Nearly 50 years in show business and Manchester is as active as ever
It is said of great artists that they provide the soundtrack to our lives. Melissa Manchester has long been held in such esteem by many in the LGBTQ community.
Now closing in on an impressive 50th anniversary in show business, she remains active as ever. Unfazed when Top 40 programmers stopped playing her music, Manchester continued touring and making records without concern for the charts. She enjoys a fan base who regularly attend her performances in clubs, concert halls, and cabarets. She has been active in musical theater as a composer and a performerr and is an adjunct professor at USC Thornton School of Music, as well as artist in residence at Citrus College. Many also remember her recurring role as Mayim Bialik’s mother on Blossom.
She has an impressive set of classics, “Midnight Blue,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” and “Through the Eyes of Love” among them, and performs them with clear passion, yet there is more to Manchester than casual listeners know.
She was routinely misdirected by record company brass at the height of her career, particularly in the early 1980s, when new wave confections and synth-pop rhythms dominated radio and her brand of singer/songwriter melodicism was pushed to the backseat. Manchester was painted into a corner where her strengths went underused, buried beneath the clatter of icy keyboards and fake drums from producers who couldn’t resist their sudden surplus of bells and whistles.
Known as a balladeer—she has garnered over a dozen Billboard Adult Contemporary hits—Manchester finds it ironic that she won her Grammy Award for “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” a jangly pop confection she didn’t write.
Manchester has made peace with this chapter of her career and finds value and humor in it. She still occasionally sings “You Should Hear…” in concert, projecting her performance of the song on Solid Gold on a screen behind her and appraising the aggressively slim young woman executing the harsh choreography: “Looking back, somebody should have said ‘Give that girl a cookie!'”
She survived the trauma of this phase and re-asserted her gifts, which had for too long been locked away, marking a key shift with the release of 2004s critically-acclaimed When I Look Down That Road.
Manchester also supports the Susan G. Komen Foundation, having composed a charity single, “The Power of Ribbons,” to raise funds to combat breast cancer. In 2017, she participated in the Los Angeles Women’s March, reciting the lyrics to her song “I Know Who I Am” as the crowd cheered her on. They are hard-won words she owns with joy.
Now she is focused on a series of re-recordings of her hits that will comprise a forthcoming album, RE:VIEW. Her goal is to christen her signature songs in a new light, officially documenting their evolution. She has been leading up to the release with a single and video released each month.
Manchester took time to call me from her home in Los Angeles to discuss RE:VIEW the importance of artistic freedom and the decades of music which led her to this moment.
You’ve been active releasing new music, touring, and teaching. You even gave a TED Talk about the power of sound. What is it that keeps you so inspired?
Melissa Manchester: The creative urge has nothing to do with time. It’s a light that does not go out. It can dim occasionally, but it just doesn’t go out. I have found this peculiar moment we are sharing is so rich for me to work on releasing songs. I’m working on this new project, RE:VIEW, which is the re-recording of some of my hits, for several reasons. One is because they’ve grown with me and I’ve grown into them—and that’s what I thought [the process] was all about. What I did not expect was how these songs written so long ago have come into this moment with new meaning; I’m hoping that by the time all the songs are out and the CD is released that we can look back on the [music] videos I’ve worked on as a visual journal of this moment.
Many times, I have heard people say, “Melissa Manchester, she’s great! Is she still around?” It makes me think of that game we play with babies where we disappear and then re-emerge so they learn we’re still there when they can’t see us. It’s curious people don’t remember this when it comes to an artist they’ve enjoyed.
“I’m very busy and have created my own platform on Facebook to get my work out there.”
MM: Well, it’s not terribly surprising since I’m not invited on Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, or other television shows that have very wide audiences. That’s just what happens—you recede from peoples’ minds. The truth is I’m very busy and have created my own platform on Facebook to get my work out there, but that’s mostly the reason. It’s stunning—still—the impact television has. I hope I get to do this long enough that I get to be re-discovered by some of those hosts who might go, “Oh, she’s still around? Well, let’s call her a national treasure…” (Laughs)
You’ve always been one to look forward. What inspired you in the first place to want to record RE:VIEW and revisit your catalog?
