Melissa Manchester and A Tribute To The Fellas
The one and only Melissa Manchester has been in tour in support of The Fellas, the legendary singer/songwriter’s 21st studio magnum opus. A continuation of sorts to 1989’s Tribute which highlighted influential female vocals, The Fellas focuses on the gentlemen who have made history as well as glorious memories within the music and show business industry. Unveiling a very special performance at The Rose in Pasadena, Ms. Manchester presented all eight selections from The Fellas as well as other timeless classics from her own brilliant and epic career.
After the dazzling performance and a wonderful fan and friend meet and greet, Highwire Daze Online caught up with Melissa Manchester backstage to discuss The Fellas, working with intriguing singers such as Al Jarreau and Barry Manilow, a recent song called Open Spaces and Gas Stations, a Broadway musical in the works, and a whole lot more! Read on…
How did the concept for The Fellas come about and what made you decide to release this record of classic standards?
The Fellas is the completion of an idea that started in 1989 when I recorded my album called Tribute. Which was my tribute to several of the women singers that meant a lot to me. I always wanted to final it up with an album called The Fellas for the men but I couldn’t find anybody that was interested and 28 years later as Artist In Residence at Citrus College, Dean Bob Slack had asked me, “Can you think of a project that could use our student Blue Note Orchestra?” I said funny you should ask. I told him about The Fellas and he said “Done!” In a couple of months, it was done. The Blue Note Orchestra is made up of students, alumni, and professors and we had different magnificent arrangers Peter Hume, Terry Wollman, Doug Walter, and David Catalan do a bunch of different songs and then it was done.
Do you teach at Citrus College?
I am Artist In Residence, so what they allow me to do is record and use their Citrus singers on my recordings and because the studio is state of the art, is also a teaching facility. Their students are watching the recordings. So when I bring in guests artist like I did on my twentieth album You Gotta Love The Life of Stevie Wonder and Dionne Warwick, and for this one Barry Manilow – it allows them to see what the actual musical dialog looks like. So many of the kids are just working on tracks in their garage, they’re not really interacting with other people. So to see the art of collaboration is just mind-blowing for them and it is wondering. It is totally educational.
Are you ever surprised by some of the music that some of these kids are listening to these days?
I am, but then I am mostly surprised by how taken they are with the music that I like to make. I really do appreciate that because you know, on The Fellas, this is all big band music. It’s all classic songs that we will endure forever. We recorded eight tracks in one day. It was bam, bam, bam one right after another. We stopped for lunch then we went right back. We recorded four and four and it was really thrilling. The kids, their heads were exploding. It was beautiful. Am I surprised? You know I listen to my local college station. Most of it is fine, you know it’s almost the same kind of chords that have been always been used for songs. Sometimes they’re more interesting mixes and sometimes the message is interesting, but it’s mostly just fine. I don’t lean into rap, I just don’t. I am a big melody and lyric kind of person but there is room for everybody.
Barry Manilow is a long-time friend and he’s on The Fellas. Where was the first time you met Barry and what did you think of him?
We were hired to sing a jingle together and we instantly were attracted by each other’s enormous talent. Then he had hired me to sing a song of his and you know, we were all young singer-songwriters. We were all sort of traveling in a pack in Manhattan in those days and everybody, it was a very talented bunch of performers. We would sing with Patti Austin who was a jingle singer – Valerie Simpson and Nicky Ashford were jingle singers. We all made a good living but that is how we made it. Away from the jingle studio, we would write and everyone was always interested in who was getting publishing deal or who’s got a gig or whatever. It was really touching, we were all really rooting for each other.
How did Barry become involved with the track For Me And My Gal?
Well I called him and asked him. I told him he would be the only duet on the album and would you consider? He said absolutely. I was not thinking of paying homage to Gene Kelly – just I loved him and Barry didn’t like my original idea. He said, I know what we should do, let’s do Gene Kelly and Judy Garland recreating For Me And My Gal – and I knew that it was going to be great, and so it was. He took down the actual notes of Roger Eden’s original arrangement for the movie For Me and My Gal, it was really sweet.
Now the only person who is living, who you paid tribute to is Tony Bennett. Has he heard How Do You Keep The Music Playing?
I have no idea. I have tried to get in touch with him for 2 projects, I do not get an answer so it’s disappointing but some things are just not meant to be. It doesn’t stop me from my adoration of his work and my desire to pay tribute to him.
And your favorite Tony Bennett memory?
I never met him but when I first heard his Perfectly Frank album – which is his tribute to Frank Sinatra – it is so fantastic. Each cut is just magnificent. It’s simple, I think it’s just a trio, not a big deal. But it’s beautifully executed. He has lived his artistry in chapters and I think in watching interviews with him he really sees his career and his life as an opportunity to learn. That’s how I see my life. When I heard that I thought, you know if you ever did answer a phone call of mine, I think we would get along.
I want to go back to a memory from the last album You Gotta Love The Life because Al Jarreau has recently passed away. What was it like working with Al Jarreau on the Big Light song?
Al and I had toured together and we had made records together but he called me when he heard I was working on this album You Gotta Love the Life. He said, can I sing on it? [laughs] These songs were not written as duets. I had to pick out the song that would best suit him. Al is a great optimistic soul. So when John Proulx and I wrote Big Light I thought, you know, that’s who he is. He is a big light. He came into the studio and he was absolutely gorgeous. When he was finished recording his part, I went in to give him a hug and he just held onto me because he was crying. He said, just keep doing this. Don’t stop. Do this for all of us. It was so touching. I had heard from this young fellow who had been his assistant before he passed away that Big Light was one of the most meaningful songs he had ever recorded, so that was particularly touching for me.
I discovered one of your recent songs on iTunes I didn’t even know about, Open Spaces and Gas Stations? How did that song come about and what is the story behind the song lyrically?
James Collins, my friend from Canada, asked me to write a song, it was his idea – the title was his idea and when we sort of settled into the tone of the song, it just became very cinematic. I was told it did pretty well in the Philippines which is interesting and Quebec, I think. But yeah, I hope it gets set to a movie one day or even a commercial because it’s really a very cinematic sounding song. It was just a single, not attached to anything.
What’s up next for Melissa Manchester?
I’m still touring The Fellas but I’m starting to put together ideas for the next project, this is how it works! The thing is, The Fellas was an idea that I had held onto for so long. It’s not that I didn’t think it would happen, it’s just that I had put it to the side because there was no evidence of how it was going to manifest. So when it did happen, it really emptied me out because the idea of tribute and The Fellas is now complete. Hopefully one day they will be packaged together and you’ll actually see the whole world of Tribute for the women and The Fellas for the men. The Tribute album was arranged by the late Peter Matz, who had arranged everybody from Judy Garland to Streisand. He was just fantastic to work with, a real honor. So right now I’m slowly thinking of the next recorded project. And this musical that I’ve written with Sharon Vaughn and Rupert Holmes called Sweet Potato Queens, we’ve been working on it forever. But it’s finally been purchased by a licensing organization called TRW – so hopefully I will be able to have yet another interview with you at some point and tell you where Sweet Potato Queens will be produced.
(Interview by Ken Morton – Live Photos by Melissa Manchester)