Review: Former Harlette Melissa Manchester, Liberated, at 54 Below

New York Times
Review: Melissa Manchester, Liberated, at 54 Below


Melissa Manchester has a history of laboring in other people’s shadows. At the start of her career, her mentors included Barry Manilow and Bette Midler, with whom she sang backup in Ms. Midler’s saucy group the Harlettes. At the height of her popularity in the 1970s, she was guided in her choice of material for both good and ill by the redoubtable record company honcho Clive Davis. Only recently has Ms. Manchester, who lives in Southern California and teaches music at the University of Southern California, emerged fully into the light.

Frisky and ebullient at 54 Below on Thursday evening, where she performed songs from a new album (her 20th), “You Gotta Love the Life,” she effused the high spirits of someone who had shed a heavy weight and was still dizzy with her freedom and sense of possibility. Accompanying her were Stephan Oberhoff on keyboards and guitar and Susan Holder on percussion.

Although Ms. Manchester, 64, has always written in generalities without directly addressing personal experience, two songs from her new album – “The Other One” and “I Know Who I Am” – suggested the momentous, liberating personal changes of a woman rejoicing in finally taking charge of her life. Ms. Manchester’s rugged, chesty voice is as formidable as ever, although its softer edges have toughened and frayed.

Early in the set, she sang “Through the Eyes of Love,” the Marvin Hamlisch-Carole Bayer Sager theme song to the 1978 movie “Ice Castles,” accompanied by film clips, and there was the dewy visage of the young Robby Benson. “Be My Baby” was reinvented as a slowed-down pop lullaby, sung tenderly and illustrated with the faces of young children.

The show’s title song, “You Gotta Love the Life,” referred not merely to living in the moment but also to show business: “the life.” Having ridden the rapids, Ms. Manchester has apparently reached a calm stretch where she can lie back and turn her face to the sky.

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