Scotsman Obituaries: Melanie, US folk singer best known for Brand New Key

Melanie, singer/songwriter. Born: 3 February, 1947 in Astoria, Queens, New York. Died: 23 January, 2024 in Nashville, Tennessee, aged 76
Melanie Safka performs on stage at Crystal Palace, London, 3rd June 1972. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images) Melanie Safka performs on stage at Crystal Palace, London, 3rd June 1972. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
Melanie Safka performs on stage at Crystal Palace, London, 3rd June 1972. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Singer Melanie, who has died aged 76, may not have been as celebrated as her contemporary troubadours Joni and Joan, but unlike Mitchell and Baez she was primarily known by her first name – and it has been suggested that the innuendo-laden bubblegum pop of her biggest hit, Brand New Key, paved the way for the more deliberately sexualised singles by another mononymous artist, Madonna.

Graduating from the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene as Melanie Safka, she captured the hippie zeitgeist with her debut US hit, the 1970 peace anthem Lay Down (Candles in the Rain), which was inspired by her appearance at the legendary Woodstock festival.

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Safka was one of only three solo female artists to perform at the festival (Baez and Janis Joplin were the other two). As a relative novice, she described the prospect of facing half a million people in a muddy field as “like being fed to the lions”.

She took the Friday night slot vacated by Edinburgh’s Incredible String Band, who were concerned the heavy rain on an open stage would fry their equipment. In an act of supreme hippie hopefulness, the audience were encouraged to light candles to stave off the storm and Safka was called back for two encores, later saying of the moment that “I understood the whole reason for my existence. Woodstock for me was totally magic.”

Lay Down, recorded with gospel group the Edwin Hawkins Singers, became her first top ten US hit and its determined pacifist message struck a chord across Europe at a time when peace songs were not in short supply. The song was later covered by Mott the Hoople, Meredith Brooks and Queen Latifah. Another Melanie favourite, What Have They Done to My Song Ma, has been rendered by Nina Simone, Ray Charles, The New Seekers and Miley Cyrus, while her debut UK hit was her own idiosyncratic cover of The Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday.

To her chagrin, Safka was never taken as seriously as Baez or Mitchell, with her songs unfairly considered bubblegum. Many chose not to listen beyond the quirky tune of Brand New Key to its Freudian subtext – even after featuring prominently in Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson’s homage to the Californian porn industry of the Seventies.

According to Safka, the track really was just about rollerskating and, in the UK, The Wurzels’ parody version, Combine Harvester, arguably sealed its reputation as “the song that doomed me to be cute for the rest of my life”.

She was born Melanie Anne Safka and raised in the Astoria district of Queens, New York. Her father Frederick, of Ukrainian descent, and mother Pauline, a jazz singer of Italian extraction, separated when she was five, by which point she had had a taste of performance, winning her first talent show aged four.

She moved to New Jersey with her mother, attending Long Branch High School and playing early gigs at the local Inkwell coffee house. After a brief escape to California she returned east and enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, studying by day and performing on the burgeoning Greenwich Village folk scene by night.

She met her husband, record producer Peter Schekeryk, following an acting audition she attended armed with guitar, and landed a short-lived deal with Columbia Records, before she was relinquished to Buddah Records.

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Her first two albums made little impression domestically but she had hits in France and the Netherlands and headed to Europe to play some high-profile shows, once sharing a dressing room at the Paris Olympia with a camel which was part of an Arabian acrobat act. “It was a very nice dressing room, but there was nowhere else to keep the camel,” she told the Hollywood Reporter.

Returning to play the Woodstock Festival may have been a culture shock but it made her name and she became a festival favourite, defying the ban on the Power Ridge Rock Festival to play on a makeshift stage to some of the 30,000 attendees who turned up despite the cancellation.

In the UK she played the legendary 1970 Isle of Wight festival – introduced by Keith Moon and rapturously received – and the 1971 Glastonbury Fayre (precursor to the Glastonbury Festival) alongside David Bowie, Traffic and Fairport Convention. She was invited back to both the 2010 Isle of Wight revival and Glastonbury’s 40th anniversary in 2011.

In the early Seventies, Safka left Buddah Records to set up her own Neighbourhood Records with Schekeryk. Brand New Key topped the US charts and featured on her most acclaimed album, Gather Me. In 1972 she was named Top Female Vocalist by Billboard magazine but the hits dried up shortly afterwards.

Undeterred, Safka continued to write and perform, releasing a steady stream of albums right into the early Noughties. In the late Eighties she won an Emmy Award for co-writing The First Time I Loved Forever, the theme for TV series Beauty and the Beast.

She returned to her stage roots, writing the words and music for a musical entitled Ace of Diamonds, based on Annie Oakley’s letters. Following Schekeryk’s death in 2010 she staged the autobiographical Melanie and the Record Man in Rochester, New York State.

Safka continued to command cult appeal. She was invited to perform at the Jarvis Cocker-curated Meltdown festival in 2007 and appeared on Jools’ Annual Hootenanny in 2019. Morrissey covered her song Some Say (I Got Devil) on his 2019 California Son album and Safka was due to the return the favour with a version of Ouija Board Ouija Board recorded for her forthcoming covers collection Second Hand Smoke.

She is survived by her three children, Leilah, Jeordie and Beau-Jarred, who are all musicians.


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