The Flashback Interview: Melissa Manchester

In the late 00s, much to my mom’s chagrin, I started up a small cassette collection again after having gotten rid of a larger one in the early 00s. One of the albums I had on cassette came from my newest interview subject, Melissa Manchester. Her album Emergency had a collection of great songs that spoke to what I was hoping for in the chaos of dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome and the decay of my relationship with my mom.

I would come to discover more about Melissa Manchester’s work through YouTube over the course of the following decade, and I knew that I would love to interview her someday. That someday came on Monday, October 5th, thanks to the help of her manager, Susan Holder. I hope you all enjoy getting to know this legendary singer.

Say hello to Melissa Manchester!

Johnny: Hello, Ms. Manchester.

Melissa: How are ya?

Johnny: I’m doing good. First of all, thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this interview.

Melissa: Of course!

Johnny: Alright. I have my questions ready to go.

Melissa: Good.

Johnny: Soon you’ll be releasing the album RE:VIEW, a selection of songs varying from re-recordings of earlier hits to first renditions of songs you’ve written for others, but have never performed yourself before. What songs are you most excited about revising and revitalizing for this collection?

Melissa: Well, I’m actually really excited about each and every one because I’ve been singing several of them for so long, and in my experience, what’s happened is that the songs have become more like monologues I’ve grown into. I’m excited to revisit the performance of these songs now that I’ve grown into these lyrics, as well as the melodies, and I’ve tweaked the harmonics a bit. It’s great. I mean, these songs were largely draped on me, so it’s wonderful to be able to invest as much of my inner life into them as I can.

Johnny: Fantastic. Will you primarily be re-recording your ballads, or will a couple of your more upbeat and/or dance music tracks be redone as well?

Melissa: Yeah, it’s going to be a combination of ballads, and some of the dance songs, and some midtempo songs, and some songs that I’ve never recorded before, so it will be fun.

Johnny: Alright. I’m touched by the redone version of “Just You And I” since you’ve said it’s dedicated to essential workers, and I’ve been deemed one as a result of my paying retail job. Although a lot of bad things have happened this year, what’s been the most positive thing to come out of our current chaos for you?

Melissa: You know, I think if you look around, the examples of kindness are really quite astounding. Neighborliness, people being present, people appreciating first responders who have been looked on as somewhere on the totem pole, but nowhere near the top, and to deem them as essential is really kind of a deep expression of patriotism to me, and that is a lot of remembering who we are, I believe, at our best as Americans.

Johnny: That’s definitely a good way to look at it, and I thank you again for putting out that re-recorded version of “Just You And I”. It’s a very noble sentiment you have.

Melissa: Thank you very much. I appreciate that.

Johnny: No problem. I was an IndieGoGo backer of your previous album The Fellas.

Melissa: Oh, thank you!

Johnny: Oh, no problem. Of all the songs you recorded for that album, which was your favorite to perform?

Melissa: You know, they are such incredible compositions. It’s hard to say if I’ve had a favorite because I just felt so privileged to be able to do a tour where I’m supporting all of these great singers and all of these great songs. On a personal note, because Marilyn and Alan Bergman have been very dear friends of mine for a long time, I think, probably, “How Do You Keep The Music Playing?” had a special connection for me.

Johnny: It’s interesting that you bring that up because I was wondering: With all the soundtrack work you did in the 80s, had you been considered to duet with the much-missed James Ingram on the original version, as heard in the movie Best Friends?

Melissa: Had I been considered? I think I had been considered. Alas, I was on the road so much in that moment that I wasn’t able to tear myself away to do that. That is one of my major regrets.

Johnny: Well, I will say you did an amazing job with the song when you finally got around to it.

Melissa: Thank you.

Johnny: Oh, no problem. To go to my next question: This year marks anniversaries for four of your most notable albums, the first being your third album, Melissa, which celebrates its’ 45th anniversary this year. What made that album such a standout for you?

Melissa: It was the first album that was produced on Arista Records. Arista had absorbed Bell Records, where I had made my first two albums, and those were wonderful experiences. They got me into the music industry, and they exposed me to college audiences a lot, but on the Melissa album, “Midnight Blue” came from there, and as a hit first single, I really felt the seismic shift that happened because of that. The audiences multiplied, and not only that, they would now recognize my music from the opening refrain, so that was really an eye-opening shift in my own sensibility.

