(January 25, 2024). On the very first airing of the weekly syndicated radio countdown show American Top 40 with Casey Kasem in July 1970, there were two songs that climbed to their peak positions inside that week’s top ten.

“Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” by Three Dog Night, which was crowned as the week’s new No. 1 single, and Melanie’s “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” at No. 6, which had moved from No. 8 the prior week. All other songs in the top ten had either already peaked or were still climbing to their ultimate chart highs in subsequent weeks.

“Lay Down” would climb no higher and “Mama,” of course, couldn’t.

Yet, the irony of this twosome peaking at the same time on the iconic show’s debut episode was palpable. Although written a few years earlier by satirist Randy Newman, “Mama Told Me” could have easily described Three Dog Night’s experience at the very raucous rock music festival held in Los Angeles in June 1969, the Newport ‘69 festival.

Melanie’s hit had been inspired by a similar but more famous festival she had been driven to by her own mama — a circumstance the polar opposite of that being described by Three Dog Night’s song title — the Woodstock festival in the Catskills of New York in August 1969.

While at Woodstock, the then-22-year-old unknown performer from Queens would have what she later described as an out-of-body experience as she approached the stage to face hundreds of thousands of rain-drenched fans who’d just watched the highly influential sitarist Ravi Shankar perform.

To follow a man who had inspired the Beatles and would become known as the most influential and important Indian musician of a generation would have been daunting enough. But to do so in front of nearly half a million rain-soaked hippies whose tolerance levels might have been tempered only by the collective haze they were under had to be downright frightening (which the young singer later admitted).

To Melanie’s own amazement, however, not only did those fans receive her well, but the show of unity they displayed with throngs of lighters and candles illuminating the cloudy sky (at the suggestion of one of the show’s announcers) as she performed a modest set of tunes from her earlier repertoire changed her life forever. In later interviews she would describe how the reception allowed her to “re-enter her body” and finish her set.

What followed several months later was “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” the song she wrote (and her late husband Peter Schekeryk produced) about her Woodstock experience. The tune whose subtitle described those thousands of flickering flames she saw before her during what was scheduled as a 20-minute performance (she was called back for two encores) spoke lyrically of being “so close, there was no room” and metaphorically “bleed(ing) inside each other’s wounds.”

Then-23-year-old Melanie performs “Lay Down” with the Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1970.

A collaboration between Melanie and the gospel choir the Edwin Hawkins Singers, “Lay Down” was a rousing piece of pop evangelism packing the power of a church revival. From the song’s opening bar — led by a single snare drum hit — Melanie, whose full name was Melanie Safka before she married Schekeryk, shouted to the rafters with the choir’s backing vocals piercing straight through to the heavens. The two acts wasted no time delivering the song’s first of many uplifting crescendos, with refrains of “white birds” smiling up to those who “stand and frown” permeating throughout.

As a young child hearing this in the early ’70s and not knowing the inspiration behind it, I had always thought — perhaps in my attempts to convey some deep religious thinking — that the whole song (or at least the part of the lyrics I could make out) was a spiritual metaphor. Like maybe the “white birds” smiling up was code for angels singing, and those who “stand and frown” were somehow sinners.

But the gospel being preached in this case wasn’t about a deity or religion, it was the very notion of embracing peace and people coming together as one for the common good — take your pick of whatever that common good was in early ’70s America (be it civil rights, protests against the Vietnam War, women’s lib, the ecology) — where the counterculture represented by festivals like Woodstock ruled the day.

Melanie Safka had certainly made the rock fest rounds. She’d gone from being one of only three lead women (along with Joan Baez and Janis Joplin), and arguably the least known artist overall, to appear at the most famous rock music festival there ever was (Woodstock in ’69), to being the best-known performer (by default due to cancellations) less than a year later at a festival that wasn’t supposed to happen (the banned Powder Ridge Rock Festival in Connecticut).

How fitting or odd was it that sandwiched between the two was Melanie’s team-up with the Edwin Hawkins Singers?

After all, Safka was an up-and-coming folk-pop singer whose success at Woodstock, and later in Central Park and at other music festivals, led to Buddah Records — her label at the time — going all-in with the previously hitless singer/songwriter.

