Melanie was born and raised in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York City. Her father, Fred, was of a Ukrainian ethnic background and her jazz singer mother, Pauline "Polly" Altomare Safka-Bertolo (1926-2003), was of Italian heritage. Melanie made her first public singing appearance at age four on the radio show Live Like A Millionaire, performing the song "Gimme a Little Kiss". She attended Red Bank High School in Red Bank, New Jersey, after transferring from Long Branch High School, graduating in 1964.
In the 1960s, when she was starting out, Melanie performed at The Inkwell, a coffee house in the West End section of Long Branch, New Jersey. After school, her parents insisted that she go to college, so she studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, where she began singing in the folk clubs of Greenwich Village and signed her first recording contract.
Initially signed to Columbia Records in the United States, Melanie released two singles on the label. Subsequently, she signed with Buddah Records and first found chart success in Europe in 1969 with "Bobo's Party" which reached Number 1 in France. Her debut album received positive reviews from Billboard which heralded her voice as "wise beyond her years. Her non-conformist approach to the selections on this LP make her a new talent to be reckoned with."
Later in 1969, Melanie had a hit in the Netherlands with "Beautiful People". She was one of only three solo women who performed at the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and the inspiration for her first hit song, "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)", apparently arose from the Woodstock audience lighting candles during her set (although most of the "candles" were actually matches or lighters).
The recording became a hit in Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States in 1970. The B-side of the single featured Melanie's spoken-word track "Candles in the Rain". "Lay Down" became Melanie's first Top Ten hit in America, peaking at Number 6 on the Billboard singles chart and achieving worldwide success. Later hits included "Peace Will Come (According To Plan)" and a cover of the Rolling Stones' "Ruby Tuesday".
In 1970, Melanie was the only artist to ignore the court injunction banning the Powder Ridge Rock Festival, playing for the crowd on a homemade stage powered by Mister Softee trucks. Shortly following this performance, she played at the Strawberry Fields Festival held from August 7 to 9, 1970, at Mosport Park, Ontario. She also performed at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 where she was introduced by Keith Moon and received four standing ovations (she also appeared at the 2010 Isle of Wight festival). She was also the artist who sang to herald in the summer solstice at Glastonbury Fayre (later the Glastonbury Festival) in England in June 1971. She performed again at Glastonbury in 2011, the 40th anniversary of the original festival.
She left Buddah Records when they insisted that she produce albums on demand. In 1971 she formed her own label, Neighborhood Records, with Peter Schekeryk, who was also her producer and, later, her husband. She had her biggest American hit on the Neighborhood label, the novelty-sounding 1972 number one "Brand New Key" (often referred to as "The Roller Skate Song"). "Brand New Key" sold over three million copies worldwide and was featured in the 1997 movie Boogie Nights.
When first released, "Brand New Key" was banned by some radio stations because some heard sexual innuendo in the lyrics. Melanie has acknowledged the possibility of reading an unintended sexual innuendo in the song, stating, "I wrote [Brand New Key] in about fifteen minutes one night. I thought it was cute; a kind of old thirties tune. I guess a key and a lock have always been Freudian symbols, and pretty obvious ones at that. There was no deep serious expression behind the song, but people read things into it. They made up incredible stories as to what the lyrics said and what the song meant. In some places, it was even banned from the radio [...] My idea about songs is that once you write them, you have very little say in their life afterward [...] People will take it any way they want to take it."
The follow-up single to "Brand New Key" was "Ring the Living Bell". To compete with this release, Melanie's former record company released "The Nickel Song", which she had recorded while still signed to Buddah Records. Both songs were simultaneous Top 40 hits while "Brand New Key" was still on the charts – setting a record for the first female performer to have three Top 40 hits concurrently.
She was awarded Billboard's No. 1 Top Female Vocalist award for 1972. She has been awarded two gold albums (and a gold single for "Brand New Key") and three of her compositions were hits for The New Seekers. She is also well known for her musical adaptations of children's songs, including "Alexander Beetle" and "Christopher Robin". When she became an official UNICEF ambassador in 1972, she agreed to forego a world tour in favor of raising money for the organization.
Melanie had another Top 40 hit single in 1973 with "Bitter Bad", a song that marked a slight departure from the hippie sentiments of earlier hits (with lyrics such as "If you do me wrong I'll put your first and last name in my rock n' roll song"). Other chart hits during this period were the self-penned "Together Alone" and a cover of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow". In 1973, Melanie started to retreat from the spotlight to begin a family.
In 1976, Melanie released one album on Atlantic Records, Photograph, which was overseen by Ahmet Ertegün. The album was praised by The New York Times as one of the year's best, although it was largely ignored by the public. It was re-issued on CD in 2005 with an additional disc of unreleased material.
In 1983, Melanie wrote the music and lyrics for a theatrical musical, Ace of Diamonds, with a book by Ed Kelleher and Seymour Vall, based on a series of letters written by Annie Oakley. Though never fully produced, several staged readings were performed at Lincoln Center starring Melanie as the narrator and pop singer and actress Annie Golden as Oakley.
