Singer-songwriter Melanie, who topped the U.S. singles chart with her hit "Brand New Key," and who was one of only three solo female artists to perform at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in 1969, died on Jan. 23, according to a post from her family on Wednesday. She was 76.
“Mom passed, peacefully, out of this world and into the next on January, 23rd, 2024,” her three children posted on her Facebook page. “We are heartbroken, but want to thank each and every one of you for the affection you have for our Mother, and to tell you that she loved all of you so much! She was one of the most talented, strong and passionate women of the era and every word she wrote, every note she sang reflected that. Our world is much dimmer, the colors of a dreary, rainy Tennessee pale with her absence today, but we know that she is still here, smiling down on all of us, on all of you, from the stars.”
Only 22 when she performed at Woodstock, Melanie was inspired by the experience to write "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)," which became her first hit when it was released in 1970, reaching No. 6. She had her greatest success the following year, however, when she wrote and recorded "Brand New Key" for her fifth album, Gather Me. The song topped the Billboard chart in late 1971 and early '72, and the album itself reached No. 15.
Recalling the song's genesis in later years, Melanie recalled: "I wrote it 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. It's a lot like having a baby. You conceive a song, deliver it, and then give it as good a start as you can. After that, it's on its own."
Born Melanie Safka in Queens, New York, Melanie first performed on a radio show at age four, and eventually found her way to the Greenwich Village folk music scene as a teenager. She was signed first to Columbia Records and quickly moved to Buddha Records, for whom she would record during her early 1970s heyday. Her first album, Born to Be, was released in 1968, with an NME review noting: "she wrote most of the songs, and is sort of a female Dylan."
She was nonetheless little known when she performed at Woodstock, and later recalled the overwhelming experience in a 2021 interview with The Guardian. “It was an unbelievably frightening day," she said. "I just thought it was a weekend of singing. I pictured families with picnic blankets, and arts and crafts. I had no idea! I walked into the lobby and there was Janis Joplin. I thought, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t have any hit records, nobody knows who I am.’ I had no musicians with me, no roadie – I even brought my mom!”
In addition to "Candles in the Rain" and "Brand New Key," she also notched Top 40 hits in the early '70s with "Bitter Bad," "Nickel Song," "Peace Will Come (According to Plan)" and "Ring the Living Bell." Her hitmaking had cooled by the mid-'70s, and an attempted career revival with Atlantic Records under the close watch of Ahmet Ertegün yielded one album, 1976's Photograph, which was not successful.
Nonetheless, Melanie continued recording and touring well into the current millennium, with her last album, Ever Since You Never Heard of Me, released in 2010. She won an Emmy Award in 1989 for writing lyrics to a theme song for the CBS series Beauty and the Beast, and performed at Glastonbury in 2011, forty years after performing at one of the fest's original incarnations in 1971.
In 1968 she married record producer Peter Schekeryk, who went on to produce nearly all of her albums, and the two remained together until his death in 2010.