Johnny: Fantastic. What’s been the most wonderful story you’ve been told by a fan about the impact of “Midnight Blue” on them?

Melissa: Well, there have been several stories. The overriding impression of the stories is that “Midnight Blue” helped people get through hard times. Whether it was challenging teenagerhood, whether it was deciding whether or not they were going to commit suicide, whether or not they were going to decide to spend the night making a baby with their loved one…You know, it just really moved people at the core because of that line, “I think we can make it one more time”. You know, songs can really be life rafts for people. They can throw people an emotional rope so they have something to hold onto, some kind of a mantra, and I believe that’s what “Midnight Blue” did.

Johnny: That’s wonderful. Music can definitely help people out in rough times.

Melissa: Oh, yeah.

Johnny: To go to my next question, For The Working Girl celebrates its’ 40th anniversary this year. I’d read on Wikipedia that the title track, co-written with Bernie Taupin, was going to serve as the basis for a movie with you in the starring role. Although that project ended up not happening, do you recall what the story would’ve been?

Melissa: You know, I don’t, not at all. What I do know is that working with Bernie was so extraordinary and unusual because you were never in the room with him, but I do recall talking with him about some of the things I had been through on the road, and people I had met on the road because, in those days, there were very few women around, you know? I had my band, and they were all guys. My drivers were all guys. The lighting people were all guys. Now it’s very, very different, but in those days, the only women you would meet were the waitresses at the truck stops, and occasionally, very occasionally, a woman trucker, but that was really unusual.

I remember, after …Working Girl came out, I was with my band. It was about 2:00 in the morning, and we were at a truck stop, going from one place to another. This sweet woman came over to me, and she tapped me on the shoulder and she said, “Are you Melissa?”. I said, “I am”. She said, “Thank you for For The Working Girl”. She said, “There are very few of us out here on the road, and to be acknowledged was really a big deal, so thank you”, and we hugged each other. She went off into the night and so did I, and it was amazing.

Johnny: Again, more proof of how music can impact people, and your music has definitely had an impact.

Melissa: Thank you.

Johnny: Oh, no problem. You covered Badfinger’s “Without You” on For The Working Girl. The song is easily one of the biggest tearjerkers ever written, so did you find yourself crying when performing it?

Melissa: Oh, I haven’t performed it in a really, really long time (laughing). It’s really hard to sing and cry at the same time. That is what I’ve learned, so you can’t really do that, but it was a great song.

Johnny: Alright. Mathematics turns 35 this year, and I find that to be a very underrated album of yours’. Your dance music is just as good as your ballads, and Mathematics had some of your best dance tracks. Did you like recording dance music?

Melissa: Not terribly, but it was an adventure that I wanted to take. For me, if I can find something that I can justify taking the adventure, then I’m usually game. When we did Mathematics, it was again at the suggestion of the record company. They wanted me to be part of the disco world, which was popping at that time, and there were some good and solid songs that were written for that. It was just that the sound of electronics was so troubling (laughing) to me because I’m an acoustic girl. I love what a real piano and real strings can bring, real drums and all that. Everything had that electronic buzz, which just made me feel there was too much sugar in your diet, but I took the plunge. It’s funny because my students over the years, when I was teaching at USC, always talked about that album. They always felt that that was really cool and current, and that made me happy.

Johnny: You definitely did a great job on it. When it comes to Mathematics, you did a great job of interpreting the song “Night Creatures”, written by Martin Page and Jon Lind. Have you considered re-recording the song for RE:View and perhaps putting together a horror-themed video for it?

Melissa: (Laughing) No, no. I listened to that album not too long ago because I really didn’t remember a lot of it, and I just felt, “Eh, leave well enough alone”. It was good, and a great adventure, and I’m glad I did it.

Johnny: Fair enough. Moving along, If My Heart Had Wings celebrates its’ 25th anniversary this year. What was the inspiration behind the title song?

