Melanie Anne Safka-Schekeryk (born February 3, 1947) is an American singer-songwriter. Known professionally as Melanie, she is best known for her hits “Brand New Key”, “Ruby Tuesday”, “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma”, and her song about performing at the 1969 Woodstock Music Festival, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”.
Melanie was born and raised in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York City. Her father, Fred, was of a Ukrainian ethnic background and her jazz singer mother, Pauline “Polly” Altomare Safka-Bertolo (1926-2003), was of Italian heritage. Melanie made her first public singing appearance at age four on the radio show Live Like A Millionaire, performing the song “Gimme a Little Kiss”. She attended Red Bank High School in Red Bank, New Jersey, after transferring from Long Branch High School, graduating in 1964.
In the 1960s, when she was starting out, Melanie performed at The Inkwell, a coffee house in the West End section of Long Branch, New Jersey. After school, her parents insisted that she go to college, so she studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where she began singing in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village and signed her first recording contract.
Initially signed to Columbia Records in the United States, Melanie released two singles on the label. Subsequently she signed with Buddah Records and first found chart success in Europe in 1969 with “Bobo’s Party” which reached Number 1 in France. Her debut album received positive reviews from Billboard which heralded her voice as “wise beyond her years. Her non-conformist approach to the selections on this LP make her a new talent to be reckoned with.”
Later in 1969, Melanie had a hit in the Netherlands with “Beautiful People”. She also performed at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and the inspiration for her first hit song, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)”, apparently arose from the Woodstock audience lighting candles during her set (although most of the “candles” were actually matches or lighters). The recording became a hit in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States in 1970. The B-side of the single featured Melanie’s spoken-word track “Candles in the Rain”. “Lay Down” became Melanie’s first Top Ten hit in America, peaking at Number 6 on the Billboard singles chart and achieving worldwide success. Later hits included “Peace Will Come (According To Plan)” and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday”.
Melanie on the “Mr Softee” free stage
In 1970, Melanie was the only artist to ignore the court injunction banning the Powder Ridge Rock Festival, playing for the crowd on a homemade stage powered by Mister Softee trucks. Shortly following this performance, she played at the Strawberry Fields Festival held from August 7 to 9, 1970, at Mosport Park, Ontario. She also performed at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 where she was introduced by Keith Moon and received four standing ovations (she also appeared at the 2010 Isle of Wight festival). She was also the artist who sang to herald in the summer solstice at Glastonbury Fayre (later the Glastonbury Festival) in England in June 1971. She performed again at Glastonbury in 2011, the 40th anniversary of the original festival.
She left Buddah Records when they insisted that she produce albums on demand. In 1971 she formed her own label, Neighborhood Records, with Peter Schekeryk, who was also her producer and, later, her husband. She had her biggest American hit on the Neighborhood label, the novelty-sounding 1972 number one “Brand New Key” (often referred to as “The Roller Skate Song”). “Brand New Key” sold over three million copies worldwide and was featured in the 1997 movie Boogie Nights.
When first released, “Brand New Key” was banned by some radio stations because some heard sexual innuendo in the lyrics. Melanie has acknowledged the possibility of reading an unintended sexual innuendo in the song, stating, “I wrote [Brand New Key] in about fifteen minutes one night. I thought it was cute; a kind of old thirties tune. I guess a key and a lock have always been Freudian symbols, and pretty obvious ones at that. There was no deep serious expression behind the song, but people read things into it. They made up incredible stories as to what the lyrics said and what the song meant. In some places, it was even banned from the radio […] My idea about songs is that once you write them, you have very little say in their life afterward […] People will take it any way they want to take it.”
The follow-up single to “Brand New Key” was “Ring the Living Bell”. To compete with this release, Melanie’s former record company released “The Nickel Song”, which she had recorded while still signed to Buddah Records. Both songs were simultaneous Top 40 hits while “Brand New Key” was still on the charts – setting a record for the first female performer to have three Top 40 hits concurrently. She was awarded Billboard’s No. 1 Top Female Vocalist award for 1972. She has been awarded two gold albums (and a gold single for “Brand New Key”) and three of her compositions were hits for The New Seekers. She is also well known for her musical adaptations of children’s songs, including “Alexander Beetle” and “Christopher Robin”. When she became an official UNICEF ambassador in 1972, she agreed to forgo a world tour in favor of raising money for the organization.
Melanie had another Top 40 hit single in 1973 with “Bitter Bad”, a song that marked a slight departure from the hippie sentiments of earlier hits (with lyrics such as “If you do me wrong I’ll put your first and last name in my rock n’ roll song”). Other chart hits during this period were the self-penned “Together Alone” and a cover of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”. In 1973, Melanie started to retreat from the spotlight to begin a family.