Singer’s chart-topping rise began in Astoria

By Greater Astoria Historical Society

In conjunction with the Greater Astoria Historical Society, TimesLedger Newspapers presents noteworthy events in the borough’s history

Known professionally as Melanie, singer-songwriter Melanie Safka was born on Feb. 3, 1947 and spent her early years in Astoria, Queens. She is best known for her songs “What Have They Done to My Song,” “Ma,” “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” and “Brand New Key.” One of only three women to perform solo at Woodstock in 1969, her performance started a trend among concert attendees to display lighters while artists sang. She has three children, all of whom are musicians, and currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee.

As a child, Melanie would often accompany her jazz singer mother to live performances at local clubs. She first sang in public at age four, singing “Gimme a Little Kiss” on the radio program
“Live Like a Millionaire.” As a teenager, she became interested in female performers like Billie Holiday, all of whom left an impression on her as “solo women who sing their hearts out.”

While attending high school in New Jersey, Safka sang in a local coffee house, and later performed in folk clubs in Greenwich Village during college.

Still a student, record labels began to take note of the Astoria native’s singing talent, and she signed her first contract with Columbia Records. With early songs like “Bobo’s Party” and “Beautiful People” topping the charts in Europe, Melanie followed up with her breakout performance in the U.S. at Woodstock. Singing “Beautiful People” in a dark, evening rainstorm, concertgoers held up lighters as they sang along. The moment stayed with Melanie, who was inspired to write “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” one of her many memorable pieces. The song has since been covered by artists as diverse as Mott the Hoople, Dolly Parton and Olivia Newton-John. “Lay Down” was her first top 10 hit in America, going as high as number six on the Billboard singles chart, while also gaining popularity worldwide.

At her peak, the top television hosts — Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett — battled to book her. And in the 1970s, the singer-songwriter rode her newfound fame to international performances at the Strawberry Fields Festival in Ontario and the Isle of Wight Festival in England. She even returned to the U.K. to sing at Glastonbury Fayre. Later in her career, Melanie once again brought her high-voltage, bluesy style and timeless appeal back across the pond to perform at the same two British venues in 2010 and 2011.

Back stateside, Safka recorded a number of chart toppers in the decade of disco. These included “Brand New Key,” a number one hit in 1972 which earned her Billboard’s Top Female Vocalist award, and the top 40 single “Bitter Bad” in 1973. Around this time, however, she began to retreat from the spotlight to start a family.

In 1989, Melanie saw a brief career resurgance when she received 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.”

All of her children have joined their mother as musicians, with her son Beau-Jarred accompanying Safka on tour. The girl from Queens with the distinctive voice continues to garner acclaim for a singing career spanning six decades and nearly 40 albums. In a review of a 2007 performance in London, The Independent perhaps said it best: “… 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.”

For further information, contact the Greater Astoria Historical Society at 718-278-0700 or visit our website at www.astorialic.org.

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