MM: It’s manifold. I never get bored singing my songs because the actual compositions have a lot of room for investigating the interior life. Since my interior life through experience and just living a long time has widened and deepened and earned some hard-won wisdom, I can infuse the interpretations of these songs with that as well.
On the practical side, many of my colleagues and I are re-recording our hits so that we can own the masters. When many of us signed our contracts back in the 1960s and 70s and even into the early 80s, social media wasn’t even a concept, and record companies were essentially the bank. The contracts you signed with them were pretty ironclad, and you understood their position. Record companies were a big engine— they had press, they had funds, they had personnel. And there were a lot of people working on your project. Since you walked away not owning your master tracks, many of us have gone back into the studio to, in a sense, replicate the originals so that they can be licensed from us directly. That empowers you as an artist.
Those who haven’t heard you in a while may be surprised to hear that your voice seems not only undiminished in power but perhaps even stronger. What kind of discipline do you need to maintain your instrument?
MM: Thank you, that’s very lovely of you to say. When I’m performing—whether recording or on stage—I am very disciplined. I drink a lot of water, including hot water with lemon and honey, I vocalize, and I have technique now. I don’t sing in many of the original keys of my songs, but that’s okay because my voice has broadened, and I still have lung power and passion. That really propels me to hit some big notes still and sustain them.
One thing listeners will notice on RE:VIEW is that there will be no fades on these songs. All of these songs have endings! I have learned and loved in live performance that the ending of a song is what makes an audience crazy and gives them their moment to respond. They used to be in fashion and served a purpose—that way, your song could snuggly fit right in front of the news or something like that—but in [my] new world as an independent artist, that’s neither here nor there.
When your career began, Clive Davis described you as an ideal performer to bridge the gap between Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler, but you do them one better by being able to compose your own material. How did those two worlds—song stylist and songwriter—come together for you?
MM: When I was starting out, the introduction of the female singer/songwriter was pretty new. It started with Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, really, and Laura was my muse—she was an Upper West Side, New York City girl, too. Nobody wrote like her, nobody used their voice like her, and I was just mesmerized. Songwriting became a second language for me almost—I could make up my own language—and yet I was raised in a household listening to Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald, these great singers who became my psychic musical godmothers. I listened to great scores from musical theater which had songs that became pop standards, and then the Beatles showed up, and then the Beach Boys, and then Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder, and James Taylor, so the notion for what makes a pop song was starting to change because it wasn’t dependent on a character anymore. I also had the privilege to study songwriting with Paul Simon for a while.
“I was raised around gay people. I never understood what the big deal is, but I feel very blessed for the upbringing I had.”
You’ve had a considerable LGBTQ audience since the start of your career. Many of them are loyal and have stuck by you through the seasons of your career. When did you first become aware of how much your music resonates with our community?
MM: It’s meant everything, honestly. From the very beginning, when I was playing clubs or coffee houses, some young woman would come up to me very shyly and ask me a question and very shyly her girlfriend would stand next to her, and you could feel a sweetness and a tenderness between the two of them. This was when things were still unspoken. It was the same with the young men. Remember, I was raised around gay people. (Chuckles) I never understood what the big deal is, but I feel very blessed for the upbringing I had. I had two uncles, Jimmy and Peter, who were dear friends of my mother’s, who would listen to me recite my poetry—I think I was 14 or 15. They were so supportive, appreciative, and encouraging. That’s what my experience was, and so when I started to perform and saw and read in fan letters that my music was not only resonating with a marginalized gay audience but also with young women at the beginning of the women’s movement, I was tremendously touched. For Carole Bayer Sager and I—we were writing partners for a number of years—it gave us a sense that were on solid ground.
Not that you need more gay credibility, but you were also one of Bette Midler’s original Harlettes. How did that transpire?
