When Melissa Manchester was a young girl in New York dreaming of a recording career, she never imagined she would achieve star status. Not only did she become the first singer in history to be nominated for two Academy Awards in the same year and has earned a Grammy Award, she has passed on her wealth of knowledge to a younger generation of musicians at Master Classes around the country as an adjunct professor at the USC Thornton School of Music. She also is an honorary artist in residence at Citrus College.
In this phase of her life, Manchester revels in being not only the teacher, but the student as well.
“Every few months, the kids at USC (University of Southern California) would come in and show me their latest CD that was shrink-wrapped, and had photos and credits. I lived in an old paradigm, and I said, ‘Did you just sign with an independent label again?’ They laughed and told me they did it through crowdfunding.
“I said, ‘Great, what is that?’ One student, who became my project manager, sat down and explained how it worked. This was a whole new world. I said, ‘You must start off every sentence with ‘Once upon a time,’ otherwise I will not understand what you’re talking about. Like Oscar Hammerstein wrote in The King & I, ‘By your students you will be taught.’
“In 2015, I did my 20th album, You’ve Gotta Love the Life using crowdfunding. I couldn’t believe how engaged my fans were. They were like a village of sweet aunties and uncles, who were interested in the journey.
Times certainly have changed since Manchester began singing commercial jingles at the age of 15, where she happened to meet another jingle singer, Barry Manilow.
“Barry invited me to sing on his demo. By then I was a silent partner at a club on the Upper West Side (of Manhattan) called the Focus, and he was the new musical director for young Bette Midler, who was appearing across the street at the Continental Baths house. They came in on their night off soon after Bette made her debut on the Johnny Carson show. I told her how magnificent she was, and asked what she was doing next.
“She said she was getting ready for her first Carnegie Hall concert, and I asked if she was going to have background singers. She said, ‘I don’t know, would you like to sing in back of me?’”
Manchester, who’d been trying to get a recording deal for seven years, had a great comeback.
“Well, actually, I’d like to sing instead of you, but in the meantime, I’d be happy to.”
She and Manilow formed the original Harlettes, and she was the “toots in the middle” for six months before she got her first recording deal with Bell Records, which was eventually bought by Clive Davis at Arista Records. The only artists he kept were Melissa Manchester, Barry Manilow, and Tony Orlando and Dawn.
“I had always written alone, and Carole, who was a Brill Building writer, was used to collaborating with a partner. I remember going up to her apartment, and we just started chatting, Because I need to know how a person’s mind works, what language they linguistically sculpt with before the music starts to swirl in my head.”
They talked about their husbands and how, as young women, they weren’t sure how to get through the hard times that every relationship brings. That productive collaboration lasted five years.
“Tony Bennett articulated it best for all of us who have been blessed with a long career when he said that the artistic journey is an unfolding opportunity to learn. That’s it. To learn. We are privileged to learn through our art, and our art then reflects upon our life. It’s an interesting version of normal we are privileged to walk. Not easy, but spiritually rigorous.”
Manchester loves talking about teaching and learning, which go hand in hand.
“I’m a huge advocate of alternative public education because it’s important not to presume all children learn the same. Parents fret when their kids say they want to study acting, dance or music, but it’s a highly structured and safe environment for the kids to learn self-discipline through their art. It doesn’t matter if they become an artist; they experience what the internalized feeling of passion and concentrated energy feels like, which they can apply to whatever they choose.”
Her face lights up when she talks about her students.
“Citrus College is a unique liberal arts community college and one of the nation’s best kept secrets. Ben Bollinger, the retired dean of Fine and Performing Arts, had deep compassion for the students, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college. Because of his vision, they have access to the school’s $20 million recording facility, where companies like Sony and Disney come to record.
“When Barry Manilow visited Citrus College, he heard the kids practicing and saw them racing through the hallways to get to the next class, and he asked how much it costs to go there. When he heard each credit is about $50, he said, ‘This place is changing lives.’”
“The dean of the school, Robert Slack, who teaches the students not just about music, but about life, was conducting them hard and fast, and I could hear they had the chops. But the drummer was a little timid, so I went up to him after a couple of rehearsals and said, ‘Do you know what a casual is?’
“He said, ‘No, ma’am.’
“I said, ‘There are two kinds of playing. The casual is when you’re playing at the Holiday Inn, and then there’s what I do. I only play at Radio City.’
“He said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’ and he started playing real hard and was never timid again.
“The kids know I want them to bring it on because I love them so much for sharing this new part of their soul. I know what that feels like. I see the light in their eyes. That light exists in every human being when they get in touch with their passion. And when the expectation is high, and they go, ‘Yes!’ a big green light goes on, and they want to be part of this grand adventure.”
Manchester went to Hawaii and performed with the school’s Blue Note Orchestra, which is made up of Citrus College’s music students, alumni and some professors, and the Honolulu Symphony’s string section.
“Many of those students have never been on a plane, and when they get to Hawaii, they have to schlep their own luggage, help set up the lights, etc. They’re exhausted, but fully engaged, and they’ll run up to me and say, ‘This is what I want to do.’
“Last year, when we got back from Hawaii, Bob Slack asked if I knew of a project that would incorporate the Blue Note Orchestra, and I said, ‘Funny you should ask.’”
Manchester had long wanted to do a sequel to her 1989 album Tribute in which she honored the iconic divas who influenced her, such as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Dionne Warwick and Édith Piaf, whom she paid tribute to by singing “La Vie En Rose” on the Johnny Carson show.
“That was my parents’ music that we all sang while my mom was cooking. It’s under my skin,” said Manchester, who grew up in a household she says was a festive version of normal.
“My father was a bassoonist with The Metropolitan Opera, and my mother was a fashion pioneer, one of the first women to have her own design and manufacturing firm. They were both the black sheep of their family because they chose odd paths in life, which is why they encouraged my sister and me to live our dreams.”
Manchester has lived her dream and more. Decades later, she and Manilow are still friends.
“Barry’s a serious musician who doesn’t suffer fools. We share the same musical track, and it’s lovely to be able to complete each other’s sentences.”
He, in return, performed the only duet, “For Me and My Gal,” on The Fellas.
“When Barry suggested we sing ‘Me and My Gal,’ he didn’t have to explain what the Gene Kelly-Judy Garland duet sounded like. It was tattooed on my heart. When you’re singing with someone who shares the same soul space and musical sensibility, it’s a rich blessing.
“These kids in the Blue Note Orchestra didn’t know this music, but they knew that every note of those magnificent arrangements counted, and it was thrilling watching them rise to the occasion. We recorded the whole album in one day. I’d never recorded any whole thing in one day.
“As I watched the alum teaching the younger ones, I realized it takes a village. The kids still have so many empty spaces in their minds. They haven’t lived long enough to accumulate real perspective and a deep sense of purpose, and so it’s precious to hear them talk about their concerns because they can’t imagine what 45 years ahead of where they are now could look like.”
Manchester’s generous heart and desire to pay it forward exemplify the true meaning of class.
“Class is a place where questions can be asked, where answers can be found. It does not designate rich or poor,” she said. “I’m delighted to be a part of The Class Project because, in the end, the substantive life is a life of meaning, and purpose, and giving back to the world, and having pleasure in the midst of it all.”