One-on-One with singer/songwriter Melissa Manchester: Saluting ‘The Fellas’

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Melissa Manchester made it big in the ‘70s and ‘80s with such hits as “Midnight Blue,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” for which she won a Grammy. Manchester also made her mark as a songwriter. She and Carole Bayer Sager co-wrote “Midnight Blue” and also “Come in from the Rain,” which has been covered by such artists as Captain & Tennille, Diana Ross and Jane Olivor. Manchester and Kenny Loggins co-wrote “Whenever I Call You ‘Friend’,” which Loggins recorded with Stevie Nicks.

Melissa with the late jazz star Al Jarreau. “I love melody and I love beautifully crafted lyrics,” she says.

In September, Manchester released a new album, The Fellas, in which she salutes male singers she admires, including Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. It’s a sequel of sorts to her 1989 album, Tribute, in which she paid homage to female singers who had inspired her.

Manchester, 67, will perform songs from the new album as well as her hits at four upcoming shows in the Los Angeles area.

She spoke with The Tolucan Times by phone as she was preparing for a benefit performance.

You and Barry Manilow and Bette Midler started out together in the early ‘70s. Can you give me the thumbnail version of how you came to meet them?

Barry and I were jingle singers (in Manhattan). That’s how he and I met. Around that time (1971), he became Bette’s musical director. He brought her over to the club that I was playing on the Upper West Side called The Focus. She had just been on the Johnny Carson show. She was getting ready for Carnegie Hall. I asked her if she was going to have backup singers. She asked me, ‘Would you like to sing in back of me?’ And I thought to myself, ‘Well, actually I’d like to sing instead of you, but as it turned out, Barry and I created what became (Midler’s famed backing trio) The Harlettes. I worked for her for six months and then I went on my merry way.

Your new album, The Fellas, is a companion piece to your 1989 album, Tribute. It’s an obvious follow-up idea. Had you always hoped to get a chance to do it?

The second that I was done recording Tribute, I knew that I wanted to do The Fellas, but there was no one in my circle saying, ‘Yes, we need more big band music in the time of pop and dance music.’ The Fellas really was a gift that fell out of the sky, given to me by the retired dean of Citrus College, Bob Slack. Citrus is a community college (in Glendora). We recorded it in this enormous, gorgeous studio that they have. We used their fantastic (40-piece) Blue Note Orchestra, which is made up of students, alumni and professors.

You and Barry duet on “For Me and My Gal” in a tribute to Judy Garland and Gene Kelly. That must have been fun to do. Is it fair to say that Judy is your favorite singer?

Judy and Ella (Fitzgerald) are my two musical godmothers. They absolutely fulfill two parts of my soul. For Barry, it’s always Judy Garland. The commonality of our frame of reference makes working together just joyful.

You came up in the singer/songwriter era of the ‘70s. Have you ever thought about how you’d fit in if you had come along a generation earlier or later?

That’s a really interesting question. I was never a rock singer. I was never comfortable using my voice in that way. I love melody and I love beautifully crafted lyrics. A generation earlier, I may have tried to take a stab at being a kind of female Sinatra singer. And a generation later, well, I wouldn’t have wanted to be part of a generation later. I’m really grateful that I showed up when I did…I don’t pine for the good old days. I knew the value of them.

You were just 24 when “Midnight Blue” became your first top 10 hit. It really holds up. It’s 43 years old, but it doesn’t sound at all dated.

Thank you. I have a particularly tender spot for that song. When I sing it, I’m always amazed how wise Carole Sager and I were at that very young age.

“You Should Hear How She Talks about You” (1982) was your biggest chart hit and the song that brought you a Grammy. How does it hold up compared to your other songs when you perform it in concert?

Well, it gives me a great opportunity to laugh along with the audience. It’s a well-structured song (written) by my dear friends Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford. It was an unlikely hit for me because I was known mostly as a balladeer. I stopped doing it (in my concerts) for a while because I thought to myself, ‘Man, I can’t grow old with this song; with this beat. It’s too juvenile.’ But at this point, I am in good enough humor to laugh at myself. So it’s a lot of fun to perform it with videos of those times. The audience remembers it and they laugh. It’s great fun.

It was a trendy record that captured that era, in the same way that Kim Carnes’ “Bette Davis Eyes” did the previous year, but your other songs are more timeless and, if I may say, have aged better.

Thank you. I agree.

You’ve had a—what is it now—47-year career. How have you been managed to survive in this business?

By learning humility and gratitude for all of the lessons, soft and hard, because at some point you’re not the new kid on the block. At some point people stop calling you for record contracts or whatever and you have to really commit to the hunger that never changes. My heart is as hungry as it was when I was 17 and just starting. But I know more. And what I know more about is using my hard-earned wisdom to navigate the shifting waters of a career. There are ups and downs, and when there are downs, sometimes the downs are there for you to rest before the ups show up again.

Manchester will play Friday, April 6 at The Rose in Pasadena; Saturday, April 7 at Canyon Club in Agoura Hills; and Friday, April 13 at Canyon Club in Santa Clarita.

Paul Grein writes regularly about pop music for such outlets as Yahoo.com and HitsDailyDouble.com. He wrote the liner notes for Manchester’s 1997 collection, “The Essence of Melissa Manchester.”

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Paul Grein writes regularly about pop music for such outlets as Yahoo.com and HitsDailyDouble.com. He has written liner notes for two Burt Bacharach collections.

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