Music Preview: Almost five decades after Woodstock, Melanie Safka still delivers powerful message

Singer-songwriter Melanie Safka will perform Oct. 16 at the Rose in Pasadena.

Singer-songwriter Melanie Safka will perform Oct. 16 at the Rose in Pasadena.

(Courtesy of Marc Miller)

Singer-songwriter Melanie Safka has seen it all during her musical career.

One of only three women who performed at Woodstock, Safka — who is known professionally simply as Melanie — has worked with the biggest names in the business, had her songs recorded by the likes of Ray Charles and Mott the Hoople and produced some memorable hits — the epochal, nine minute-plus Woodstock-inspired, gospel-folk classic “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” the maddeningly catchy novelty chart topper “Brand New Key” and the bittersweet “Look What They Done to My Song, Ma.”

Safka, who will appear Oct. 16 at The Rose in Pasadena, never expected any of this to happen. She was just a kid who had been crazy about music since her early childhood in Queens, N.Y.

“My mom was a jazz singer,” Safka said. “And she’d take me to the all the clubs, so I had a strong jazz influence, and I always wrote, always. When I was 5 and 6, I was writing torch songs, I didn’t know what I was saying, and my mom would laugh. As a teenager, I also got very into Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, and Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith — solo women who sing their hearts out, all that really hit me.

“But my soul music was folk. At 16, my dad bought me a Joan Baez album and that was it,” she said. “I started singing out, my mom would take me to the folk clubs in the Village and I was also singing on the street, in Washington Square. It was funny because I was really shy, except when it came to my singing. So I’d have my guitar strapped to my back — none of the cool people in the Village had a guitar case — and I wanted to be Joan Baez, but my voice was really loud, gravelly, it came from deep down in my stomach. I just really had something different.”

That difference was a tremendous advantage. While many of Safka’s classic late ‘60s records display traces of the Baez delicacy, she naturally favors a high-voltage, blues-informed, declarative phrasing style not dissimilar to Janis Joplin. But, ultimately, Safka’s oft idiosyncratic sound was hers alone.

“I got signed to Columbia by John Hammond, head of Columbia A&R,” Safka said. “And we recorded ‘Beautiful People,’ it was produced by Peter Schekeryk who also became my husband. No one else ever produced me. The song became what they called a ‘turntable hit’ because Columbia didn’t service the song to radio or in records but it caught on.”

She moved to Buddha Records, which issued the engagingly unconventional “Bobo’s Party,” which became popular in Europe. “My career first really took off in France with “Bobo’s Party” — that title just sounded so right with a French accent,” she said. “I was at the Olympic Theater in Paris, co-billed with Gilbert Bécaud, who was like the Sinatra of France. He introduced me on stage there and I really took off.

“And, after that, I did Woodstock.”

After “Lay Down” charted in more than a dozen countries and became her first U.S. Top 10 hit, Safka was an in-demand, one-of-a-kind force, appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” playing high-profile British Glastonbury and Isle of Wight music festivals.

Her permanent calling card, “Brand New Key,” followed shortly thereafter. The buoyant, 1930s Tin Pan Alley flavored romp, AKA “The Roller Skate Song,” was initially met with resistance from radio deejays, who perceived it as riddled with vulgar double entendre, but it held down the U.S. charts’ No. 1 spot for almost two months and became another international hit.

“I consider myself to be genre-less,” Safka said. “I’m not a folk singer. I am not a social commentator. But I am definitely driven by the power that people have and when it gets taken away from them, that moves me. My mission statement is all about human rights. At age 20, I didn’t even know what ‘humanist’ meant, but I was one and I’ve always done work with UNICEF and other organizations.”

I’m not a folk singer. I am not a social commentator. But I am definitely driven by the power that people have and when it gets taken away from them, that moves me.

Melanie Safka

Safka always goes her own way and, in a profession loaded with them, doesn’t take naysayers too seriously.

“I have made comments about the industry and that certainly hasn’t helped me,” she said. “Like ‘Look What They’d Done With My Song,’ they put a nickel in and want a dollar song. I have had to choose between who I am musically and being true to myself, rather than doing things that would be more commercially successful. People have brought me songs and said, ‘Do it. This is a hit.’ But if it’s not right, then that can be an expensive decision.”

She has released more than 30 albums and tours regularly, but a recent Grammy Museum appearance was her first Los Angeles date in quite a long time.

“I haven’t been out to the West Coast in years,” Safka said. “It somehow kind of backed off for me. I used to play the Troubadour a lot in the ‘70s, but for me, it’s always been like there’s something wrong with Los Angeles. ‘Let’s do lunch,’ and all that. I’m from New York, and, to me, that was abhorrent.

“But you have to be in people’s faces a lot,” she said. “So that’s what I’m doing here. There are moments, being out there with the people, and being able to communicate to people, that are wonderful. I mean, you can sit in a room alone and create a great song but then what? It’s a great feeling just to get it out.”


Who: Melanie Safka, LoveyDove

Where: The Rose, 245 E. Green St., Pasadena

When: 8 p.m. Oct. 16

Cost: $34-$42

More info: (888) 645-5006


JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of “Ramblin’ Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox” and “Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story.”