New Wardrobe, New Do, New Makeup: Except for the Same Fine Voice, It's the 1980 Melissa Manchester

updated 05/05/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Melissa Manchester admits that singing two Oscar-nominated movie themes before 80 million TV viewers was "kind of a big deal. My knees were clanking together and I prayed to the god of the steps that I wouldn't fall." But her queasiness wasn't over being the first performer to sing two of the nominees—she had earned that right by doing them on the original sound tracks of the movies Ice Castles and The Promise. Her real problem was what was covering those clanking knees: her first dress-up, non-hippie Bob Mackie gown ever. Her hair, for years a natural frizz, had been styled by Cheryl Ladd's coiffeur, her face put on by Farrah's makeup artist. "It was definitely a grown-up affair," cracks Melissa, but at 29 she finally felt ready.

The Oscar gig was actually squeezed in between a Tonight shot and her first headline engagement in Las Vegas. It was just three months after her debut there as warm-up act for Kenny Rogers. Only eight years ago the Bronx-born Manchester was one of the original Harlettes, Bette Midler's studiously tacky backup trio. Now her seamless blend of rock and cocktail music, mostly self-written, has won a permanent place on the charts as a solo. Her last LP, Don't Cry Out Loud, hung in four months, and her latest and eighth, Melissa Manchester, should last as long, propelled by her new hit single, Fire in the Morning.

Suddenly Manchester is cleaning up in all senses of the phrase. After a decade of campus and small-club one-nighters, she in under a multimillion, two-year contract with the Riviera in Vegas. That meant toning down (or up) her image. "I don't curse as much in those hotel shows," she says. The road—even the middle of it—is not Manchester's idea of the promised land. "The Rose," she says of her buddy Midler's movie, "was disquieting because that's what I do for a living, and I don't want to die for my art." There has already been one casualty: her seven-year marriage to her former manager, Larry Brezner. "When you're out on the road," she explains, somewhat cryptically, "you're in such a raw, vulnerable state you want to protect people you love from the way you are. We really had to go our separate ways." Larry got their old Hollywood Hills house and isn't hurting financially—he's a partner in the management firm handling Woody Allen and Robin Williams.

Melissa has set up a new home not far from the old one and is dating again. But she worries that "I've become cautious. I meet someone I really like, then he hands me a cassette to listen to. I don't have normal relationships." She does still have her family for support. Her mother, Ruth, a painter and fashion designer, makes some of her costumes. Her only sister, Claudia, sings backup on her tours, while her brother-in-law, Steven Cagan, conducts; and on the new LP father David played bassoon. It was his practicing at home while a member of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra that gave Melissa her first exposure to music. "A bassoon out of context is a rare thing to grow up on," she laughs. "Maybe it does something to your brain." She tried acting at New York University and dropped out a year later, but came back for a songwriting course with Paul Simon. Inspired, she began to perform in coffeehouses and clubs in Manhattan like the Focus, then owned by her future husband, Brezner.

Melissa paid the bills belting TV jingles for products like Coppertone and Kentucky Fried Chicken. (She did a Memorex spot three and a half years ago because "I wanted to meet Ella Fitzgerald.") At one session in 1972 she met Barry Manilow, who introduced her to Midler. When Bette asked Melissa, "Would you like to sing in back of me?" Manchester cracked, "No, I'd like to sing instead of you," but ended up a Harlette for six months.

Her first solo LP in 1973 sold 17,000 but got her to California, where she rented Liberace's home and lapsed into "the complete California life—chronic barbecuing." Midnight Blue, on her third LP, sold more than a million copies in 1975, while superstars like Johnny Mathis, Aretha Franklin and the Captain and Tennille were discovering and recording her tunes. In 1978 she wrote with Kenny Loggins his hit with Stevie Nicks, Whenever I Call You "Friend." "People kept saying, 'Write a Carole King song, write a Joni Mitchell song,' and I'd say, 'When do I get to write a Melissa song?' "

With enough of them now filling the airwaves, Manchester is planning a cash-in summer tour. She is already a regular on the charity and anti-nuke circuits. A Search for Tomorrow cameo three years ago "still haunts" her, and she may give acting another shot. She'd someday also like a child, though she admits, "It's going to be a crazy kid born into a crazy life." For now, life in Hollywood is comparatively sane, dining with friends like Carole Bayer Sager, Burt Bacharach, Robert Klein and director Mark (The Rose) Rydell. She can be a loner, too, and a voracious reader of everything from Jules Feiffer to James Joyce. "Chuck Berry once said to me, 'What? You write songs and read for kicks? Man, you're a freak!' " Manchester herself marvels: "It's very strange to have things all go right. I mean, could this be healthy?"

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