by Steve Desroches
The Academy Award-winning 2013 documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom gave the world a glimpse into the lives and history of being a backup singer in the world of popular music. And in that film Bruce Springsteen says that for a backup singer to take center stage is “…a bit of a walk. That walk to the front is… complicated.” Not many get to do it, and often those who do find fleeting fame, if at all. However, that was not the case for Melissa Manchester, who began her career as one of Bette Midler’s original Harlettes and then exploded several years later on the charts with one mega hit after another, setting her on course for a musical career now in its fourth decade.
The Grammy Award winner comes to Provincetown for the first time for three shows at the Sage Inn and Lounge, where she will sing songs from her most recent album You Gotta Love the Life, as well as some of her classic hits. The name of that album, which features work recorded with legendary artists such as Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau, Keb’ Mo’, Dionne Warwick, Dave Koz, and Joe Sample, encapsulates the spirit of someone who is in love with music and performing, despite the sometimes grueling pace and the ups and downs of that industry. Manchester laughs and says that if you love feeling unsteady and insecure, and you don’t feel particularly attracted to normalcy, then a life in music is for you. That’s something she learned way back when she sang with Midler.
“From my vantage point, which was from the back and to the left, she’s an amazing woman,” says Manchester. “I learned so much from watching her. She’s brilliant. That’s the alpha and the omega of it. And with her gay audience, she created this little village. She was always the other and she reached out to others who felt the same way.”
Manchester brings up her gay fans and LGBT audiences not as a way to pander to a large portion of Provincetown, but out of sincere affection and appreciation for a community that has played such a large role in her life since she was a little girl. Her father was a bassoonist for the New York Metropolitan Opera and her mother was one of the first women to have her own clothing firm, Ruth Manchester Ltd., and they both had a lot of gay and lesbian friends and colleagues. At just 9 years old her parents took Manchester to see Judy Garland at the Palace for concerts that are now regarded as important moments in LGBT history, considering the audience was primarily gay men. Watching Garland and then Midler, communicate with their gay fans from the stage was something that has always stuck with her.
“What I love about great artists is they represent a voice for those that have no voice,” says Manchester. “I think that is why gay fans have a real loyalty. They appreciate great art and sustain that appreciation based on that relationship. They’ll follow an artist over time and support them. It’s not only touching, but essential. An artist keeps creating; it’s the thing that keeps them going. That kind of loyalty knows no bounds and to a performer it means so much.”
Manchester’s accomplishments are many and varied. She first rose to popular acclaim with her 1975 hit “Midnight Blue,” followed over the next decade with other chart toppers like “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “Just You and I,” and “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” for which she won a Grammy in 1982 for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. In 1979 she had two smash hits with songs from movies: “Through the Eyes of Love” from Ice Castles and “I’ll Never Say Goodbye” from The Promise. Both songs would go on to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song, and Manchester performed each at the Academy Awards at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in front of Hollywood’s elite and millions of viewers worldwide. It was a big surprise to have the singles do so well on the charts as well as with the Academy. It was a night she’ll never forget.
“It was a huge thrill,” says Manchester. “It was an amazing night. I was wearing my first Bob Mackie gown! I was thrilled that nobody heard my knees knocking in fear.”
Melissa Manchester will perform at the Sage Inn and Lounge, 336 Commercial St., Provincetown, nightly August 20 – 22 at 7 p.m. For tickets ($50 – $100) and information, go to the box office, call 508.487.6424, or visitsageinnptown.com.