By Mary Ann Bourbeau |
ASBURY PARK – Although next year marks the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, Melanie Safka remembers it like it was yesterday.
The 22-year-old folk singer from Long Branch was barely known outside of the Greenwich Village coffee house circuit, but by the time she walked off stage, she was a star. She made history as one of only three women to perform solo at the historic concert in Bethel, New York and also as the inspiration for concertgoers to light flames signaling an artist to perform an encore.
“I was so afraid of performing,” she said during a phone interview from her home in Nashville. “It was sheer terror. Right before I went on, it started to rain. Wavy Gravy made an announcement that they were passing out candles, and people should light them to keep the rain away. As I started singing my song, ‘Beautiful People,’ I saw thousands of candles, like a display of little flickering lights coming down the hill.”
That experience inspired Melanie to write the song “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” which sold more than a million copies in 1970 and prompted Billboard to name her female vocalist of the year.
“It’s a beautiful, symbolic gesture,” she said of the concert lights. “To this day, people don’t know I’m the person that started it.”
Melanie will likely recount her Woodstock experience and other career highlights when she performs at Tim McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park Thursday, Sept. 27. She will be accompanied on guitar by the youngest of her three children, son Beau-Jarred Schekeryk.
“He’s my son, but when we’re on stage, we’re just two artists who create music,” she said. “I can’t say enough about his musicality. He’s a virtuoso on guitar.”
Melanie is looking forward to her return to the Jersey Shore.
“It will really be a homecoming, even though I don’t have family here anymore,” she said. “This was my world for a long time, even after I had children. I spent a lot of time at the Jersey Shore with my parents and my sisters.”
Melanie Anne Safka Schekeryk was born in Queens, New York. After the family moved to Long Branch, she had a hard time fitting in with the other high school kids, so she ran away. Using a false identity, she took a plane to California. When she returned, there were persistent rumors that she had been pregnant, which had often been the case when girls disappeared for months at a time. In Melanie’s case, it wasn’t true.
“Because of the rumors, Long Branch High School suggested I shouldn’t come back, so my dad sent me to Red Bank High School,” she said. “But the rumors followed me there.”
Though her high school memories are anything but pleasant, she relished the time spent at the Jersey Shore.
“I used to ride my bicycle to Asbury Park all the time,” she said. “The beach was my solace. I would go day and night, all year long. I would walk along the shore and find sea glass and shells, and just be in my own little world.”
Melanie returned to Red Bank in 2015 when she was inducted into the Red Bank Regional High School Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame. She was honored for her chart-topping hits, including “Brand New Key,” “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” and a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday.”
Over the years, she has performed at Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House and appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
She also raised three children and served as a UNICEF spokesperson while her husband, Peter Schekeryk, managed every detail of her career. They lived in Germany, Florida and California before moving to Nashville about 15 years ago.
“Peter wanted us to be in a music city,” she said. “He really did have foresight.”
Since her husband of more than 40 years died suddenly in 2010, Melanie has taken on the task of managing her own career. At 71, she is still recording and touring, and enjoys meeting young fans who have now discovered her songs, many through her duet with Miley Cyrus in the video of “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.”
“Sometimes your music has an unbelievable effect on people,” she said. “It’s the soundtrack to their lives. I don’t see myself retiring any time soon.”
Melanie will perform at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 27 at McLoone’s Supper Club in Asbury Park. Tickets are $49.50. For more information, visit timmcloonessupperclub.com.
Arts and entertainment writer Mary Ann Bourbeau can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published in the Sept. 20-26, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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