you remember anything specific that he taught you?
Melissa Manchester: Oh yes. He auditioned all the kids. At the time, I was a huge Laura Nyro fan and when I played him one of my songs, he asked, "Do you listen to Laura Nyro?" When I said yes, he said, "Well, now you can stop." We’d write a song a week, analyze it, take it apart. And he told us all the stories about surviving in publishing and the business. He said that all of the stories have been told but it’s the way you tell it that puts your thumbprint on a new song. He later prophesied that music would become less about melody and more about rhythm, and that has turned out to be true.
EDGE: As both a singer and songwriter, your songbook has held up very well. What do you look for in a song?
Melissa Manchester: An interesting point of view, sometimes wit. Unexpected melody and chordal patterns. A well-placed cliché. Room to breathe and interpret.
EDGE: I’m sure you could tell many stories about the vagaries of the music business. What happened around the time you left Arista and signed with MCA? You had a big hit and a Grammy award and then your big pop hits dropped off. What happened?
Melissa Manchester: The complexion of the industry was really changing. I am really a balladeer. In the early ’80s, electronics were introduced and it became more of a producer’s medium than a singer’s. I could not find a place in it. So I recorded an album called "Tribute," about all the great singers who influenced me. I do feel that I’m carrying the torch for Ella, Billie, Edith, Judy. I have my tentacles in many places. I’m looking for the emotional value. The currency of a song is no small thing and it’s never an accident. The form is exquisite.
EDGE: There seem to be cycles in the pop music business. Today, there are some big voices but a hit ballad is extremely rare. Why do you think that is?
Melissa Manchester: Well, there is still so much interesting music to listen to. You can go to Pandora and listen to Florence & The Machine and then that leads you to all kinds of other interesting stuff. I think Adele is the heir apparent to Dusty Springfield. She understands that connection between the soul and the note. It always comes back to melody, people hunger for it. All is not lost; all is different.
Coming full circle
EDGE: You’ve maintained friendships and working relationships with so many people you met in your early years-Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Carole Bayer Sager, Marvin Hamlisch. What does loyalty mean in this business?
Melissa Manchester: We’re all fellow travelers and the truth is that being in this business you have to want it almost like you want your next breath, because it’s really hard. For me, it was really hard to get back in after stopping for a while to raise my kids. Regarding the ones you mentioned, we all started at the same time so we have that connection.
EDGE: Speaking of Barry Manilow, I’m dying to know the answer to this. In "Could it Be Magic" he sings, "Sweet Melissa, angel of my lifetime." Is that about you?
Melissa Manchester: I think so. Or he just likes saying my name.
EDGE: You don’t know for sure?
Melissa Manchester: No. It’s sweeter that way.
EDGE: I was surprised to learn that in your early schooling that you studied acting, not music. Now that has come full circle, as you’ve focused a lot on theater in recent years. Is a hit musical at the top of your wish list for your next triumph?
Melissa Manchester: Oh yes, absolutely. I’m working on a new musical with Rupert Holmes. But these things take such a long time!
EDGE: You were one of the very first to support AIDS causes from the beginning? How did that come about?
Melissa Manchester: We were in New York City and I was playing the clubs. In fact, Bette was also playing in town. We realized people were dying fast and furious. I took part in the first major fundraiser in New York, A Night to Remember, at the Metropolitan Opera House. I’ve taken part in many more since then, and still do in Los Angeles.
EDGE: A showbiz career takes incredible time, energy and money. Is there anything you feel you’ve had to sacrifice for your success?
Melissa Manchester: I don’t know. You don’t get a chance to do a do-over. Could I have made more records of meaningless music and had a bigger career? I found that soul-sucking and not really what I was about. "You Should Hear How She Talks About You" was a hoot and its success was completely unexpected and wonderful, but . . . I followed a path that seemed the most interesting at the time.
Melissa Manchester appears at Bistro Awards at Gotham Comedy Club, April 23, 2012. Her upcoming appearances are on May 12, 2012 at the Patchogue Theatre, Patchogue, NY; May 13, 2012 at Scullers Jazz Club, Boston, MA; May 14, 2012 at the Blue Note, New York City, NY; and May 19, 2012 at the Saugatuck Center, Saugatuck, MI. For more information about these dates and other appearances by Melissa Manchester, visit her website.