MM: Barry Manilow and I were jingle singers together, singing together on lots of commercials together and making a living in a very joyful atmosphere. When he told me he was the new musical director for Bette, I had just seen her on Johnny Carson, and as it turned out, I happened to be playing at a club called The Focus, which was just up the street from where she was playing at the Continental Bathhouse, which was a strictly gay club. Barry brought her to see me one evening on her night off, and when we were introduced, I told her how excited I was for her and asked what she was doing next. She told me she was getting ready for her debut at Carnegie Hall, and I said, “Wow, congratulations, and are you gonna be having any background singers?” (Laughs). She said, “I don’t know, would you like to sing in back of me?” I thought, “Actually, I’d like to sing instead of you, but in the meantime…” So Barry and I organized the Harlettes, and I worked with her about six months. It was still the early 1970s, it was pre-AIDS, and it was still very dangerous to be gay, and not only did Bette play to the mainstream, but she spoke directly to a marginalized audience and brought them together. That was spectacular to watch.
Tony Bennett said that once businesspeople start telling artists what to do, art ceases to exist.
MM: That’s exactly right.
At the beginning of your career, the powers that be never seemed to know how to market you. Many times they’d release a single where you either covered another artist or it was something written by hitmakers that was plastic and defined by its time. They’d push your own songs to the back of an album and not release them to radio. Some of those songs have been vindicated by time. Was this frustration unique to you, or do you think this is just part of the push and pull between art and commerce?
MM: I think art versus commerce is always trying to find its sweet spot. And it’s hard because those mostly men who are writing the checks really feel that they have the pulse on the marketplace and know what you should be doing. In my case, I had [my first] two albums out on Bell Records and was absolutely left alone—there was no expectation that I would have a single because in those days, you could still be an album artist and not worry about that single vehicle to break you.
When I was absorbed into Arista, Clive [Davis] had really big plans for me, a big vision for me—not quite the vision that I had. But on that first album [1975’s Melissa] “Midnight Blue” was a big hit, and “Just Too Many People” came from that album, too, so it was pretty organic and reflective of where I was… As the years passed and disco showed up, that really was the gamechanger for the music scene, and I didn’t have the spine to see what would happen if I would continue on the musical track that I was enjoying. It’s not about pointing fingers or blame, [but] once the disco world opened up and music became much more electronic, producers really became the stars of the records because they had much more toys to play with, so the singer could be sort of anonymous.
When I signed on for the adventure of making the Mathematics album [in 1985], I was the least involved and would literally show up to do the vocals because I just didn’t understand the sounds of the tracks. What is ironic for me is that decades later, my students love that album. They find it really youthful; they love the current sound of it, they just love it, and I’m thinkin’, “Really?!”
I went back to listen to it a couple of years ago, and some of the songs are pretty good if you took everything away that sounded like it had too much sugar. So, as an artist, you live in chapters… You keep trying things in order to keep being invited up at-bat. That is why this period [today] of being an independent artist—I am the record company—is so spectacular in that what you hear is really coming from me and the collaboration of real musicians and fellow co-producers where the discussions are very thoughtful, but the final decision is mine!
So many gay men who came of age in the 1980s love Mathematics and were thrilled that you participated in an official CD release a couple years ago. That must feel good.
MM: It’s wonderful, and it makes sense because the sound of that record reflects the sound of those times. It’s worth noting because that moment in musical history was very, very specific. People were really dancing, and electronic elements became a part of the music-making, which continues to this day.
“I’ll never forget when I was sent the CD of Barbra’s final mix”
There’s a song from that album—”Just One Lifetime”—that Barbra Streisand was so fond of she asked you to re-write it with new lyrics for her and ultimately used it as her wedding song. What was that like?
MM: I had heard she was going to be making an album dedicated to her soon-to-be husband, and I thought of “Just One Lifetime.” I had a new demo made of the song, and the feedback I got was she loved the choruses but wasn’t too crazy about the verses, and would I consider re-writing it for her? Nobody had ever given me those kinds of notes, so I went back to my collaborator, Tom Snow, who had written for her before, and said, “Would you consider de-constructing and re-constructing this song for Barbra?” and he said, “I will go once around this pool with you for her, because I’ve rewritten things for her before and it can get…complicated.” I did a little bit of research on [what Barbra was experiencing at the time], and we incorporated it into the lyrics and the new melody.