In 1989, Melanie won an Emmy Award for writing the lyrics to "The First Time I Loved Forever", the theme song for the TV series Beauty and the Beast. With one exception her albums were produced by her husband, Peter Schekeryk, who died suddenly in 2010. Her three children – Leilah, Jeordie and Beau-Jarred – are also musicians. Beau-Jarred is a guitarist and accompanies his mother on tour.
One of Melanie's most recent albums, Paled By Dimmer Light (2004), was co-produced by Peter and Beau-Jarred Schekeryk and includes the songs "To Be The One", "Extraordinary", "Make It Work" and "I Tried To Die Young". In early 2005 most of Melanie's back-catalogue was re-released on the internet-only music label ItsAboutMusic.com. After a series of disagreements the relationship between the artist and the label was severed.
In 2007, Melanie was invited by Jarvis Cocker to perform at the Meltdown Festival at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Her sold-out performance received critical acclaim, with The Independent saying "it was hard to disagree that Melanie has earned her place alongside Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell and Marianne Faithfull in the pantheon of iconic female singers. Meltdown was all the better for her presence." The concert was filmed for a DVD titled Melanie: For One Night Only which was released in October 2007. She recorded "Psychotherapy", sung to the tune of the "Battle Hymn of the Republic", which parodies aspects of Freudian psychoanalysis. It has been played on The Dr. Demento Show. In 2012, Melanie headlined at the 15th annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival, along with Arlo Guthrie and Judy Collins. The festival is held annually in mid-July to celebrate the life and music of legendary singer-songwriter and folk musician, Woody Guthrie.
In October 2012, Melanie collaborated with John Haldoupis, the artistic and managing director of Blackfriars Theatre in Rochester, New York, to create an original musical about her love story with her late husband, Peter. Melanie and the Record Man made its world premiere on October 19 with performances scheduled until October 28. The musical, conceived and designed by Haldoupis, features the music of Melanie and tells the story of her meeting Peter, falling in love, and working together to produce her music. Melanie performed during the musical and was also the narrator. In June 2014, she toured Australia for the first time since 1977.
In April 2015, Melanie was inducted into Red Bank Regional's "Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame". Melanie received the Sandy Hosey Lifetime Achievement Award at the Artists Music Guild's 2015 AMG Heritage Awards on November 14, 2015, in Monroe, North Carolina.
Melanie married record producer Peter Schekeryk around 1970. They had three children: daughter Leilah was born in 1973, daughter Jeordie in 1975, and their son Beau Jarred is the youngest. Leilah and Jeordie, when aged 7 and 6, released a cover of "There's No One Quite Like Grandma" that charted in Canada. Melanie's husband died in 2010.
Melanie identifies herself politically as a Libertarian, stating: "I'm a total Libertarian, and I am not a Democrat, a Socialist, or a Republican." For a time, at the beginning of her career, Melanie was a follower of Meher Baba and this influenced some of her songs (such as "Love to Lose Again" and "Candles in the Rain"). She has stated that, in 2006, she underwent a life-altering experience with Mata Amritanandamayi or Amma ("Mother") as she is also known, or as the "hugging saint" from India, which inspired Melanie to write "Motherhood of Love", one of her more recent songs. Melanie resides in Nashville, Tennessee.
Many notable artists have covered Melanie's compositions:"Lay Down"
In 1971, Mott the Hoople released a version of this song on their Wildlife album. Vicky Leandros recorded a Greek version in 1972. In 1994, Philadelphia indie rock band the Strapping Fieldhands recorded a three-track "no-fi" version of the song (as well as a reprise that closes the album) for the EP "In The Pineys". Australian singer Max Sharam's 1995 recording reached the Top 40 on the Australian singles charts. Ké included a cover of the song on his 1996 debut album, I Am . In 1999, Meredith Brooks' release included backing vocals by Queen Latifah. In 2010, Emiliana Torrini recorded a rendition on the compilation album Stone Free."Brand New Key"
In 1976, Scrumpy and Western band the Wurzels covered "Brand New Key" with substantially rewritten lyrics as "The Combine Harvester". It reached number one on the UK Singles Chart and stayed there for two weeks. Macy Gray, Dolly Parton and Cher have all performed "Brand New Key" in concert (the last on The Sonny and Cher Show). Country singer Deana Carter covered the song on her 1999 Top 10 album Everything's Gonna Be Alright. The cellist band Rasputina had a version on the album Thanks for the Ether.
