Melanie, Beloved Woodstock Performer and “Brand New Key” Singer, Dies at 76

Melanie, the influential singer-songwriter who was one of three solo female performers at the original 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair, died on Tuesday (January 23) at the age of 76. The news was first announced on social media by her three children, and later confirmed to Pitchfork via press release. “We are heartbroken, but want to thank each and every one of you for the affection you have for our Mother,” Melanie’s family wrote. “She was one of the most talented, strong and passionate women of the era and every word she wrote, every note she sang reflected that.” A cause of death has not yet been revealed, though the press release stated that Melanie had been living with an undisclosed illness.

Melanie Safka was born in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York, on February 3, 1947. Melanie was exposed to music at a young age, as her mother, Polly, was a professional jazz singer; Melanie first performed when she was only four years old, singing on a New York radio show. She went on to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and would head downtown during her free time to play at the Greenwich Village coffee houses, home to the flourishing 1960s folk scene.

In 1968, Melanie issued her studio debut, Born to Be. The collection of predominately original folk songs included a rendition of Bob Dylan’s oft-covered “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Born to Be solidified Melanie’s style; her dynamic voice could bellow and expand, or shrink into scratchy, childlike murmurs. Deviating from the traditionally simple structure of ’60s folk, Melanie’s sound drew from the high-drama work of édith Piaf, Kurt Weill, and jazz singer Blossom Dearie.

Melanie’s breakout performance at Woodstock was a turning point for the artist, who was one of only three women to play in front of the massive crowd unaccompanied. Her performance of “Birthday of the Sun” exposed an entirely new audience to her belting, acrobatic voice. In 1970, Melanie released her inaugural Stateside hit, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” from her fourth album, Candles in the Rain. The following year, Melanie and Peter Schekeryk—her late husband, manager, and producer—founded Neighborhood Records, regarded as the first female-owned independent label in rock history.

In the ensuing decades, Melanie recorded at a swift pace, issuing LPs through 2010 and releasing hits like “What Have They Done to My Song Ma,” “Peace Will Come,” and “The Nickel Song,” as well as “Brand New Key,” which was later featured in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film Boogie Nights. Throughout the years, her music was recorded by the likes of Nina Simone, Ray Charles, Miley Cyrus, and Morrissey.

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