Think of Her as a Friend
by Jay S. Jacobs
“I think we can make it, one more time, if we try.”
That line sort of sums up Melissa Manchester, and not just because it was a huge part of “Midnight Blue,” the songstress’ first huge hit single in 1975. In a career that has spanned over forty years, Manchester has shown an amazing ability to make it, over and over again.
She has reformatted and resurrected a fascinating career many times over. Time has taken her from jingle singer to the coffee houses and bath houses of Greenwich Village (one of her first big breaks was as part of Bette Midler’s backing group The Harlettes) to a huge radio star. In the 70s and early 80s Manchester was the voice behind such huge hits as “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “Fire in the Morning,” “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” and “Through the Eyes of Love.” She also made a mark as a songwriter, having other artists chart with her songs “Whenever I Call You Friend” and “Come in From the Rain.”
In recent years, Manchester has been a concert favorite, periodically releasing new albums as well. Her shows play to a huge base of long-time fans, plus she is getting discovered anew by a younger audience. In fact, the recent movie Dirty Girl used several of Manchester’s greatest tunes, as well as a new song recorded specifically for the film.
Manchester has just released Playlist, a compilation of biggest hits and favorite tracks. She was nice enough to give us a call to discuss her long, celebrated career.
When you started out, did you ever imagine that 40 years later you’d still be singing professionally?
Well, you know, I had no other plan. I was hoping that this would be my life. That it actually turned out to be so is lovely. Lovelier than the dream.
I was reading that you studied songwriting at NYU with Paul Simon? How amazing was that to work with arguably one of the great songwriters in popular music?
It was amazing. He felt like teaching. “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” was number one all over the world. I sort of feel like the circle has been completed, because just yesterday, I wrote a song with Hal David, another brilliant lyricist.
Definitely, I love his work with Burt Bacharach.
He’s ninety years old and we wrote a wonderful song. (laughs) So, from the beginning of my creative adventure to right now, it’s been quite a journey.
Your first big break was singing with Bette Midler and Barry Manilow as one of the Harlettes early on in both of their careers. Obviously, all three of you went on to long, prosperous careers. Even back then, could you tell you were in the midst of something special?
We could, because New York was just a sparkling place with an abundance of opportunities. The club scene was very rich. The singer-songwriter scene was just starting. The possibilities of signing a record deal seemed… you know, possible. Little did we know how truly difficult it was. I just did all kinds of jobs that were so interesting and, of course I met Barry singing jingles, and then he introduced me to Bette.
When did you feel you were ready to go out on your own and record Home to Myself?
I always felt I was ready to go out on my own. (laughs) It took me seven years from the time I started making demos to when I was signed to Bell Records. In the meantime, I paid really hard dues. I played in most of the college coffee houses around New York state and clubs in the Village. Then when I was signed by the late and great Larry Utall to Bell Records, my producers were Hank Medress and Dave Appell – also luminaries in the recording world. [Medress was an original member of the Tokens and Appell helped create the distinctive Cameo-Parkway sound.] We created Home to Myself.
A couple of years later, when “Midnight Blue” was released it became huge and suddenly you were all over the radio and television. How surreal was that?
It was huge indeed, because “Midnight Blue” was a single. I never got caught up in the world of singles. I was an album artist in those days, so it was not part of the landscape to worry about a single. Suddenly, Bell Records was absorbed into Arista Records and Clive Davis was in charge of it, and he spoke of things like singles success. When they released “Midnight Blue,” we did a really vigorous tour of radio stations and secondary markets, college radio stations. We traveled thousands of miles shaking hands and playing when it finally got from the east coast to the west coast it was so huge that… I never forget that first experience of playing the intro to “Midnight Blue” and people started cheering. I’d never had that before. That was the power of radio.
One of the songs of yours I remember hearing a lot, but by other people, was “Come in From the Rain” which I remember was recorded by Captain & Tennille and a few other artists. How cool was it that you were being respected for your songwriting as well as your singing?
Absolutely. I’m not proprietary with my songs. The point of writing is to not only hope that you can sing them, but that other people wish to sing them. I’m thrilled when I hear my songs on the internet. I’m thrilled when I hear other people’s interpretations of my songs.
“Through the Eyes of Love” has become sort of a standard wedding song. When you were recording the song as a soundtrack single for a little skating movie, did you have any idea that the song would have the staying power that it has?
You never do. I don’t have a crystal ball that works like that. The thing is that to look at the friends and colleagues that I’ve had along the way who have written some incredible songs for me. It goes without saying that Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Sager wrote a beautiful song. It was grand.
You wrote or co-wrote many of your hits, but one of your biggest hits was “Don’t Cry Out Loud” which was written by Peter Allen and your frequent collaborator Carole Bayer Sager. I was reading that early on, you weren’t sure that it was a right song for you. What did you think and how do you feel about the song now?
