by Steve Nardoni
The Bronx has been the birthplace of unbelievable musical talent, and none is worthier of acclaim than Melissa Manchester, who continues to have a stunning career as a singer, songwriter, musician and actress. Thank you, da Bronx!
In 1989 she released Tribute, an album that was a paean to the iconic female singers she so admired. Sunday night (July 15) at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Melissa honored male singers she adored by featuring songs from her album, The Fellas (2017). The beauty of this show was that Melissa contributed her own special flair to each song, while at the same time reinforcing the original songs as we remembered them.
Her interpretation of standards by Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé and others does ample praise to the “boys” and their work. Melissa wakes us up with “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” (Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn), and maybe even awakened Dino with her vitality. Throughout her performance she exuded the Melissa we know and love, while at the same time evoking those classic songs by classy men.
And we’re not talking just “standards” by any old composers, we’re talking the music we heard as kids (“we” being Melissa and me, both born within a year of one another in the early ‘50s) when we were exposed to the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Arlen & Mercer and Allen & Stillman. Those last two wrote “Chances Are,” released in 1960 and sung by Johnny Mathis. And it is indelibly planted in the memories of millions of us who heard it constantly over the radio that year (in case you forgot, or weren’t there, Johnny Mathis’s romantic songs were directly responsible for many a teenage “make-out” session). Melissa reinvents the song into a sexy bossa nova, a perfect spin to that classic—and she absolutely purred it.
The more heavily orchestrated pieces that could not be replicated in such an intimate venue were sung live by Melissa against the recording session with the full orchestra.
The only duet in the program was a rendition of “For Me and My Gal” (Meyer, Leslie & Goetz), with Barry Manilow, in a video of the two of them singing in the background, as a “Gene and Judy” danced to the song. Barry filled in for Gene Kelly, who had originally performed this classic with Judy Garland. Melissa reminded us that Barry was instrumental in getting her introduced to Belle Midler, who hired Melissa as one of the infamous Harlettes.
Accompanied by new arrangements of great songs like “Love is Around the Corner,” “Night and Day,” “Smile” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Melissa’s voice adapts to each song, providing her own special and original nuance to the music. Michael Holland at piano and Susan Holder provided the spot-on backup.
And, this being her show, we got to hear some beloved Melissa classics as well: the audience revelled in hearing again “Midnight Blue” and “Whenever I Call You Friend” from this very special singer and performer. A love-filled night of music it was.
Melissa Manchester. Performed July 16 at Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 West 54th Street, between Eighth Avenue and Broadway). www.54below.com
Photos: Maryann LoPinto