Melissa: I wrote that lovely song with Amy Sky and Eric Kaz. You know, I don’t remember what the inspiration was. It was just such a beautiful title. I think a lot of my songs have to do with what you learn about, or find out, in the end. I don’t know that I wrote a lot of songs about the beginnings of something. I mean, I do occasionally, but a lot of my songs are written in conclusion of what some episode has taught you, and for me, that lines up well with my soul because in the end, that’s how you live. What have you learned? What have you learned from the mistakes? What have you learned from your ignorance? What have you learned from your immaturity, your boneheadedness, your stuborness, your pride? It was like that.

Johnny: Alright. I can definitely relate to that.

Melissa: Yeah.

Johnny: I mean, I definitely have matured a lot since my 20s and even my teens. Actually, listening to your 80s output got me through some of the darker times of my life, and it definitely helped guide me to something better. On a lighter note, you’re the third Muppet Show guest star I’ve interviewed, the first two being Lesley Ann Warren and Loretta Swit. What are your favorite memories of working with Jim Henson and The Muppets?

Melissa: Oh, my god, one of the great blessings of my life, and I’ve never worked harder. I mean, you flew over to London. I never did see London because I was in the studio all the time, and just watching these committed puppeteers who loved Jim Henson so much, and loved their craft and would do anything for him, you rose to the occasion. Whenever you’re working with people who are so committed, it lifts you up as well, but I just loved it. I loved singing “Whenever I Call You Friend” with The Muppets. I loved singing “Don’t Cry Out Loud” with the dancing Muppets. It was just really a great experience.

Johnny: It was definitely a great episode. I particularly liked your rendition of “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (Melissa laughs). I liked what they had done with that song…

Melissa: Yeah. It’s so funny. You know, when they first explained it to me that I’d be in a Spanish flamenco dress (laughing), I said, “What?”, but it was great. It was so inventive.

Johnny: Yep. Both musically and comedically…

Melissa: Yeah…

Johnny: The piece worked really well.

Melissa: Thanks.

Johnny: Oh, no problem. When it comes to variety programs, you appeared on several Bob Hope specials in the 70s and 80s. What do you recall the most about working with him?

Melissa: Oh, you know, he was great. I was treated respectfully, and he appreciated my talent. It was great. Those shows were so iconic. Variety shows were just a mainstay of television in those days, and so to get a shot on television, you knew you would be put into a beautiful setting for your song, that you would be among other guests, the host was known around the world…It was a great opportunity. I liked him a lot.

Johnny: Yeah. I was born in 1982, so the first decade of my life sort of coincided with the last decade in which variety specials were common on television. I look back on them, and I kind of miss those days.

Melissa: Oh, yeah. They keep trying to reinvent the variety show, and they haven’t quite gotten it yet, you know? The Bob Hope Show and those kinds of shows morphed into The Midnight Special and morphed into Dick Clark and all of that stuff, but the heart of the variety show is really special and really useful for performers.

Johnny: Definitely. Well, if we can consider the Academy Awards a variety show (Melissa laughs), that leads me to my next question: In 1983, you performed Luciano Pavarotti’s “If We Were In Love” from Yes, Giorgio at the 55th Annual Academy Awards. Were you nervous about trying to cover one of Pavarotti’s songs?

Melissa: I was, but, you know, it was such a magnificent song, and I have a pretty big range for an alto. It was pretty thrilling, and it was John Williams’ music and, again, Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics, so I knew the composition was so solid, and all I had to do was, as they say, sing the ink. Of course, having all those dancing waters (laughing) and that beautiful orchestra was really a thrill.

Johnny: Yeah. I must say I disagreed with what Siskel and Ebert said on the If We Picked The Oscars special for 1983. They said that they thought the three songs that the Bergmans had written were the worst nominations that year, and I heartily disagree with that. I think all of the songs they wrote that were nominated that year were great ones…

Melissa: Yeah!

Johnny: …And they definitely are among the great songsmiths of our time.

Melissa: Oh, yeah. They are the lyric laureates of our time.

Johnny: Absolutely, and speaking of soundtrack work: You worked with the late, great Al Jarreau on the song “The Music Of Goodbye”, an adaptation of John Barry’s theme to Out Of Africa. Was that song actually going to be in the movie, or was it written afterwards to promote the film?

