MELANIE SAFKA (1947 – 2024)

Melanie at the Isle of Wight Festival, 1970


Melanie, the folk singer who emerged from Woodstock to become a pioneer of the artist-owned label, died Tuesday (1/23). She was 76.

Born Melanie Safka, she was best known for the hits “Brand New Key” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” She was also one of the first artists to create and run their own label to retain control of their work. Her first release on her Neighborhood Records, founded in 1971, was also her biggest hit—“Brand New Key”—which went to #1 in 1972.

A native of Astoria, Queens, she got her start in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village, which led to her signing with Buddah Records and scoring hits in Europe such as “Bobo’s Party” and “Beautiful People.” After her appearance at Woodstock, she wrote and released the gospel-influenced “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).” The song, inspired by what she saw from the stage, peaked at #6.

Melanie left Buddah after being asked to produce albums on demand—the label released three of her LPs in less than three years and one after she left. With her husband, Peter Schekeryk, she founded Neighborhood and released her fifth album, Gather Me, which went to #15. It included “Brand New Key,” which would sell 3m copies.

Melanie released a half-dozen albums on Neighborhood before going through other indie outlets. At the time of her death the L.A.-based Cleopatra label was working with her on reissuing her post-Buddah catalog.

In 1989 she won an Emmy for her lyrics to “The First Time I Loved Forever,” the theme to the TV series Beauty and the Beast.

She’d recently been collaborating musically with her son, Beau-Jarred Schekeryk, and daughters Leilah and Jeordie and was working on a set of covers that included songs by Morrissey, David Bowie and Radiohead.

“She was one of the most talented, strong and passionate women of the era, and every word she wrote, every note she sang reflected that,” Melanie’s children wrote in a joint statement posted to Facebook. “Our world is much dimmer, the colors of a dreary, rainy Tennessee pale with her absence today, but we know that she is still here, smiling down on all of us, on all of you, from the stars.”