Buddah Records ran the above ad in Billboard in September 1969, just weeks after Melanie’s Woodstock performance.

There were albums produced, and ads placed in the trades capitalizing on her acclaimed Woodstock and other appearances. In the hippy-driven, folk-music, singer-songwriter era of the early ’70s, Melanie was going to be the next big thing, after artists like Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Judy Collins and Bobby Gentry.

On the other hand, the Edwin Hawkins Singers — then tied to Buddah’s subsidiary Pavilion Records — had just punctuated the end of the civil rights era 1960s with their own spiritual song of hope, “Oh Happy Day.”

So, perhaps it was a label-based marriage made in heaven for the joining of this Black gospel choir with America’s newest female beatnik to create “Lay Down,” a song that was the closest thing to a gospel revival in the top 40 since the Hawkins’ own million-seller a year earlier.

Whatever the reason for it, the song is to this day a sublime slice of pop-meeting-gospel, a forebearer of later such musical marriages like Madonna’s equally ambitious “Like A Prayer,” or Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There,” both million-selling singles of the late 1980s and early ’90s featuring the talented Andrae Crouch Singers.

But “Lay Down” laid the groundwork for those, and it set Melanie up with the kind of name recognition that led to several other firsts for the singer in subsequent years.

She would leave Buddah after a dispute with company brass to form her own label, Neighborhood Records, in 1971. It was the first American label owned by a female on which a woman also had its first No. 1 single, Melanie’s own “Brand New Key” in late 1971/ early 1972.

“Brand New Key” was a far cry from “Lay Down,” with its kiddie-like melody and references to roller skates. Its “key” and keyhole allusions led people to believe that the song contained sexual innuendo, causing some radio stations to ban it (Melanie later denied the song had anything to do with sex, at least not intentionally).

The banning didn’t prevent the song from selling millions of copies and topping the Billboard charts for three weeks in the winter of ’72. On its inevitable descent from the top, “Brand New Key” was joined in the top 40 by two other Melanie singles, its proper follow-up, “Ring the Living Bell,” and her former label Buddah Records’ capitalization attempt, “The Nickel Song,” making Safka the first female ever to have three songs simultaneously placed in the top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100 — albeit for just one week — in February 1972.

Over the next three decades, only two other women accomplished that feat — Diana Ross (1980) and Whitney Houston (1993) — before streaming and current Billboard chart rules made it common for anyone releasing an album of new material to do so.

It was in this sense that you could also argue that Melanie was a trailblazer, even though she never quite received the recognition of her contemporaries like Baez, Mitchell, Collins and others.

When I learned of Melanie’s passing at the age of 76 on January 24 (a day after it happened), I immediately sighed and then asked my own mother had she heard the news.

My mom didn’t immediately recall the singer. I then played “Lay Down,” which she didn’t recognize, and “Brand New Key,” which she (not surprisingly) did.

My “mama,” who’s “told me not to” come or go many times during my lifetime, lights a candle nightly for reasons only she knows. Last night, when she lit it, I imagined it was for Melanie Safka, whose “candles in the rain” still resonate with this blogger more than half a century later.

Today, those “white birds” smiling up at the ones who “stand and frown” take on a whole new meaning.

To me, it means anyone daring to be his or her or their own person should let those internal lights shine right through, allowing you to be that person, despite those who stand and frown at you for daring to do so.

Lay down peacefully, Melanie Safka-Schekeryk (February 3, 1947 – January 23, 2024). You were truly a one-of-a-kind musician.


DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, disco, pop, rock and (sometimes) country genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @djrobblog and on Meta’s Threads.

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2 thoughts on “R.I.P. Melanie Safka (1947-2024); You ‘Laid it Down’ to a Drumbeat All Your Own!”
  1. DjRob, as always you’ve done a fine job sharing lots of good information about a performer. As an official Woodstock attendee I can say her music was not my fave — I still occasionally get an earworm going with the roller skate song — but I’m glad there were alot of people who found it special and took it to heart. And thanks again for taking the time and trouble to dig in to her life as a performer. — Curt the pool player

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