Melanie Dies: ‘Brand New Key’ Singer-Songwriter, Woodstock Favorite Was 76

Melanie, the witty, gentle-voiced singer-songwriter who rose to fame with her crowd-pleasing performance at Woodstock in 1969 and had two major hit singles – “Brand New Key” and “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” – in its aftermath, died January 23. She was 76.

Her death was announced by her children Leilah, Jeordie and Beau Jarred. A cause of death was not disclosed.

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“Dear Ones,” they wrote on Facebook, using the greeting favored by their mother, “This is the hardest post for us to write, and there are so many things we want to say, first, and there’s no easy way except to say it… Mom passed, peacefully, out of this world and into the next on January 23rd, 2024.”

Born Melanie Safka on Feb. 3, 1947, in Queens, New York, Melanie began performing in Greenwich Village folks clubs such as the Bitter End during the mid-1960s, winning over audiences with a clear, if sometimes tremulous, voice. Usually accompanying herself with an acoustic guitar, often sitting cross-legged on stage, Melanie was soon signed to Columbia Records, though she’d find greater success on the Buddah Records label, including with the single “Bobo’s Party,” a #1 hit in France in 1969.

But it was another 1969 single, “Beautiful People,” that would become an early signature song. A hit in the Netherlands, it became a staple of freeform FM radio in the early 1970s. An ode for and about the peace-loving hippies who became her early fans, “Beautiful People” was among the songs that the then-22-year-old Melanie performed at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in August of 1969, a set that would send her popularity soaring when a portion of it was included in the subsequent hit documentary.

Woodstock also would provide Melanie with the subject for her first nationwide hit, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” a song inspired by the appreciative Woodstock audience. Backed by the gospel group the Edwin Hawkins Singers, the song featured the immediately catchy, if not altogether understandable, chorus: “Lay down, lay down, lay it all down/Let your white birds smile up at the ones who stand and frown.”

Other hits would follow, including “Peace Will Come (According to Plan),” and covers of the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” (backed with “What Have They Done To My Song Ma,” a chanteuse-style song she co-wrote with HM Saffer II and which was covered by many singers, from Ray Charles to Miley Cyrus, as “Look What They’ve Done To My Song Ma”) and Jim Croce’s “Lover’s Cross.”

But none would compare in popularity to the whimsical, faux-innocent 1972 #1 smash “Brand New Key,” a self-penned song that featured a chorus at least as memorable as that of “Lay Down”: In a sweet, almost little girl voice, Melanie sang (to a potential beau) “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, you see.” If children of the day were delighted by the old-fashioned melody and arrangement, adults were quick to pick up on the charming innuendo.

The two hits brought Melanie massive international fame, and she quickly became a familiar presence on the era’s music and variety TV programs. She was named Billboard’s No. 1 Top Female Vocalist for 1972.

Subsequent singles would prove popular with fans, and some achieved chart success, including “Ring the Living Bell,” The Nickel Song” and, in 1973, “Bitter Bad” and “Together Alone,” but Melanie would increasingly, if temporarily, retreat from the music world to focus on her family.

She never completely abandoned her career or her fans, though. She released the acclaimed album Photograph in 1976, won an Emmy Award in 1989 for her lyrics to “The First Time I Loved Forever” (the theme song for the TV series Beauty and the Beast) and continued to release albums and perform onstage well into the 21st Century. Among her most celebrated performances came in 2007, when she was invited by British rocker Jarvis Cocker to perform at London’s famed Meltdown Festival. Tickets to her performance quickly sold out, and the concert was filmed and released on DVD under the title Melanie: For One Night Only.

In 2019, she appeared on the BBC’s New Year’s Eve annual special Jools’ Annual Hootenanny.

Most recently, she reportedly recorded an album of cover songs under the title Second Hand Smoke, to be released later this year on the Cleopatra label, and includes her versions of Morrissey’s “Ouija Board Ouija Board,” Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt,” Radiohead’s “Creep,” the Moody Blues’ “Nights In White Satin,” Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence” and David Bowie’s “Everyone Says Hi.”

Melanie was predeceased by her husband and longtime manager Peter Schekeryk, who died in 2010. Survivors include her children (and frequent musical collaborators) Beau Jarred, Leilah and Jeordie.

A celebration of life will be forthcoming, but in the meantime the family asks that tonight, at 10 p.m. Central time, fans light a candle for the singer, and “Raise, raise them high, high up again. Illuminate the darkness, and let us all be connected in remembrance of the extraordinary woman who was wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend to so very many people.”

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