Melanie, the singer-songwriter who rose through the New York folk scene, performed at Woodstock and had a series of 1970s hits including the enduring cultural phenomenon “Brand New Key,” has died.
Her publicist Billy James told The Associated Press that Melanie died Tuesday. She was 76 and lived in central Tennessee. The cause was not immediately revealed.
“Our world is much dimmer, the colors of a dreary, rainy Tennessee pale with her absence today,” her children Leilah, Jeordie and Beau Jarred, said in a post on her Facebook page announcing her death.
With a voice that could shift from high-pitched and coy to a deep soulful rasp, Melanie wrote and sang hits including “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain).”
She was best known for “Brand New Key,” a song from her 1971 album “Gather Me” that she wrote about about a girl who bikes and skates past the house of a boy she longs for. It became a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and several other countries.
With echoes of the popular songs of the ‘20s and ’30s, it combines a youthful simplicity with a winking adult sophistication in its chorus:
“Well, I’ve got a brand-new pair of roller skates, you’ve got a brand-new key, I think that we should get together, and try them on to see.”
She would say in later interviews that she didn’t necessarily intend sexual innuendo in the song, but those who heard it weren’t necessarily wrong.
“I probably have a quirky way of writing, and I think I was misunderstood,” she told the Tennessean newspaper in 2014. “I had this smiling, cherubic thing, and I think that worked against me. Girls with guitars who were relevant were angst-filled and angular.”
The song has had several revivals in the decades since. It had a key place in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film “Boogie Nights” and was lip-synced by Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show” in 2016.
Born Melanie Safka, the daughter of a jazz singer, in Queens, New York, she studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and performed in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village and other New York folk hubs.
She released her self-titled debut album in 1969, and had hit songs in Europe with “Bobo’s Party” and “Beautiful People.”
That summer, she was one of only three female solo performers, along with Joan Baez and Janis Joplin, to perform at the generation-defining Woodstock Music and Art Fair in upstate New York.
The candles the crowd held up during her opening-night set at the festival inspired her first U.S. hit, 1970’s “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” which went to No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100. That same year came “Look What They’ve Done to My Song Ma,” which would be covered by artists from Ray Charles to Miley Cyrus and adapted into commercial jingles for decades after.
“People in the Front Row,” a danceable jam from 1971’s “Garden in the City,” got prominent placement in the most recent season of “Black Mirror.”
By the mid-1970s her popularity waned, but she would maintain a following and keep recording and playing live into the 2010s.
Melanie was married to her manager and producer Peter Schekeryk from 1968 until his death in 2010. They had three kids together.