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Woodstock Legend Melanie Safka, Dead at 76

originally published: 01/24/2024

Woodstock Legend Melanie Safka, Dead at 76

Melanie Safka, the "Uncrowned Queen of Woodstock" and one of the most significant and successful singer-songwriters of the 1970s, passed away on January 23, 2024.  The artist attended high schools in New Jersey and still has relatives in the area. She was 76.

Born in Astoria, New York on February 3, 1947, Melanie studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, while simultaneously pursuing a singing career around the coffee houses and folk clubs of Greenwich Village.

Influenced of course by the folk scene of the day, but also from as far afield as Edith Piaf, Kurt & Weill, jazz singer Blossom Dearie and her own mother Polly, herself a jazz singer, Melanie immediately caused a stir, a waif-like figure capable of unleashing a voice like a steamroller.

It was while attending an audition for a role in a dramatic production of the folk song “Barbara Allen” in 1967 that Melanie met Peter Schekeryk, who became her manager, producer and the following year, her husband.  Initially intrigued, and then entranced by her songs and her distinctly unconventional approach to them, he introduced her to his employers, the production company Hugo and Luigi and Melanie made her recorded debut as backing vocalist on one of her own compositions, girl group Mommy’s recording of “Love In My Mind.”

Melanie joined Columbia Records later that year, releasing two singles - the signature “Beautiful People” and “Garden In The City” - before label head Clive Davis’s refusal to green light an album saw her depart and, in October 1968, sign with Buddah Records.  Her debut album was released just two months later, but it was her appearance at Woodstock in August 1969 that heralded her breakthrough, taking the stage all but unannounced and completely unknown, but sweeping all before her.



 
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The experience inspired Melanie’s first US hit, 1970’s “Candles in The Rain,” recorded with the Edwin Hawkins Singers.  By that time, however, she had already scored hits in France, the Netherlands and Germany, markets which remained loyal throughout the remainder of her life - her final tour, in late 2022, took her back to the Netherlands.

Further hits followed, including “Peace Will Come,” “What Have They Done To My Song Ma,” “The Nickel Song,” and a raw cover of the Rolling Stones’s “Ruby Tuesday,” while Melanie was also in demand as a songwriter, receiving covers from the New Seekers, Ray Charles, Cissy Houston and even UK rockers Mott The Hoople. Since that time, some 200 different artists have recorded or otherwise revisited Melanie’s songs, including Billie Joe Spears, Nina Simone, Dead or Alive, Miley Cyrus, Alison Moyet, Morrissey, Queen Latifah and Kanye West.

Melanie’s star continued ascending. She was a regular on the festival circuit, performing at the Isle of Wight in 1970 and Glastonbury the following year. She was offered a role playing opposite Jim Morrison in a projected rock version of Othello and, in 1971, Billboard proclaimed her the year’s biggest selling female artist in the United States.

Growing frustration with Buddah’s marketing of her as “a cute little hippy girl,” however, saw Melanie break from the company to form her own Neighborhood Records - the first female-owned independent label in rock history.

“Brand New Key,” her first single for Neighborhood, topped charts across the world, including the United States; the accompanying Gather Me album, too, was a major hit.  Both evidenced Melanie’s own dissatisfaction with the manner in which her music had been marketed in the past; both also demonstrated her deliberate withdrawal from the spotlight.

A follower of Meher Baba and lifelong advocate for world peace, 1972 saw Melanie make headlines when she placed her own career on hold to act as a spokesperson for UNICEF. The following year, she scrapped her projected next album when she opted instead to devote the time to her newborn daughter Leilah.

Coupled with albums of growing musical and lyrical intensity and complexity, such actions were seldom popular within the music industry. Early drafts of Melanie’s projected autobiography Naked include numerous examples of the obstacles with which she was confronted over the years. Her songwriting, too, is littered with her own take on the pitfalls that awaited women in the music industry in the sixties and 1970s - and which, she said recently, “still haven’t gone away. Not really.”



 
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Melanie was an avid supporter, too, of naturopathy, vegetarianism and nature - published last year, her memoir Lake Days was a unique meditation on water, nature and a childhood spent reveling in the freedoms of both.

Content with being mistress of her own musical destiny, Melanie remained an independent artist for much of her career, creating such remarkable albums as Ballroom Streets (1978), Arabesque (1982), Am I Real Or What (1985), Precious Cargo (1991), Old Bitch Warrior (1995) and Ever Since You Never Heard Of Me (2010).

Melanie’s studio output slowed following the unexpected death of husband Peter in 2010. However, with their multi-instrumentalist son Beau Jarred well trained as a producer and arranger by his father, and daughters Leilah and Jeordie frequently accompanying her, Melanie continued playing live, recording, and regularly producing home concert specials for the delight of her vast internet audience.

In early January 2024, just weeks before her final illness, Melanie recorded a version of Morrissey’s “Ouija Board Ouija Board” for an upcoming tribute album; and Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” for what would have been her 32nd studio album, a collection of covers tentatively titled Second Hand Smoke.

Among the other songs scheduled for the record, Radiohead’s “Creep,” the Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin” and Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” all testified to Melanie’s career-long willingness to step out of line with her image. Poignantly, one of the final songs added to the running order was David Bowie’s “Everyone Says Hi.”

Even more significantly, a newly-inked deal with Los Angeles-based Cleopatra Records brought her entire post-Buddah career under one roof for the first time ever.  Until the end, she was excitedly anticipating the full scale reissue program that is already underway with the appearance of her 1984 live album One Night Only. This long-overdue project will continue under the joint supervision of her children Leilah, Jeordie and Beau Jarred.  Melanie’s legacy is in safe hands.

Melanie Safka - February 3, 1947 - January 23, 2024


 

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