Melanie, the folk singer best known for the hits “Brand New Key” and “Look What They’ve Done to My Song,” early on possessed a knack for being in the right place at the right time. While lost in New York’s famous Brill Building looking for a theatrical audition, she ended up in the offices of a songwriting team. That didn’t work out, but it was there she met Peter Schekeryk, who became her manager, producer and husband.
Without him, there would have been no Melanie, she recalled in a recent telephone interview.
“I was so introverted, and he would say to me, ‘Melanie, you don’t know who you are.’ He was the man that got me out there.”
Tragically, Schekeryk died of a sudden heart attack in 2010.
The chain of events that led to her career-defining appearance at Woodstock in August 1969 is another charmed story. She worked in the same office building as festival promoters Michael Lang and Artie Kornfeld. When she heard about their plans for three days of peace and music, she wanted to play.
“I pictured kindred spirits coming together, although I did think it was a bad time of year because it always rains,” she remembers. “What were they thinking?”
Hard at work on a film score in England during the days leading up to the event, she almost bowed out.
“I was with the London Philharmonic and the next studio over was the Rolling Stones,” she says. “I didn’t know if I would even do it, but Peter told me to go and he would stay there.
By the time she got to Woodstock, on a tumultuous trip with wrong directions, Janis Joplin swilling Southern Comfort from a bottle and a helicopter ride, she was on the threshold of a life-changing experience.
But literally for hours, she stood just offstage, her guitar in hand, waiting to be called to perform.
“Every hour or so somebody would come up and say, ‘You’re on next,’ and then someone would jump in and say never mind,” she recalls. Naturally shy and introverted despite her chosen profession, “I became terrified and developed this deep bronchial cough, thinking I couldn’t possibly go on stage the size of a football field in front of all these people. When it started to rain, I thought everybody would go home.”
Instead, she was finally summoned to the spotlight as night fell and a few hundred thousand people lit candles. The experience overwhelmed her.
“I actually had an out-of-body experience going on stage at Woodstock,” she remembers. “I watched myself go on, I saw everything without any emotional drama.”
Pete Fornatale wrote in his book, Back To The Garden, “If someone had been commissioned to write a song about the audience at Woodstock, they might very well have called it ‘Beautiful People.’ But the fact is that a song with that title already existed … written by Melanie Safka.”
As she launched into the minor radio hit, Melanie says, “I came back … into my own body.”
The power of the moment, rain falling gently on a sea of tiny flickering lights, the warm embrace of her music — “I went onstage absolutely unknown except for a tiny Village buzz, and walked off a celebrity” — crystallized into the breakthrough hit “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” Melanie began writing immediately after her set ended.
Along with the imagery for the song, one of the first things she came up with was a gospel chorus that she thought would be perfect for The Edwin Hawkins Singers, who then had a hit with “Oh, Happy Day” and were on her record label. But getting the group to sign on wasn’t easy — they initially responded by asking if Jesus was in it.
“I had to really do some convincing,” says Melanie, who flew out to a rehearsal space in an Oakland, Calif., gymnasium to plead her case. When she sang the part she’d written for them — “lay down, lay down, lay it all down; let your white bird smile up at the ones who sit and frown” — it won them over. “Peter was with me, and while the spark was hot, we went right into the studio with them that night.”
The song, she says with a laugh, links her “forever with the lighting of things … that became the thing to do at a Melanie show.” She understands why more than a few fire marshals forbade her from singing it. “People don’t like their theaters burning down.”
Melanie’s personal serendipity extended to her songs when “Lay Down” helped make a Vietnam War miracle possible. Unknown to many fans, there’s a seldom-heard extended cut of the song.
“A captain in a helicopter platoon got lost behind enemy lines,” she explains. “They were following this radio signal that happened to be playing the eight-minute version of ‘Candles in the Rain’ — and because of that, their lives were saved.”
The grateful pilot named his first-born daughter Melanie; recently he brought the now full-grown woman to one of the folksinger’s shows for a tearful introduction.
“You never know how a song is going to lead its way into somebody’s life,” says Melanie. “It’s remarkable.”