Melissa: Yeah, it was never to be in the movie, unfortunately, but Al and I were good friends, and it was lovely to be able to sing with him. Yeah, it was promotional, but we ended up making a lovely video and, again, singing together was great.

Johnny: It was definitely one of the best ballads of the 80s. Staying in film, you memorably voiced the Miss Kitty Mouse in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective. The character has quite a fanbase, so have you ever gotten any unusual fan mail as a result of voicing her?

Melissa: No. I’m glad that there’s a fan base for her.

Johnny: For many people who see it, your performance is one of the highlights of the movie, and the character is often written about in fan fictions and fan drawings to this day.

Melissa: Yeah. You know, I think about bringing that into my act, that and some of the music from Lady And The Tramp II, because those were wonderful experiences for Disney. The Great Mouse Detective was unusual because Disney, for some unknown reason, stopped putting songs in their animated features for a while. It was crazy. I was actually the third one up at bat to try and write a song for Miss Kitty, and I was just given some line drawings with a tempo, the barest of line drawings, but you could see the movement.

These artists are so fantastic and talented, and I wrote to that. It was great fun. I wasn’t planning on singing her, but I actually did, and the animators were in the studio, in the control room, while I was singing, and they said, “Oh, if only we had seen you sing this first, (laughing) we would have changed the drawings”, but I’m delighted that it worked out so well.

Johnny: Yeah. You really belted out that song and did a great job with it.

Melissa: Thanks.

Johnny: Speaking of fan bases, you’ve appeared at conventions like The Hollywood Show and Chiller Theatre, the latter of which was where we first met in October of 2017. What’s been the most rewarding part of attending conventions for you?

Melissa: Getting to say hello to fans. It’s a little odd, but it’s fine. You know, (laughing) getting paid in cash is always a good thing, but it’s mostly making the connections with people that’s rewarding.

Johnny Caps and Melissa Manchester at Chiller Theatre in October of 2017…

Johnny: What’s been the most wonderful piece of memorabilia you’ve signed at a convention?

Melissa: Oh, that’s a good question. Let me think. Well, I know that I’ve signed the interiors of pianos, and that’s kind of unusual. I can’t quite remember. You know, I’ve signed people’s T-shirts and stuff like that when I’ve been selling merch.

David Foster had two grand pianos that he allowed to be rental pianos for West Coast venues for years. Each piano stayed in rotation for two years and every artist who used them was asked to autograph the inside. Then, once they’d finished their two-year rotation, he’d auction the pianos off and donate the funds to charity. It was cool to see what other artists had already played and signed the piano before you.

Johnny: Alright. When it does come to Chiller Theatre, you shared a room with cast members from A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, including my good friend, and former interview subject, Jennifer Rubin. How did you interact with them that weekend?

Melissa: Well, we didn’t, really. You know everybody’s at their table, and everybody’s trying not to leave their table while fans are coming in. Frankly, it was kind of bizarre to be sharing a room with horror movie icons. I just really felt to be sort of a witness, and to see how it played out, because it was so new. I had never done that before, and it was really, really interesting.

Johnny: To bring back The Great Mouse Detective for a moment, if I recall correctly, I met you on the Friday of the convention, and when I came back by on Sunday to give the card with my contact info about a potential interview, I saw that all your Miss Kitty Mouse pictures had sold out that weekend.

Melissa: Yes. Well, you know, I think I will have to incorporate some of that stuff into my show at some point.

Johnny: I would definitely consider it.

Melissa: Yeah!

Johnny: When I met you at Chiller, the autograph I got from you was, “Johnny, you should hear how she talks about you. Melissa Manchester”. I chose that personalization because you did an amazing job with “You Should Hear How She Talks About You”. Was it your idea to rewrite the song so that the woman singing the song admits that she’s the one who’s talking about them?

Melissa: No. That was entirely the doings of the composers, Dean Pitchford and Tom Snow. That was pretty much brought to me as is, and I was delighted. I mean, I was surprised because it was not a style of song I had ever sung before, but because they were such great writers, and because Arif Mardin was such an astounding producer, they really made it fit me really well, and it was great fun.

Johnny: You definitely did a great job with it. To jump to a different tack, you’ve also spent time in stage work, both as an actress and as a writer. What appeal has theater provided for you?

