Growing up with a father who was a bassoonist in the New York Metropolitan Opera and a mother who sang for the troops in World War II, Melissa Manchester was surrounded by music from an early age and took singing lessons and learned a myriad of instruments. She remembers being swept away by the voices of Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald when she was just 5 years old, and wanting to follow in their footsteps.
She studied piano and harpsichord at the Manhattan School of Music and Arts and was booking commercial jingles as early as age 15.
As a student at NYU, Manchester studied writing songs with Paul Simon and, thanks to her love of poetry, became a writer for the prestigious Chappell Music at only 17. She soon befriended Barry Manilow, who introduced her to Bette Midler, and Manchester became one of the Divine Miss M’s first Harlettes in 1971.
“It was such an incredible time. Bette was getting ready for her first Carnegie Hall concert and didn’t really understand about the need for background singers. Manilow and I had a lot of that experience and formed the Harlettes to back her up,” Manchester said. “She was brilliant and transported the audience.”
Manchester transitioned into recording herself and released her debut, “Home to Myself,” two years later, which spawned the hit single, “Midnight Blue.” Many more hit albums and singles would follow, including the Grammy-winning tune “You Should Hear How She Talks About You.”
As a writer, she co-wrote the classic “Whenever I Call You Friend” with buddy Kenny Loggins, and her songs have been recorded by artists including Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield, Alison Krauss, Roberta Flack, Johnny Mathis, Peabo Bryson and Mel Torme.
Last year, Manchester released “Playlist: The Very Best of Melissa Manchester,” which chronicled some of her biggest hits in four decades in the business. The prolific songwriter will be singing many of these tunes when she comes to The Barns at Wolf Trap on Thursday.
“I’ve played there many times and it’s always been wonderful,” Manchester said. “The first time I played there was during the spring and all the lilac bushes were in full bloom right outside the stage door. I’m really looking forward to being back.”
Those in attendance should expect some new tunes as well, as Manchester sings alongside her longtime keyboard player and backup vocalists.
“You need to play the hits because otherwise, it’s disrespectful to fans,” she said. “My bridge to the fans that I have built in my career is because of these songs. These are songs I can rely on and I’ve been fortunate enough to have been given this gift and because I have been performing for such a long time, my experiences with these songs has let me make the songs deeper and richer.”
From 1980 to 1995, Manchester alternated recording with acting, appearing with Midler in “For the Boys,” on the television series “Blossom,” and co-writing and starring in the musical “I Sent a Letter to My Love.” Since then she has continued to record, write for theater and make the occasional TV appearance.
“There’s no secret to lasting long. It’s all about hard work. You have to keep building and reinventing yourself all the time and you have to really be committed to it,” she said. “I still love performing so much, it’s something that never gets old.”
In 2008 she released a new single, “The Power of Ribbons,” with all proceeds benefiting breast cancer research. Manchester also is working on a new theater production that she hopes to get up and running in 2013.
When not hard at work on tour or writing, Manchester teaches at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music.
“It’s an interesting class because I started not knowing exactly what I was going to do and I talk to them about my experiences and teach whatever they want to learn,” she said. “I’ve been doing this so long, I just know how certain things work. Teaching has been a blessing and such a sweet gift in my life.”