By Jacob Katel
By Laurie Charles
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Abel Folgar
By Kat Bein
By Jacob Katel
Twenty years after "Brand New Key," Melanie is again releasing material through her own label. Both the label and her new album are called Precious Cargo. "I don't want to sell myself to a major," she says today. "It's so much more wonderful to put out something when you want to do it, where you can declare when you want to do it. With a major label it's, `There's another girl coming out this month, the timing isn't right.' You have to kiss the right ass, play a whole game. I don't play that right now. They can shelve you for a year, and you just sit there waiting."
The last time she played live in Miami was a decade and a half ago, at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. Her unique voice and underrated guitar prowess were used to deftly execute a concert rich in warmth, wit, and whimsy as she womanhandled an adoring audience. At one point she turned her back on the crowd as if something had gone wrong. Then suddenly she spun in the air, slammed the opening chords of Buddy Holly's "Oh, Boy!" and proceeded to blow the roof off the joint.
But that was fifteen years ago. "Every summer they say I'm making a `comeback,'" the singer/songwriter says from her home near Tampa. "I've never stopped working. Let's get this straight - I didn't retire. I didn't go out and do drugs. I wasn't an alcoholic who had to recover. I'm sorry, I know those things are so juicy. I worked. I wrote. I've traveled. I did stuff I didn't get to do back when I was on the road 300 days a year. Now I'm struggling. And I love it."
In fact, Melanie won an Emmy as recently as 1989, for "The First Time I Ever Loved Forever," used in Beauty and the Beast. The new album, Precious Cargo, includes a song called "Show You" that speaks volumes about Melanie's defiant stance. Angelic background harmonies, soft guitar, and gentle voice give way to a compelling rock out consisting of riveting piano riffs, percussive uppercuts and combinations, powerfully sung lyrics that seem to address the pressing issue: "Still here, still alive/Lost it all/And showed the poor survived/I had money and I watched it slide/There go my friends, too."
One of the best tracks on the album is called "Rock and Roll Heart," and she expects to play it live. "It's a rock song," the ex-hippie notes, "and I'm a rock and roller. I don't go out and do the whole number with the black leather. I have folk roots, jazz and blues, Edith Piaf and Lotte Lenya. The French chanteuse emerges. Maybe it's cabaret rock." Early in her career, "What Have They Done to My Song Ma" was a hit in France before the New Seekers covered it and took it to the top of the U.S. charts.
Precious Cargo is certainly worthy of any major label - A&R reps could note that it includes a reworking of "Ruby Tuesday" and a wild cover of Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." Famed talent scout and label boss Clive Davis recently signed another Tampa-area resident, Roger McGuinn, who'd also been without a deal for many years. McGuinn wanted a deal, Melanie is less interested. "Look, I've been on Columbia, Buddha, MCA, Paramount, another label that I later found out was a tax shelter, Portrait, Epic, Atlantic, Arista," says Melanie. "I was with Clive Davis twice. That's enough."
Melanie accuses at least one former label of flooding the market with a "greatest hits" package just as she was releasing new material on a different label. Recently, record companies have sought to use her voice over prefabricated tracks of whatever was trendy at the moment. She declined. "I didn't want to lose all my integrity," she says. Another label offered a song called "Breakfast in Bed," which was reportedly an ode to oral sex. (She passed on that one, too.) And advertisers have tapped her tunes to sell their merchandise, including "What Have They Done to My Song Ma," which was the ultimate indictment of those who put money above the music. "There was, `Look what they've done to Ramada,'" she says, "and `What have they done to my Life Buoy.' I never gave my permission. The publishers did this, slipped it by me. I never wrote a song to be in an ad."
On the other hand, she doesn't mind endorsing products she believes in. The Fisher-Price toy company thought "Brand New Key" would work in a jingle, and for once Melanie actually appeared in a commercial. "I loved the company." Advertising strategists, she says, were intending to hire an imitator and rip off just enough of the song so they wouldn't have to pay her. But company officials refused to go that route. "They hate it when their ideas are ripped off by other toy companies," Melanie explains. "So they called me personally and asked permission to use the song, and I said sure. I thought that was pretty noble of them." Besides that, "Brand New Key" is more open to commercial use than "What Have They Done to My Song Ma." Melanie sighs. "I don't care. `What Have They Done' is a folk song, so it'll be used for eternity. The best thing was that Ray Charles sang it. The worst was when it was used for oatmeal."