A female-fronted punk trio, the Dollyrots, included a version on their album Because I'm Awesome. The 2006 American Idol runner-up, Katharine McPhee, covered the song as the bonus track on her 2010 Unbroken album. Olivia Newton-John covered the song on the soundtrack album for the film A Few Best Men in 2012. Jessica Frech covered the song on her 2012 Reality album. The New York-based singer Jaymay covered the song in 2013. In 2013, the cover of the song by The Voice contestant Kaity Dunstan hit No. 40 on the Australian ARIA Charts. Ray Conniff & The Singers did a cover version on their album I'd Like To Teach The World (In Perfect Harmony) album in 1971."What Have They Done to My Song Ma"
Daliah Lavi recorded a successful German version of the song in 1971 and Ray Charles released a cover (as "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma") in 1972. The song has also been covered by many other artists, including Nina Simone, the New Seekers, Dalida and Billie Jo Spears. Czechoslovakian singer Helena Vondráčková recorded it in 1971 as "Kam zmizel ten starý song" with Czech lyrics by Zdeněk Borovec. Yugoslav rock band Bajaga i Instruktori released a cover of it with lyrics in Serbian, called "Vidi šta sam ti uradio od pesme, mama", in 1985. It was used in the 1980s as a commercial jingle for Ramada Inn (as "Look what they've done to Ramada") and for Oatmeal Crisp cereal (as "Look what they've done to my oatmeal"). In October 2012, Miley Cyrus released a video of her own acoustic version of the song as part of her Backyard Sessions series. In 2015, Melanie joined her to duet on the song in addition to "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)"."Beautiful People"
The Dutch singer Mathilde Santing had a gold record and the first Top 10 hit version of "Beautiful People" in 1997. Die Goldenen Zitronen covered the song on their 2009 album Die Entstehung der Nacht. Sandra Bernhard covered the song on her I Love Being Me, Don't You? live album."I Really Loved Harold"
Emiliana Torrini covered "I Really Loved Harold" on her 1996 Merman album. She has also recorded a version of "Lay Down".Other songs
The New Seekers covered several Melanie songs, and also charted in the United States with "Beautiful People" (No. 67), "Look What They've Done to My Song Ma" (No. 14) and "Nickel Song" (No. 81). Dion covered "Close To It All" on his 1971 You're Not Alone album. Roger Kellaway covered "Centre of the Circle" on the 1972 album of the same name. An 11-year-old Björk sang "Christopher Robin" in Icelandic on her debut album, Björk. The 2003 Australian hip-hop track "The Nosebleed Section" by the Hilltop Hoods sampled "People in the Front Row"; another hip-hop track, an instrumental titled "Crasy Sound", was released in 2008 by Danny! and samples "Summer Weaving". Kiki & Herb opened their Carnegie Hall concert with "Close To It All" (available on CD as Kiki & Herb Will Die For You).
Will Oldham and Tortoise covered "(Some Say) I Got Devil" on their 2006 covers album The Brave and the Bold. Cissy Houston has recorded Melanie's "Any Guy". Alison Moyet performed "Momma, Momma" on her live DVD One Blue Voice and as the B-side to her 2007 single "One More Time".
"The Nickel Song" was covered by Nana Mouskouri, in English, released on her live at the Albert Hall double album in the early 1970s. There is also a German version of this by Lena Valaitis called "Ob es so oder so oder anders kommt" which was released in 1971.
- Born to Be (a.k.a My First Album), November 1968
- Affectionately Melanie (aka Melanie), December 1969 (US # 196)
- Candles in the Rain with Edwin Hawkins Singers, September 1970 (US #17 – Gold record, UK #5, Australia #2, Canada #5, Norway #20, Germany #16)
- Leftover Wine, November 1970 (US #33, UK #22, Australia #8, Canada #22, Germany #31)
- R.P.M. (Revolutions Per Minute) (film soundtrack), 1970 (US #148)
- The Good Book, May 1971 (US #80, UK #9, Australia #29, Canada #26, Norway #20, Germany #29)
- All the Right Noises (film soundtrack), August 1971
- Gather Me, December 1971 (US #15 – Gold record, UK #14, Australia #9, Canada #14, Norway #25)
- Garden in the City, 1972 (US #115, UK #19, Australia #38)
- The Four Sides of Melanie*, 1972 (US #103, UK #23)
- Stoneground Words, November 1972 (US #70, Australia #69, Canada #34)
- Melanie at Carnegie Hall, 1973 (US #109)
- Please Love Me*, 1973 (US)
- Madrugada, May 1974 (US #192)
- As I See It Now, February 1975 (US #208)
- Sunset and Other Beginnings, October 1975
- Photograph, 1976 (Australia #84) (re-issued on CD as Photograph (Double Exposure) in 2005)
- Phonogenic – Not Just Another Pretty Face, September 1978
- Ballroom Streets, August 1979 (US #207)
- Arabesque, August 1982
- Seventh Wave, September 1983
- Am I Real or What, 1985
- Cowabonga – Never Turn Your Back on a Wave, April 1988
- Precious Cargo, 1991
- Silence Is King, February 1993
- Freedom Knows My Name, 1993 (US)
- Antlers, 1996 (re-released as Yes Santa, There is a Melanie in 2004)
- Old Bitch Warrior, February 1996
- Recorded Live @ Borders, 1999
- Beautiful People: The Greatest Hits Of Melanie*, 1999
- These Nights, 2001
- Victim of the Moon 2002
- Crazy Love, 2002
- Moments from My Life, 2003
- Paled By Dimmer Light, 2004
- Ever Since You Never Heard of Me, 2010
- 1984 (live album), 2015
(Albums marked with an asterisk are compilations)Lyrics for the theme song of the Beauty and the Beast television series.
Recorded "I've Got New York" on The 6ths' Hyacinths and Thistles, 2000