"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 Harletts) 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.
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
You are mostly known for ballads, but your last really 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.
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
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
Yes. I'm collecting songs. With this new
relationship with Sony, hopefully there will be a future there. That would
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
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
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.