MELANIE SAFKA (1947 – 2024)
The saddest news reached me today of the death of one of the great and beloved stars of the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival: Melanie Safa, a personal favourite we booked for the event. We met again at the 40-year anniversary event in 2010. For those not familiar with what I wrote about Melanie’s presence at the 1970 Festival, I reproduce the whole section here:
“Melanie had been on site since Friday afternoon, after flying down from Stapleford Airfield with Tiny Tim and Tony Joe White. All through that afternoon and evening until daybreak on Saturday she had waited to go on. Stuck in what she described as a “Fume-filled trailer,” she was becoming more and more jittery. She could have followed Cactus but then decided to quit the festival. “At five in the morning I was so tensed-up that I freaked. I was rushed over to my hotel to recover and enjoyed a brilliant sun-rise filling my room.”
Later in the morning her manager persuaded her to cancel a booking in Holland and return to site – in order to go on later in the day.
Back on site she found a smiling young man hanging out in her trailer. Though his face was vaguely familiar she did not give it a second thought, coming to the conclusion that he must be one of the stage crew. As the hours slowly dragged by he took it upon himself to become Melanie’s self-appointed valet and court jester. “All the time he kept on fussing over me, asking if I was all right and did I want any tea, milk . . . my wish being his command. Suddenly, the door burst open and in jumped Murray Roman and immediately they went into an hilarious comedy routine.” Within minutes, she was in fits of hysterical laughter, rolling around clutching her sides. “I can’t begin to tell you how much that cheered me up, and then they were gone. . . I nearly died when I found out, but I didn’t let on to the fact that I hadn’t recognised him. You know, he really extended his warmth to me, knowing that I’d had such a hard weekend.”
Keith Moon was not the only friend Melanie made backstage. Some of the time was also spent in Donovan’s gay caravan. As the afternoon show progressed, her position in the running order was being put further and further back. By evening it was becoming clear that she was going to be the one that followed the Who, and this was less than appealing. Her own recollection is that she saved Jim Morrison’s skin by relieving him of the job. With a slightly different interpretation on the backstage manoeuvrings that evening, Melanie recalls, “I had to follow the Who’s premiere[sic] performance of Tommy. Nobody wanted to do it. Jim Morrison from The Doors turned it down. I don’t know how I got it. I was the path of least resistance, I guess.”
Having helped land Melanie in this spot, Keith Moon at least did the decent thing by introducing her to the audience – using his considerable cred to show that she was cool. Before that happened, however, Melanie needed some persuasion to go on – even though she had had the experience of playing a couple of songs at Woodstock a year earlier.
Electrician, Chris Weston, at the back of the stage had watched Melanie’s difficulties with interest. “I was up on stage at the end of the Who’s act and Melanie stood close by. They had four ‘super brutes’ and some ‘mini brutes’, brought in by Mole–Richardson, the film hire people. Their red generator trucks were parked up backstage to power them. I thought these lights were Second World War searchlights. They were lit by arcs striking across carbon rods, just lasting for a couple of minutes before the rods were burned out. Anyhow, when they came on, the arena which had been black, was suddenly lit up like it was midday and there was an ocean of faces all the way to the horizon. Melanie saw this and her jaw dropped. She fled the stage, terrified. Minutes later I found her in tears in our electricity office below the stage. There were people trying to console her because she was refusing to go on. Before I knew it Keith Moon was also there talking her round. She eventually agreed she would do it, but only if the stage lighting could be set up in a special way. Keith went off to see what he could arrange – but by the time Melanie started it was nearly daylight anyway.”
Moon tried his best but the lighting crews, like everyone else had gone to catch some shut-eye, after two consecutive all-night sessions. For some reason, only a few yellow spotlights remained in place, and to Melanie’s dismay there was no time or crew to reset them. “So there I was in this pukey yellow, with all [Sly Stone’s] equipment lit up behind me. It was so late that even the guy who was filming me was keeling over with sleep in his eyes.”
While the Who’s drummer had spent some time with Melanie during the many long hours of waiting, it was not just that they became friends. Moon had befriended her, and at the most difficult of times. As a nervous performer abroad, thoroughly messed around by our stage production, Melanie was soon to face the massive audience all on her lonesome. “He realised my situation and helped to break the ice. It was dawn. The Who had played throughout the night. There was a friendly atmosphere but the audience were finished. They had just seen Tommy – Roger Daltrey in his prime. Here I was, with just my guitar and my voice.
Going on at dawn, with the sunrise facing the stage – just as playing at sunset (as Miles Davis had done, seeming like eons ago) had the sun behind – was a choice moment for a performer, even if an unusual time of day for rock ’n’ roll. Little wonder Sly Stone wanted to buy the slot. Keith Moon did his best to warm up the sleepy audience, warning them to be “Fucking nice to her.” Melanie came out alone, with just her guitar, sat down, clearly nervous and appeared vulnerable with her long, straight brown hair, large doe eyes and massive black eye lashes. She began gently with ‘I’m Back in Town’ and worked through a clutch of songs from her two albums.
Personally, she was very pleased with the set. “I started to sing. . . The dawn was coming and the sun was rising. Little by little, I see heads popping up. I woke everybody up! I played one of my best concerts.”
Melanie’s voice was undoubtedly one of the most distinctive at the entire festival – as pure and clear as crystal, ringing powerfully and tunefully with just the hint of a quiver. When she got to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ it was almost a cappella, with the evocative piercing words, eerily penetrating the hazy dawn. For me, it was the spine-tingling moment of the event – especially moved by this very particular rendering – so familiar from the previous summer, when in that same voice, the Dylan standard reverberated around the Middle Earth Club during the intervals.
The set concluded with several standing ovations. Music Now reported that she was ‘clearly touched’ by her reception. Andy Dunkley dedicated a record to her as she finally left the stage: “She’s A Lady.”
Melanie returned to the Island forty years later to celebrate the anniversary, performing at the 2010 Isle of Wight Festival. When in 1970 she had woven her way through ‘What Have They Done to My Song Ma’, tears of happiness were evident as she ever so slightly welled-up. In 2010, as she sang the same song again, a gentleman in the audience, from the seventies generation, could be seen wiping tears from his eyes. Melanie said of 1970, “I do know that it was a real success, and after that my career broke open in England and all of Europe.”
Ray Foulk, The Last Great Event, Medina, 2016




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One Response to MELANIE SAFKA (1947 – 2024)

    1. Wonderful tribute…sadly missed, have all her vinyl…One Love

      Comment by john soltys on 28 January, 2024 at 9:01 pm

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