BootLeg Betty

Melissa Manchester – from Harlette to the Grammy Awards

The Seattle Lesbian
Melissa Manchester – from Harlette to the Grammy Awards
Wednesday, October 12, 2011 at 4:45PM
Sarah Toce, Editor-in-Chief


Grammy Award-winning artist Melissa Manchester has been instrumental in the entertainment industry for over four decades. Whether working in front of the camera (Frasier, Blossom, For the Boys) or behind it writing and/or singing the musical score (“Through The Eyes Of Love”, “The Promise”, “Rainbird”), Manchester has fulfilled her every whim – and just keeps coming back for more (Bette Midler fans will appreciate this last line).

Speaking of Midler, Manchester is no stranger to the bawdy atmosphere of New York City in the 70’s and 80’s. The New York native shared with me that she was the one who in fact helped put Midler’s Harlettes troupe together. Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Melissa Manchester worked behind-the-scenes to create what would become a 40-plus year career for all three separately – and, sometimes, would run along intertwined pathways.

Manchester is currently in Seattle to promote her new song (co-written with actress Mary Steenburgen) at the 16th Annual Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (SLGFF). I caught up with the inspired gal to chat about her career, musicality and the journey of a lifetime.

You co-wrote the theme song “Rainbird” for Dirty Girl with the film’s star – Mary Steenburgen. How did this collaboration initiate?

I don’t receive a lot of scripts, but I received this script sort of out of the blue and it was beautifully written by Abe Sylvia – first time writer/director – and noticed that a lot of the titles of my songs were being written into the storyline. That was interesting, and then finding out the cast of the film – Mary Steenburgen and I had written a song together prior. I had no idea that she was a songwriter, but we had been introduced so we wrote a wonderful song and we thought, “Well, if they need an original song, wouldn’t it be great if the two of us – who are already attached to the film – wrote it?” So, we wrote an original song called “Rainbird” for this film to underscore the lead character’s journey.

Dirty Girl will premiere in Seattle at the Seattle Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (SLGFF) on Opening Night – October 14, 2011. You will be in the Emerald City to help promote the film and the score by singing at the Gala. What is the best part of traveling with a film through the film festival circuit, in your opinion?

It’s an adventure! This is out of my usual path, which is to perform in concert or write. This is a real creative adventure. To have your songs underscore scenes in a movie is very unusual. I have written for theatre before and the best thing about working with Abe Sylvia is that he also comes from the world of theatre, so the fact that he has made the entire musical score, which doesn’t just include my music – it includes a lot of different songs, as a presence in the movie as a sort of, Greek Chorus, I guess, is very, very interesting. To watch the audiences just love this film because it’s so loving and funny…quirky, smart and all of that…it’s fantastic to be invited to be a part of this ride.

Going back to the early days of your career for a moment, you were notably discovered by Bette Midler and Barry Manilow while performing in New York City. Tell me about that time for you. What was it like being a Harlette?

Barry and I met because we were both jingle singers. Bette was never a jingle singer, but Barry and I were and he was the musical director for Bette at the time. We were all in Manhattan and she played in a club that was diagonally across the street from where I was playing – she played at the Continental Bathhouse and I played at a folk club called The Focus. They came in to see me one night and Bette had just been on the [Johnny] Carson Show for the first time and it was a huge hit so in between my sets I went over to introduce myself to her and congratulate her on her success.

I asked her what she was working on and she told me that she was getting ready for her first Carnegie Hall concert and I asked her if she was thinking about having any background singers. She said, “Well, no, I hadn’t thought of it. Would you like to sing in back of me?” I said, “Well, actually, I’d like to sing instead of you, but in the meantime I’d be happy to organize some girls and sing in back of you.” So, Barry and I organized what became The Harlettes and I was the toots in the middle for about six months. It was great. I mean, it was magic to see how she transported an audience in such a new and unique way. She is a brilliant woman. Barry is fantastic.

You know, the truth is…the fact that Barry and Bette and I have been pursuing our art for 40 years is fantastic – particularly in an age where people seem to just be piled up on 15 minutes of fame. It’s remarkable that our journey has turned into what it has…it’s fantastic, really!

You can never know the journey when you first embark. I guess you have to just keep doing what you love and hope that it will pay off!

That’s right and it’s hard because it’s filled with peaks and valleys, but you have to have a real hunger for it. I know that I certainly do and I know Barry certainly does as well.

You’ve worked with some of the best entertainers in the industry – Paul Simon, Midler, Manilow, Kenny Loggins, Barbra Streisand, and many others. What are some of your favorite memories with these incredible talents?

I studied songwriting with Paul Simon. That was such a unique experience. I was 17 years old and I had left college after one year – NYU School of the Arts – and my friends told me that he was going to be teaching. No one was sure if it was that Paul Simon because Bridge Over Troubled Waters was #1 all over the world so what would he be doing on the Lower East Side of New York? In fact, it was he and he auditioned everybody, lots of kids, and then chose 10 very desperate types. He taught for six months and the very things he taught – which were very simple – I use to this day. I was simply in the right place at the right time.

Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager wrote the theme song from Ice Castles, “Through the Eyes of Love”, for me to sing and it has serenaded thousands of people down their wedding paths I’ve been told. That is a real blessing.

I wrote Whenever I Call You Friend with Kenny Loggins because we kept running into each other at these awards shows and we were always cast to present together. He showed up one night at my house and we wrote the song. So, it’s just amazing. You never know how things will turn out. At this point, I’m as shocked when things do work out as when they don’t work out. You never know. You just follow the adventure that’s in front of you.

Do you prefer to work in stage, screen or writing music behind-the-scenes? Do you have a preference?

I love to perform and I love to write. When it comes to theatre, I’m writing a musical now and have done theatre in the past. Doing eight shows per week is so rigorous. I don’t know if I’d do Broadway again. I suppose if somebody threw it at me and said, “You have no choice. You are doing this!” I certainly would consider it. When you hear other people sing your music, it’s thrilling. It’s all thrilling. I don’t take anything for granted. I particularly don’t take how the power of a song can change somebody’s life for granted. I know why I write songs, but you never know how your songs resonate with people and when they tell you that they do, it’s an unexpected gift. That is what keeps you going.

After such a long and poignant career, how do you continue to stay motivated?

This is what I do. I don’t have a Plan B. There was nothing else that I was ever going to do, so the exercise of expression through a song is still as fascinating and as mystical as it’s ever been. Every time I finish writing a song, I don’t remember how I did it and I don’t know if I can ever do it again. Yet it keeps showing up. I know that performing is very – while it’s physically very rigorous – it is a deeply spiritual experience for me with the audience. There’s real communion going on there. When I meet people in the lobby after the shows, it’s really fascinating what it is they get and what they project onto the songs. So, I never lose the hunger for what I do.

In terms of the gay and lesbian community, I’ve been singing at AIDS research benefits since 1984. The fact that the light has been shining more on the necessity to solidify that community as a political block, as an economic block, a family-oriented block, is fantastic. It’s part of my journey to show my support.

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