Melissa Manchester: Living in the Light

Melissa Manchester wears many hats, including a crown on the cover of her 2015 album “You Gotta Love the Life.” This singer, songwriter, musician, actress and teacher has been in the business for more than 40 years. “You Gotta Love the Life” is her 20th album and she still performs about 70 shows a year. She explains that her concerts now are “a combination of my most recent album, my hits and stories about songwriting and people that I’ve known and remarkable friends – a combination of everything.”

This latest album was a special collaboration for Melissa because she was able to work with many extraordinary artists including Stevie Wonder, Dave Koz, Dionne Warwick, Keb’ Mo’, Al Jarreau and the late Joe Sample.

But the amazing artists were not the only intriguing part of this album; “You Gotta Love the Life” was financed by a fan-based campaign through Indiegogo, encouraged by her students from USC Thornton School of Music. “There are very few (recording) labels left and it was my students that opened my eyes to a new market that allows so many people to get their music out without having a record label intervening,” Melissa explains. “The trade off is that you don’t have a big engine behind you. What the blessing is, is that you get a chance to make a very pure version of your music.”

This pure version of her music includes many musical styles, as she explains, “That is my musical taste. It’s very varied and over the years record companies tried to talk me out of having a variety of music. That’s why it was so rewarding to perform. I was free to do what I do, to finally have an album where I could reflect my true soul – my musical soul, at least – and have it co-produced by Terry Wollman. It was really fantastic.”

Melissa says that her subject matter naturally lends itself to a variety of musical styles, “The subject matter sort of sings itself, then I sort of know what musical world it needs to be settled in.”

This experience also enabled her to come full circle, to “complete the cycle of how I used to make albums,” Melissa says, describing the creative process of building previous records. “It was live musicians having musical discussions.” When asked if she has a favorite artist to work with, her reply is heartfelt, “It doesn’t work that way. I am blessed by having beautiful colleagues along the way and they have not only blessed me with their friendship, but with their talent, so each one is very unique and they have brought many blessings to my life.”

Lately, her attention has been drawn to a new project. She wrote the music for “The Sweet Potato Queens” musical, which premiered in Houston in March. It was a collaboration with Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book, and Sharon Vaughn, who wrote the lyrics. The play is loosely based on the life story of New York Times best-selling author and SPQ founder Jill Conner Browne and the organization’s philosophy, which was born out of her need for some excitement and a new direction. The play had a successful debut and is in discussion for future productions.

The fact that she has dabbled in so many arenas with her musical talent no doubt stems from her childhood. “My dad was a bassoonist with the Metropolitan Opera for 30 years, so there was classical music around the house. My sister and I took piano lessons. There was just music around the house and the neighborhood. It was a fantastic version of normal. There was also a lot of Broadway show music, because my mother was a beautiful singer, besides being a fashion pioneer,” says Melissa. Her mother, Ruth Manchester, launched one of the first female-owned design and manufacturing firms in the mid-1960s, Ruth Manchester, Ltd., which was located on 7th Avenue in New York City. She was known for her “angel dress” design in the 1970s, as well as her wrap dresses, which were sold at Bloomingdale’s.

When asked about her mother’s influence, Melissa shared, “My mother shaped me in terms of my philosophy. She always said, ‘You better be having a good time.’ I think that is consistent with the adage ‘Living well is the best revenge.’ She came from real poverty and … she sort of dreamed her way into a fantastic life and did not become victimized by her suffering or by the suffering of her parents. It was remarkable that she spiritually overcame that, that she practically overcame that, and she sort of insisted on celebrating life, whether for large reasons or small reasons. She just always found a way to see the glass half full. She was extraordinary, really.” Ruth passed away last year at the age of 93.

Mid-life bat mitzvah

Melissa’s mother was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, but her father was an atheist. Since the couple had agreed early on that it was a battle they chose not to pursue, Melissa and her sister would just watch their mother light the Shabbat candles every Friday night, never being encouraged to learn the prayers. “We just watched this beautiful woman dawdling over the candles,” Melissa describes. But there was also an ironic twist, “As God would have it, we lived right next to a shul, which we never went into, but on High Holy Days we would open all the windows and we could hear the service.”

Melissa raised her two children Jewishly and they both became b’nai mitzvah. While preparing for these events, she was moved to celebrate her own bat mitzvah – at the age of 50. “It was really a deeply interesting experience because I was mostly in a class with converts. It was fascinating to see what moved my fellow students to choose Judaism. Over and over and over again I would hear the word community and it was very touching because I always felt community.”

When asked if she is observant today, her reply is genuine, “I light Sabbath candles. I pray to God every day, all the time. I pray to God in a way that I have come to understand him/her. I can’t imagine life without that component of my life.”

Along with her faith is the strong desire to perform in Israel. “I have not ever performed in Israel, but that is on my bucket list – at the top of the list actually,” says Melissa.

Something that she can scratch off her bucket list is writing a Hanukkah song, which was originally supposed to be a response to the Christmas song “Feliz Navidad.” She had been working on the song, she had captured the bars and measured how many times “Feliz Navidad” was repeated, but the final inspiration for the song came as a response to a tragedy.

“I also wrote [the song] in response to the awful bombing several years ago in Mumbai, where a young rabbi and his wife were killed,” Melissa says, referring to Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Mumbai, who were killed by terrorists in 2008. “As it turns out, because I was in such a state of anguish, I found a Chabad that was sort of near me and I went there. The congregation was packed and the young rabbi that was speaking to console everybody happened to be the best friend of the young rabbi that had been killed. What was so extraordinary was that he had visited his friend and his wife, and he said, ‘Here we are with our collective despair and what did G-d insist that we do to combat this darkness? More darkness? No! G-d wants us to bring more light into the world – more light!’ and I went home that night and I wrote ‘Let There Be More Light.’”

Melissa recorded the song with the Colorado Springs Children’s Chorale. She is expecting it to be released either this month or in November. She also hopes that StandWithUs, an organization that serves to educate the public about Israel and combat anti-Semitism, will use the song to promote their mission of peace and understanding.

Although that song is finished, there are many more unfinished snippets that remain. As Melissa put it, “Life shows up for me in songs, you know? Some people make quilts and some people sketch and I write songs.” And for that, we are thankful.

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