By Carol Anne Szel
She won a Grammy in 1982, she also received the Governors Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and she is an adjunct professor at the USC Thornton School of Music.
And these days at least, she’s all about “The Fellas.”
Melissa Manchester has indeed just released a new record entitled “The Fellas,” which she recorded in only two weeks with an all-academic orchestra, enlisting tributes to such musical greats as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and more. A companion to her 1989 album “Tribute” which honored the great female singers who influenced her, “The Fellas” features “For Me and My Gal,” a duet and video with longtime friend Barry Manilow, and is accompanied by a video. Manilow and Manchester were young jingle singers in NYC trying to break into the big time when they first met; and it was Manilow who introduced her to Bette Midler, whom recruited Melissa to a position as a founding member of Bette’s Harlettes.
In 1980 she had hits with “Through the Eyes of Love” (from the movie "Ice Castles") and “I’ll Never Say Goodbye” (from the film "The Promise"). Two years later she won her Grammy for “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” for which she took home the award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
GM: I’m so in love with the new release! Why did you decide to do this at this time?
MM: Well I’ve been waiting decades to do this album. This is the completion of an idea that started in 1989 with an album that I recorded called “Tribute,” which was a tribute to some of the great women singers. And I always wanted to do a follow up to that called “The Fellas,” and it wasn’t until I became artist-in-residence at Citrus College and started to forge a wonderful relationship with not only the school and students but the dean of audio arts, Dean Bob Slack. I had been invited for a couple of years to perform with their Blue Note Orchestra, which is their student orchestra made up of students and alum and some professors. And we would do concerts in Hawaii where they do their senior projects. And it’s just unbelievable. So after the last time we were there they said can you think of a project that would enlist the Blue Note Orchestra. And I said it’s funny you should ask. So I told him about my idea and within a half an hour it was a done deal.
So we went in and recorded eight tracks in one day, which was astounding. I’ve never recorded eight tracks of anything in one day. They were just rehearsed and magnificent and exquisite and there you have it. A dream come true.
GM: “Tribute” was a great release also.
MM: Yes, thank you. Well that was an unusual project for those times in the '80s. Not many people were looking back musically. It was a magnificent adventure.
GM: How did you pick the songs for “The Fellas”?
MM: Well, as you can imagine, each magnificent singer has 40-50 songs to choose from. And so I had to see, in my opinion, what would capture their career in song. In those days a singer would usually sing a song that was written for them or a song that had been recorded many, many times because it had been established as a standard. You know for instance Sinatra had recorded “Night and Day” so many times and in so many ways that it really sort of spanned the length of his career. And for Mel Tormé, you know he was the king of scat, so I wanted to pay homage to him by including one of his tour-de-force scats that had never been orchestrated before. A very simple song called “Love Is Just Around the Corner,” but it’s fierce. It’s a fierce tour-de-force. So that was fun. That’s how I did it. I figured out songs that would capture either the dignity or the elegance or the cheekiness or the fun or the swing of each performer.
GM: With “Fellas” you’ve brought the classics back into the modern generation.
MM: Yes, well because I was able to do this with the Blue Note Orchestra, you know to have the kids play these charts from an age they were not a part of. And to have them play with an expectation of excellence and to represent the songs on this arrangement with excellence, was just fantastic. They were so excited to be part of this adventure and so the experience of recording this and educating the kids is really a two-way street. It’s just beautiful. You know this is a community college in Glendora, California. And most of them are first generation college graduates. And it’s really thrilling to offer this to them, and for them to offer me their excellence in musicianship.
GM: Which ones meant the most to you, and how did they influence you?
MM: Well, they all meant the most to me because this was the dinner hour music that was on the radio when I was growing up in New York. My folks used to turn on WNEW and there was a disc jockey on the air there by the name of William B. Williams who actually coined the phrase ‘Chairman of the Board’ for Frank Sinatra, for instance. So, these singers are the singers I was raised on. And there was such excellence, not only in the singers but for the songwriter’s who wrote for their voices. This was prior to the singer-songwriter phase that I was a part of in the '70s. And so, to sing songs with such fantastic construction and fantastic lyrical and melodic ideas, it’s just a platinum standard. So it was really thrilling.
The song that meant the most to me I suppose was Johnny Hartman because most people don’t know of him. He had a very brief career and he died very young. But he made this exceptional album with the great jazz artist John Coltrane. And one of the songs he sang on it was Irving Berlin’s “It’s Wonderful” from the musical “Annie Get Your Gun.” And I thought, ‘this is unbelievable.’ It’s such an incredible choice, he sang it with such an incredible baritone. And I really wanted American’s to know about him, so that’s my little personal campaign.
GM: When did you become interested in music, is it something that was always with you?
MM: Well it was always in the house. My father was a Bassoonist with the Metropolitan Opera, and my mother had been a singer but then she became a pioneer in the fashion industry. Being one of the first women to create her own design and manufacturing firm. But my sister and I were raised with lots of music of all sorts in our house. You know my father would be practicing in the house, it was just there. But personally, I discovered the impact of music when I was five years old and I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing Gershwin. I mean, that was just the shining light for me. And I knew that was what I wanted to do and I just needed to get big to do it.
GM: When did you get your first break?
MM: Well, I had been a jingle singer and then I met Barry Manilow and he introduced me to Bette Midler, and then I had been trying to get a recording deal for years and then in ’73 I signed a deal and put out my first record in 1974, I believe. And two albums later my first single “Midnight Blue” came out. That really changed everything.
GM: Is that when you knew you had made it?
MM: I suppose so. I started hearing it on the radio and the most astounding thing is when I would start to play the opening part of the introduction in concert and people would just start roaring. And I thought, ‘man what just happened?’ It was clearly a seismic shift!
GM: “Through the Eyes of Love” was one of my favorite songs growing up.
MM: Well I had magnificent friends who presented it to me as a gift. Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Sager wrote it and they presented it as a gift for me to sing for their film “Ice Castles” and of course I sang it happily, and the film was nominated for an Academy Award.
GM: Speaking of awards, you won a Grammy in 1982.
MM: it was unusual because I had been known as a balladeer. But my friends wrote that and it was a sort of reflection of the times because it had a disco, slightly electronic feel to it. And that was very much the mode of record making in those times. It was wonderful to win a Grammy and be acknowledged by my peers.
GM: What’s the first record you went out and bought?
MM: I don’t remember off hand, but it may have been “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles.
GM: And when you knew you’d made it, what was the first big purchase you made?
MM: I think the first big purchase was a painting that I still have. I was in France and I was actually able to walk into a gallery and use my brand new American Express card and it cleared! It was astounding. So that was pretty cool to be able to do that!
GM: What music do you listen to these days?
MM: I listen to the local college radio station, I like to listen to college radio stations because I get a sense of musicality and songwriting. I don’t remember people’s names, but I really do like that. And I like Bruno Mars and I like Adele. I think there are really interesting performers out there these days. I think Pink is astounding. And Gaga is great to watch, and I think what she did with Tony Bennett was just fantastic.