100517 Festival of Music and Art: Failure was not an option for Melissa Manchester
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Festival of Music and Art: Failure was not an option for Melissa Manchester

By Carrie Humphreys
Coastal Observer

Calm. Cool. Savvy. Melissa Manchester’s been around.

“I forged my way. I had great fortitude. I never took no for an answer,” Manchester said of her 45 years as singer, songwriter, pianist and actress. Manchester, accompanied by two musicians, appears next week at the Pawleys Island Festival of Music and Art.

She took time out from writing and rehearsing to share tidbits from her career.

She was fated to be a musician. “I never had a Plan B,” she said.

Coming from a musical family – her father was a bassoon player in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra – the native New Yorker attended the Manhattan School of Music and Arts and studied songwriting at the University School of the Arts under the direction of Paul Simon. At 15, she was recording commercial jingles and at 17 signed her first music publishing deal. While playing the Manhattan club scene, she was discovered by Barry Manilow who introduced her to Bette Midler, who hired her for the newly-formed Harlettes, Midler’s back up singers.

“Bette Midler is a brilliant woman, I learned a lot from her,” Manchester said, adding she’s learned from all the talented people she’s worked with throughout her 66 years.

One stands out in particular. “My first musical heroine was Ella Fitzgerald. We did a commercial for Memorex in the early ’70s together,” she said. “Years later I was part of her All-Star tribute concert, which was sold out and people were cheering and cheering and didn’t want her to leave the stage. But after many encores she was finally escorted off the stage and as she passed me she said, ‘Did I do all right?’ I’ve never forgotten that.”

Manchester’s first big hit was “Midnight Blue.” “It gave me national recognition and still puts a warm feeling in my heart,” she said. She’ll sing that song and all her hits when she comes to Pawleys Island. “I’ll stir up some memories. We’ll have fun,” she said.

Manchester received her first Grammy nomination in 1979 for “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” Four years later she won the Grammy for “You Should Hear How She Talks About You.” Two of her songs, “Through the Eyes of Love” and “The Promise,” were nominated for Academy Awards in the same year. Her songs have been recorded by Roberta Flack, Dusty Springfield, Alison Krauss, Stevie Nicks, Kenny Loggins and Barbra Streisand, among others.

She’s also acted on stage, television and film. “I’m a balladeer primarily. My songs are really just monologues that I bring to life,” Manchester said.

After such a successful career, Manchester still has some aspirations. “I’d like to work with Tony Bennett sometime. He’s a legend,” she said. “And with Wynton Marsalis, who is a brilliant, visionary musician. And I’d love to write more for theater, and to stay open to any unusual adventures that come my way.”

Married 35 years, the mother of two, is also an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California. “I love feeling like the elder statesman bringing a huge amount of experience to young ones who can’t imagine what their career is going to look like 45 days from now, let alone 45 years,” Manchester said.

Her advice to her music students: “Learn your craft, pay attention for the signs in your life that come your way and only do this if you have absolutely no Plan B.”

If you go

What: Melissa Manchester.

When: Oct. 14, 7 p.m.

Where: Reserve Golf Club.

How much: $75, $45, $25. Tickets at pawleysmusic.com.

A tribute to friends on several levels

By Carrie Humphreys
Coastal Observer

“You’ve Got a Friend” celebrates the music of Carole King and James Taylor sung by two notable performers, Kirsti Manna and Jonathan Birchfield, who are also friends. The tribute continues at this year’s Pawleys Island Festival of Music and Art.

Manna and Birchfield met in Nashville. She was his singing coach. “Then we went on to write songs together and Kirsti’s husband produced a few of my records,” Birchfield said.

The two have years of touring, performing and writing experience between them. They have shared the stage with such artists as Brooks and Dunn, Ray Charles, Jimmy Buffett, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and have appeared on the Grand Ole Opry.

Birchfield, 50, moved from Nashville years ago, but after hearing the Carole King and James Taylor “Live at the Troubadour” concert on television, he called his old Nashville pal and said, “We should do this.”

Manna, 59, agreed. Backed by a six-piece band, the show has toured successfully since 2014.

When not performing on stage together, they appear with other musicians and continue to write songs. Manna also heads up a songwriting camp for women in Nashville. She is the co-writer of the song “Austin,” which became a No. 1 hit performed by Blake Shelton.

Manna and Birchfield were born to sing. Encouraged by her family and voice and piano teachers, Manna was singing professionally for garden clubs, weddings and the like at age 10. “I was a little girl with a big voice,” she said. “People love that.”

Birchfield is self taught. “My dad showed me a few chords on the guitar and I had my first band at age 13.”

In their tribute show, Birchfield sings Taylor’s tunes like “Carolina On My Mind,” “Fire and Rain,” “Country Road.” Manna performs “It’s Too Late,” “Natural Woman” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” Their duos include “Up On the Roof” and “You’ve Got a Friend.”

“We kick butt,” Birchfield said.

Both singer/songwriters share memories of their times in the Lowcountry.

Birchfield said he has a “place in Litchfield,” although much of his off time is spent in his home town of Hickory, N.C. Manna spent summers in Myrtle Beach for many years, traveling with her family from Poland, Ohio. “When we vacationed in Myrtle Beach we always went to Georgetown and Brookgreen Gardens. I got song titles from going to Brookgreen. It’s a real inspiring place,” she said.

Manna never met Carole King, but Birchfield met James Taylor. “We had a conversation. It was the coolest thing talking to my idol,” he said.

If you go

What: “You’ve Got a Friend – The Music of Carole King and James Taylor.”

When: Oct. 13, 7 p.m.

Where: Reserve Golf Club.

How much: $45, $35, $25. Tickets at pawleysmusic.com.

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