Melissa: Well, when I did the national tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song And Dance, where I took over the lead from Bernadette Peters, again it was an adventure I didn’t want to miss. I wanted to see what it was like to do eight shows a week, to lose myself in the character with an English accent, and it was very rigorous. It was really hard. I’d never done eight shows a week, and in that particular show, I was on stage by myself for the first act. My son was nine months old, and I was traveling with his dad and my parents at the time, and because I was starring in the show, on my day off, I would have to do all the press.

For six months, it was just really something, and then I did another Andrew Lloyd Webber piece called Music Of The Night, where I was more involved with the cast. You know, it’s great. It’s a wonderful experience. I’m not really a theater baby. While I loved going to theater, and I love musical theater with a great passion, it’s not quite where my heart lies, but I do love writing for theater because I sort of have a sense of how to do it, and I appreciate the greatness of musical theater, so it’s been lovely to write musical theater when I can.

Johnny: That leads me to ask: A more recent theater project for you has been your collaboration with Rupert Holmes and Sharon Vaughn on the musical Sweet Potato Queens. What message are you hoping to communicate with your work on that project?

Melissa: Well, it has gotten several productions. We’re actually getting a production, I think, in February in New Orleans. We just did an interview with the artistic director, and they seem to be going full steam ahead. The message behind Sweet Potato Queens, which is based on the writings of Jill Conner Browne, is about reclaiming joy in your life, and remembering to play when you grow up because lightheartedness, particularly in rough times, does keep you going, and it keeps your community going. It’s been great to write with Sharon and Rupert.

Johnny: Well, we certainly need to reclaim as much fun as we can in these times. You’re well-known for pop music of various stripes from ballads to dance songs, so which musicians and musical genres would I be most surprised to find on your iPod?

Melissa: There’s this young artist named Lennon Stella. My daughter introduces me to these artists. She’s just wonderful, and she was one of the young kids who played the two daughters in the series Nashville. Really talented, really, really, talented…

Johnny: Alright. I’ll have to track down some of her stuff. I now come to my final question: What are you most looking forward to once things improve from the current chaos of coronavirus?

Melissa: (Sighing) Oh, boy. Well, personally, I’m looking forward to getting back on the road and concertizing, but I will be so curious to see what happens to our society once the spell of this pandemic lifts. I mean, will we sort of resume our behavior the way it was before? I’m sure people will be running to bars and restaurants and casinos and hotels and vacation spots in droves, but I will be interested to see what we have witnessed in this moment of being shut down that will not be denied.

I think the discussions on racial justice and payment equality, and how government runs and how all systems run, and if what’s broken can be fixed in our lifetime, is all of great interest to me.

Johnny: Well, we’ll just keep hoping for better times, and I encourage you to keep up the great work. That does it for my questions. Before I wrap up the interview, I do again want to say that your music has made a big impact on me. When I talked about how your 80s output helped get me through some tough times, I particularly think back to the late 00s. I was in a very dark spot in dealing with depression and the aspects of life with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. The late 00s was a very dark time for me, but I came across your album Emergency, and I played it often.

Melissa: Aww.

Johnny: The music, both the ballads and the dance songs, definitely provided me with some measure of relief and relaxation during those turbulent times, and to interview you today has been a tremendous honor.

Melissa: Thank you for letting me know. That really means so much. You know, the longer I do this, the more I appreciate the gift and what it has meant to people, and it’s been a real blessing, so thank you so much for sharing your experience.

Johnny: Oh, no problem.

Melissa: Thank you so much. This has been very enjoyable.

Johnny: Likewise. I enjoyed talking to you, and I hope you have a wonderful afternoon.

Melissa: You, too. Be well.

Johnny: No problem.

I would again like to thank Melissa Manchester for taking the time to speak to me, as well as Susan Holder for helping to put this together. For more about Melissa Manchester’s work, you can visit her official website, which has links to all her social media.

Coming soon to the Flashback Interview are conversations with Oscar-winning makeup artist Valli O’Reilly, dancer/choreographer Anita Mann, and Gary Kroeger, the first Saturday Night Live cast member I’ve ever interviewed.