In the almost 50 years since her debut album, Home To Myself, Melissa Manchester has followed her own muse. While she’s immediately identified with massive hits like 1978’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and 1982’s “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” in the pop zeitgeist, the foundational elements of soul and R&B are often left out of conversations about her work, but the release of the previously shelved Live ‘77 album in a 2-disc package by Real Gone Music/Second Disc/Arista will hopefully remedy that. 

Recorded live at the Great Southern Music Hall in Gainesville, Florida on October 30, 1977, the recording captures Manchester at the beginning of the touring phase of her career on the heels of the release of Singin’, her sixth album since her debut in 1973.  While her albums were chock full of soulful gems like “Stevie’s Wonder” (from 1975’s Melissa), “You Can Make It All Come True” (from 1976’s Better Days & Happy Endings) and “Be Somebody” (from 1976’s Help Is On The Way) and even covered by soul artists (Revelation’s 1975 take on “Just Too Many People” comes to mind), her chart success, at that point, came from her more pop-leaning cuts like “Midnight Blue” and “Better Days.” 

“Even though I was raised in a creative, musical family, listening to opera a lot because my dad played in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera and my mother used to go to all the Broadway shows within a week of them opening, there was something about R&B music, The Philadelphia Sound, Motown, Laura Nyro, that really reflected the streets of Manhattan. That was my world! You walked everywhere, rode the bus, the subway…there was an engine that matched my ambition, my dreaming.  And it showed up in soul music, and it was very hard to get the record company to help me reflect that,” she reflects, expounding on her remarks to Joe Marchese in the Live ‘77 liner notes that “it [R&B] was just not the mold the record company saw me fit into.”

She continues, “In those days, [the record company] was a room full of guys that were looking at me as ‘a chick.’ They were trying to find a place for me and I did not have the language to say ‘This is what I feel myself as.’ Very often, if I gave an opinion I was seen as difficult and that was the run-of-the-mill response to women. In the early days, other than having the blessing of being left alone when I was at Bell Records for my first two albums, it was difficult to be heard.”

Live ‘77 revels in soulfully unconstrained vocals and infectious grooves like “Hi-Heel Sneakers” and “If It Feels Good (Let It Ride)” that go a step beyond what listeners had heard on her studio albums. “With this concert, there’s a sensory memory of it. I had no vocal technique! It was just sort of an extension of what I used to do in my mother’s living room, which was just singing all the time with my sister, my mother and my aunt. So every performance was just running out of the gate. I was like a racehorse, I just needed to run,” remembers Manchester.

Among the highlights of Live ‘77 is a cover of Leon Ware’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” (also recorded on 1977’s Singin’) which features a buoyant and playful Manchester ad-libbing and riffing around the song’s melody line. She recalls that she had not yet met Ware, but would shortly thereafter. Their meeting led to their collaboration on her 1978 blockbuster album Don’t Cry Out Loud (Ware produced everything on the album except for the title track). “Leon was a remarkable musician. I was really honored to work with him. He opened my eyes up to different harmonics and approaches, and, of course, there was the seminal work that he did with Marvin Gaye, I Want You. [That album] was so attractive to me because all of the hard edges suddenly became soft and curved. He brought in all of these stunning musicians!  I dedicate my left hand to Richard Tee! He was one of the greatest pianists of all time. Writing with Leon was so joyful because music just flowed out of him. Harmonically, it was just fantastically appealing. It was beautiful.” 

Photo: Nick Spanos

Live ‘77 gives listeners a unique opportunity to hear a just-written composition titled”Caravan” in its infancy— a tune Ware would produce in 1978. Manchester remembers the song coming to her as the tour bus crossed the country. “I was really young, really green and songwriting was relatively new to me so I trusted the messages I was getting from deep in my soul. The hum of the motor sort of relaxed my mind and the fruit would just fall off! ‘Caravan’ was really a reflection of life on the road. The thing about being on the road, if you’re not flying, is the earth is interesting. It’s like a patchwork. I would usually sit in the passenger seat next to the driver because I liked the view. It was such a new experience. I was a city kid, so I thought I knew everything I needed to know about life; and when you’re driving through prairies and mountain ranges and sunrises and sunsets and mountain ranges and thousands of acres of open land, it’s stunning what it can do to the mind. Because I was so young, it touched a part of my mind that I did not realize had been untouched.  So ‘Caravan’ came out of all of that traveling and the sound of the music is all about wandering. You can hear it in the opening vamp, that jingling, looking at the mountains and the prairies.”

Manchester is preparing for the release of RE:VIEW, an album that re-examines/reinterprets her past hits in addition to previously unreleased compositions. The timing of the two releases presents an interesting juxtaposition of past and present to both longtime admirers of Manchester’s work and listeners who may not have yet had the opportunity to connect with her body of work. “This album [Live ‘77] was long lost from my mind. I’ve come to learn that there’s my time and God’s time. We’re better off trusting God’s time, because our time makes us cranky,” she laughs. “That it shows up in my career nearing a 50-year mark is so touching.  RE:VIEW would be the tender reflection of who I am today and how I look back at it all and how many of these compositions stand up for me…that they are solid compositions that have helped me grow as an artist. It’s been a privilege to have co-written them or been gifted them by their writers. It all sort of works after all.”

Tim Dillinger
Senior Editorial Contributor