I’ll never forget when I was sent the CD of her final mix. I brought my late mother into my car—cars always have great sound—and I said, “I’m not gonna tell you what this is except that I wrote it, and let’s listen.” When it was over, we turned to each other, and tears were streaming down her face. It was so, so touching, and to know that Barbra had sung it at her wedding was really lovely. She is one of those voices of light that succeeded against tremendous odds, and she created her own standard, created her own place of power that has endured. I was very honored.
With RE:VIEW, you’ve been releasing one single a month leading up to the album release, and for December, your release was “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” one of your most enduring hits. It was even used in a recent episode of Schitt’s Creek. This new rendition resembles more closely how you perform the song live. How do you feel about the song now that it’s evolved with you?
MM: Well, it’s an unbelievable subtext of this moment. Again, I did not see this coming. One of the things that is very intentional for me in making these videos [for the new singles] is that I have a different position in all of them. In the video for “Midnight Blue,” I am literally having a musical conversation with my younger self. In “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” I am sort of the Greek chorus of this moment. In “Just You and I,” I am paying homage to the frontline workers. In each video, that’s been my goal, to put myself in a different position and use the song to comment differently… At this point, I know how these songs live and breathe because of live performance. I brought what I have learned about that composition and the deep wisdom of that song. I didn’t get it at first, even when I had recorded it, and it was a big hit. It took me forever to realize why it resonates with people. The lyric is so densely packed, and it took me a while to just keep peeling back the layers…
Everything that Carole and I would write was an affirmative statement, talking about using your voice to speak—holding your ground, being affirmative about your being—and all of a sudden, I’m starting a big song with the word “Don’t.” (Laughs) It was making my brain itch! But the truth about that song is that in the end it does speak to what we all have to learn in life, which is to cope, and that’s not easy. People would rather blame other people about their problems. People would rather start wars and [avoid] the responsibility one has to take with one’s own problems… Yes, I’ve brought everything I’ve learned and experienced to this new vocal performance.
The new recording of “Just You and I” is also an ideal song for the moment because of the lyrical message, which has never felt more relevant, and the video you mentioned as a tribute to the frontline workers.
MM: For this new version, I wanted to expand the scope of the song, and so I enlisted these beautiful students from Citrus College, where I’m artist in residence and have been for several years. They’re spectacularly trained students, and on the record, I also use their pop band. They get [college] credit for these performances. When you look at the video, you are seeing the actual students and me in the college. They’re trained with discipline and with love. They opened the sound and the intention of the song, which is what I really wanted. That was really thrilling.
Is the story true that Bob Dylan loved that song so much he asked to play it with you?
MM: Yes. He came to see me at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis many years ago, and that was one of the songs of my set. He came backstage, and he liked that song in particular. He invited me when I came back to California to his home, just to hang out and jam one afternoon. I played with him, and he would play the song on the guitar—it was really something! He has a very interesting existence that I was privy to in that afternoon. It was very interesting to play the song on his upright piano in his home, where he would sing along and harmonize.
“I first came across Dionne Warwick… on the radio. When I was 15”
Dionne Warwick is enjoying a special moment in the spotlight, becoming a Twitter star with a tremendous following, but for you, she’s a good friend, and there’s a long history between you. You’ve written songs for her, and you had an adult contemporary hit covering her classic “Walk On By.” You finally recorded a song together called “The Other End of the Phone” for your 2015 album. It’s not only special because it brought you both together, but it’s also the final lyric by Hal David and one of the last sessions from jazz pianist Joe Sample. What was it like to collaborate with Dionne in a new way?
MM: When I reached out to her and sent her the lyric, she said, “Oh, that’s so Hal, of course, I will be there.” To have all of those great artists be a part of that track… When I first came across Dionne Warwick, of course, I heard her on the radio. When I was 15, my sister, my cousin, and their young husbands at the time took me to the Copacabana to see her, and I wrote her a fan letter, and she responded not four days later, and I still have that letter—it was on beautiful lavender stationery with pink ink, and it was very touching and encouraging. Whenever I see her, it’s a very long and warm embrace.
That album, You Gotta Love the Life, really has such an impressive guest list.