Well, I always felt it was the right song. I wasn’t sure if it was the right arrangement. When I first heard Peter Allen sing that song, I knew it was a magnificent song, but he had interpreted it as a very quiet lullaby. I felt, oh, yeah, I know how to do this. Then when I got in the studio there was this anthemic, bombastic arrangement. (chuckles) I thought, “Whoa! What room did I walk into?” I didn’t realize how it would resonate with people. On the literal end of things, everything I had written with Carole Sager or different collaborators was about crying out loud, about taking your feelings out, about learning to have a voice, particularly as a young woman. Suddenly there was this song about do the opposite. But in the years past, what I’ve realized is that the message of the song is to learn how to stand tall and cope. That’s life.
You are mostly known for ballads, but your last huge hit, “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” was more upbeat and kind of dancey. Was it fun as a performer to be able to experiment with styles?
Yeah, it was fun. My friends wrote if for me and that was fun – Thomas Snow and Dean Pitchford. But it was very odd to be singing that kind of a song onstage. It took me several years to sort of get comfortable with it. I mean, I totally appreciated getting the Grammys for it and all that. But now that my career is so long and lovely, the audience and I can just joke about it.
Since I met you with Peabo Bryson years ago, obviously you recorded “Lovers After All” with him and have toured with him over the years. What was he like to work with?
He’s great. I had him on as a guest on a TV special that I had done and he’s lovely, professional and has the voice of an angel. I enjoy working with him a lot.
How involved were you in picking the songs in Playlist? I was a little surprised “Fire in the Morning” and “Whenever I Call You Friend” were not on there. How was it decided which songs would be on and which wouldn’t?
You know, it was my decision. I just don’t feel that I have the definitive version of “Whenever I Call You Friend” [which Manchester’s co-writer Kenny Loggins made into a smash hit as a duet with Stevie Nicks], yet. That’s why we haven’t recorded it. I hope to record it with Kenny Loggins at some point. Then, that would be that. I really wanted this to be a journey of hits, of songs that I wrote by myself and what they sound like – because I think when I write by myself there’s a different tone, lyrically, of the songs. I wanted to include duets that had never been released before on comps. “Lovers After All.” “I Can’t Get Started with You” – which was my very first duet, with my first bandmate John Cooker LoPresti, he passed away earlier this year. There was Collin Raye as well [on the song “A Mother and Father’s Prayer.”].
Speaking of “Whenever I Call You Friend,” you wrote that with Kenny Loggins and of course his version became the big hit. What was he like to work with and do you think it will ever happen that you two will get together to record it?
Oh, yes, I absolutely do. It was just a matter of scheduling that prevented us from recording it this year. I enjoyed working with him very much. We used to meet a lot at awards shows, because they were new at the time and we were usually paired up to present awards. One of the things I also wanted to put on Playlist was not only the things that represented the beginning of my career, but the things that represented the most recent, which were the two songs from films that I’ve worked on in the last few years – For Colored Girls… for Tyler Perry and Dirty Girl, for which I wrote an original song with Mary Steenburgen, that wonderful actress.
You recorded a new song for the movie, did that stimulate you to get back into the studio for a new album? I believe your last album was When I Look Down That Road in 2004.
Yes. I’m collecting songs. With this new relationship with Sony, hopefully there will be a future there. That would be nice?
How did you get involved in Dirty Girl? Not only was there the new original song, but they used quite a few of your older songs, too.
Abe Sylvia, who is the director of the film, sent me the script. There were suddenly nine titles of my songs in this beautiful, funny coming-of-age film, which you can get on DVD now. I urge people to see it. I think it’s just lovely.
Yes, we have an interview with co-stars Juno Temple and Jeremy Dozier about the film.
Oh, awesome, well send them my love. It was fantastic and an unexpected gift to have the script incorporate so much of my music. There are actually 26 songs in the film, so music is sort of like the Greek chorus of the film. That is due to Abe Sylvia’s understanding of the importance of music in a movie, which is rare.
You also did a good amount of acting in the past. Is that something that you would like to do more of?
If it comes along. My first love is concertizing. I really understand it. I love the sacred space that is created between the audience and myself. I love going out into the lobby and signing things and giving hugs and hearing from people. It’s really sweet.
Do you have a tour planned?
I’m in and out all the time. If you go onto my website, you’ll see my gigs and where I’m going. I’m all over the place all the time now.
The music business has changed so much since your heyday, with the radio playlists becoming so regimented, the major labels failing, downloading, the internet, piracy and all. Do you think that it is harder for an artist to get noticed than it was in your day?
Well, it’s a complicated question. Now they have YouTube. People can promote themselves effortlessly. Can they get paid doing that? Can they make a living doing that? I don’t know. I think the electronic devices have certainly undercut the earning power of songwriters in a massive way, so that’s troubling. The good folks who are head of BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc.] and ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] and all of those songwriting guilds are feverishly bringing their pajamas to Washington and trying to figure out how to create new equations so people can earn money that is rightfully theirs for their hard work.
How would you like for people to see your music?
User friendly. (laughs) I hope I write and sing songs that make people feel like they are not isolated – that their emotional stirrings and the chapters of their lives are of value. That we all share that commonality.
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Copyright ©2012 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 15, 2012.