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Melanie, American folk singer of ‘Brand New Key’, dies aged 76

Melanie, American folk singer of ‘Brand New Key’, dies aged 76

Melanie Safka, known for her hit song “Brand New Key” (also known as “The Rollerskate Song”) and for performing at Woodstock in 1969, has died aged 76.

The American folk musician’s death was announced by her family on social media and confirmed by her label, Cleopatra Records. Her family said she died “peacefully” on Tuesday 23 January. The cause of her death was not disclosed.

In a Facebook post, Melanie’s children Leilah, Jeordie and Beau Jarred said: “We are heartbroken, but want to thank each and every one of you for the affection you have for our mother, and to tell you that she loved all of you so much.

“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.

“Our world is much dimmer, the colours of a dreary, rainy Tennessee pale with her absence today, but we know that she is still here, smiling down on all of us, on all of you, from the stars.”

They asked for her fans to light a candle for Melanie to “Illuminate the darkness, and let us all be connected in remembrance of the extraordinary woman who was wife, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and friend to so very many people”.

Melanie was famous for her hit Brand New Key (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)
Melanie was famous for her hit Brand New Key (Yui Mok/PA) (PA Archive)

Melanie had just announced the forthcoming release of a new double album of cover songs, The Eagle Mountain House, after signing to Cleopatra Records.

Born in Astoria, New York, on 3 February 1947, Melanie was the daughter of a jazz singer, Polly, and her father, who was of Ukrainian heritage. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, but ultimately chose to pursue a career in music after performing around the folk clubs of Greenwich Village.

She played at Woodstock Festival in 1969 as a virtual unknown, an experience she later wrote about for Rolling Stone.

“I had my first out-of-body experience. I was terrified,” she said. “I just left my body, going to a side, higher view. I watched myself walk onto the stage, sit down and sing a couple of lines. And when I felt it was safe, I came back.

“It started to rain right before I went on. Ravi Shankar had just finished up his performance, and the announcer said that if you lit candles, it would help to keep the rain away. By the time I finished my set, the whole hillside was a mass of little flickering lights. I guess that’s one of the reasons I came back to my body.”

She achieved her first hit with “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” in 1970, a year before she released what would become her biggest single, “Brand New Key”, a bouncing folk number that divided opinion over its meaning.

Some viewed it as a novelty song that appealed to children, while others were convinced it was heavy with sexual innuendo. Melanie called it “the bane of my existence for a few years” in a 2021 interview with The Guardian.

Also in 1971, she formed her own record label, one of the first female-owned independent record-makers, with her husband, producer and manager Peter Schekeryk, and performed at Glastonbury Festival.

She briefly left music the following year to become a spokesperson for Unicef.

Variety reports that her label said she had recorded a cover of Morrissey’s “Ouija Board Ouija Board” for a forthcoming tribute album celebrating his music. Morrissey had previously covered her song, “Some Say (I Got Devil)”.

Other songs she had apparently recorded for the new record included Radiohead’s “Creep”, Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence”, and David Bowie’s “Everyone Says Hi.”

Her husband died in 2010. Melanie’s final tour was in late 2022.

Additional reporting by Press Association