MM: I don’t even know how providence got involved. There were such spectacular artists who wanted to be part of it, and it was not my design—this musician knew this one, and this producer knew that, and suddenly, Joe Sample, like you said, who I’d been trying to work with for 30 years, suddenly I can fly to Houston to work with him. Stevie Wonder called me up in the middle of the night. I was in Florida, and I thought it was a prank! He called me up at two in the morning—which is never a good idea. And he said, “Hey, Melissa, this is Stevie. I hear you’re making an album, can I play on it?” Al Jarreau came in and sang “Big Light” with me, and that was so incredible because the students who were in that studio—engineering students, performing students—they were watching him do what he did, watching music being made out of collaborative discussions. It was just a spectacular moment. At the end of my session with Al, I went into the studio to give him a hug to thank him, and he just held on to me because he was weeping, and he said, “Thank you, just keep doing this for all of us.” On top of that, I wrote a gay wedding song, “You Are My Heart,” for my dear friends Steve and Bill. The moment the Marriage Equality Act was passed, they planned their wedding, and I wrote that for them.
It’s worth noting that Leon Ware, the writer for Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” so enjoyed your cover of the song that he insisted on working with you, but you have also been covered a lot. I’m thinking of the Indigo Girls and Roberta Flack covering your song “There’s Still My Joy,” and so many artists have covered “Come In From the Rain” that you’ve probably lost count. Is it still as special to you as a writer after all these years?
MM: It’s so fantastic. I was raised in an age where that was the conventional wisdom of the American songbook. I feel nothing but honored… it’s so fascinating what people bring to [one of my songs]. It’s the same unexpected gift as when fans reach out to you and tell you what the songs mean—when artists do their interpretation of what the song means to them, it’s just so humbling, honestly.
Anyone who’s reading this should head straight to YouTube to see your collaboration with the Los Angeles Gay Men’s Chorus on your song “A Mother and Father’s Prayer.” How did that collaboration come to pass?
MM: I was contacted by them about the song, and they said we would love to do an arrangement, and would you come and perform it for our Christmas concert? I walked into their rehearsal just to listen to the arrangement, and I was blown away. It was just so beautiful because it was not only the choir that was stunning—they had also arranged it for a small ensemble chamber group in the pit. I was just so moved by the whole experience. At the end, when I turned to face the choir, I said, “Invite me back, please!” and they giggled.
They just used that clip for their Christmas concert this past year, too. I was very honored. It was written as “A Mother’s Prayer,” but then I was performing it once, and afterward a man came up to me and said, “You know, it’s a father’s prayer, too,” and I said, “Boy, right you are!”
You have an optimism that shines through your whole catalog—from songs like “Happy Endings” all the way through recent material like “A Better Rainbow.” It’s a heady optimism that avoids cliches. How have you maintained it through the years? Is it a gift? Has it always been like that?
MM: My one addiction is I am a joy addict. That’s not the same as happiness to me. That’s another thing—if you win the lottery, you’re happy. Joy is an immovable spiritual something that, like light, cannot be extinguished, and it’s on you to choose it. Though my search for joy has been tempered, of course, through the years, my optimism is about finding that which to hold on to. Many times I find that what there is to hold on to is, in fact, inside of me, and making room for my higher power.
You’re approaching a milestone birthday. Has that enriched your feeling of this moment as you RE:VIEW your career? What have you learned?
MM: I have come to realize [that] value and worth on youth and all of that is fine, but life really is a journey. Because I have lived through the AIDS epidemic, and because we are now living through this damn pandemic, the idea of getting older, of aging, or earning and gaining and claiming wisdom, is such a privilege that, for me as an artist, I don’t want my listeners to miss it. If you have aches and pains, that’s the least interesting part of it. It’s how your mind, your heart, and your soul expand to understand the value and the exquisiteness of the journey. That’s part of what I bring with me and move forward with.
I’m grateful that I have overcome stuff. I’m fascinated that I’m still curious and still have a deep artistic hunger… that doesn’t age. It makes me crazy, just like it did when I was 17! (Laughs) Bad and good, there’s something exquisite about the opportunity to live.