Monday, April 06, 2015

Melissa Manchester, Singer and Songwriter: Home to Herself

 "I don't have the soul of Joni," Melissa Manchester sang in 1973, but none of the anger or angst, either.  For spirited, intelligent, fun music with a healthy outlook, Manchester still stands out from other singer-songwriters.  Although she had her greatest commercial successes in the late-70s and 80s, and though I've checked in on her career every few years since then, right up to her new release You've Gotta Love the Life, it's the earlier stuff that sticks with me.  Hardly a week goes by when this introverted middle-aged man doesn't sing lines she wrote:  "It's not so bad all alone, coming home to myself" (words by Carole Bayer Sager) or "I've got a place in me / And I have to be there / Alone" (words by Adrienne Anderson).

In 1973, I was fourteen, crazy for Carly Simon and Bette Midler, ready to risk my Record-of-the-Month-Club bonus points for a cassette called "Home to Myself" knowing only that Melissa Manchester had been one of "the Harlettes," The Divine Miss M's back-up singers.  For a good high school freshman like me, she seemed exotic and dangerous. In the cover photograph, she reclined in a low-cut gypsy blouse on a bed of Persian carpets, one shoulder and one eyebrow raised, giving me the kind of disdainful once-over I'd received from some older girls.  Then, she growled the first words of the album, "I don't know why you're here, / You like the way I move," but, "If it feels good, let it ride... I don't want to spend all day on what may come tomorrow."  In the next song,  Manchester coos, "If you want me, you can have me. / ...That's why they call me 'easy.'"  This was a girl with an attitude that my mom would not approve.

In her music, too, Melissa Manchester stepped out of bounds.  The songs of her first album, mostly written with lyricist Carole Bayer Sager, seemed to blend into a suite of dramatic arias for a young woman who invites a handsome stranger up to "stay at my place, / I have music that's mingled with lace," ready to skip introductions to just "start off with hello."  What starts a cappella moves into hard-driving rock with gospel organ in the background, then comes to a sudden halt for steady piano chords played pensively under an inchoate little lyric, "Pick up the good stuff, if you left it outside...."  Bits of songs and accompaniment return to other tracks, one phrase transformed into jagged counterpoint played by a string quartet.

[Photo at piano: M.M. as I remember seeing her.]
In the opening song to her second album Bright Eyes, we hear four distinctive riffs on the piano, when most pop songs are lucky to have just one.  The rest of that album could be a set for a jazz vocalist, including a couple of slow-swinging one-o'clock ballads, an uptempo Latin number, and a bad girl's gospel song, along with a standard by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin, "I Can't Get Started."  At age fifteen, I was carded and almost denied access to see her perform this set live at a dive called "The Great Southeast Music Hall" in Atlanta, until the management decided I wasn't much of a risk for consuming illegal substances when I wailed, "I've been planning to see her for six months!"    

From a later album called Tribute, we know what singers influenced her before she joined the cohort of soft-rock singer-songwriters.  In those first two albums, she belts sustained high notes like Streisand, she's by turns brassy and coy as Judy Garland, and, like her models Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald (with whom she once shared a commercial -- "Is it Ella, or is it Memorex?"), she rarely takes the straight path between one note and the next..

After she found commercial success with a gentle ballad, "Midnight Blue," from her third album, her voice hewed closely to the melody as written, over homogenized arrangements, with steady rhythm tracks, overlaid with strings.  Hearing her later albums, I have a feeling that she's like a sports car stuck in traffic: there's a lot more under the hood than she's getting to show. 

I confirmed this once about fifteen years ago, when I met her backstage after a varied and delightful show in a casino in Tunica, Mississippi.   A friend of the editor of Tunica's entertainment magazine, I tagged along as "photographer" for an interview with the star.  I had the opportunity to express gratitude for her anthems of introversion "Home to Myself" and "Alone," and to remind her of an incredible bit of virtuosity she had displayed on a Boston Pops broadcast, when she sang Gershwin's tricky "Fascinating Rhythm" while simultaneously playing "Rhapsody in Blue" on the grand piano.

What I recall most about her, though, was her attitude towards "the life."  She was proud to have been happily married to one man all her career. She told how her teenaged son had suddenly understood how big a star his mom had been in the 80s -- hit records, appearance on "The Muppet Show," attention from the Grammies and the Oscars -- and had hinted that he wouldn't mind if she wanted to become famous again. But she preferred to be able to wear the glittery gowns for a concert in the heartland one day, and shop in jeans at the local grocery store the next.  She had friends stuck in mansions behind gates, and that, she said, was no way to live.

At that time, she was branching out as a songwriter, doing scores for Disney made-for-video animations (Lady and the Tramp II, Finding Nemo II, etc.) and for an off-Broadway musical.  On her website, she's in a photo standing next to master Broadway composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim.

She had one other salutary effect on my life, early on.   Once I'd seen her live, I was sorely disappointed to see her on The Mike Douglas Show, lip-synching to the commercial recording of her hit "Midnight Blue."  I felt embarrassed on her behalf.  Formerly addicted to TV, I was cured.

1 comment:

SkiCitrusSoda said...

I know it's been awhile since you posted your thoughts on Ms. Manchester but I just discovered them now. Your thoughts on her music parallel my own. I first discovered her on a network special called Good Vibrations '72, IIRC, in the summer of '72. The show had various artists from some outdoor music festival. Ms. Manchester was first up, playing (If It Feels Good) Let it Ride. I thought "I've got to hear more of this." Then Home To Myself came out the following year, and I got it from the Columbia Record Club (wow, do I feel old). It really is her best, IMHO. I agree with you about the earlier stuff being her best. I don't begrudge her any of her later success--just wish she could have had a big hit from one of her first two albums and continued in that vein. You Should Hear How She Talks About You is sort of in the spirit of her first album, though. Really like your sports car analogy. Thanks for posting. --John