Johnny Schaefer

Review: Melissa Manchester's You Gotta Love the Life


Melissa Manchester and Johnny SchaeferI often read reviews of musicians, films, books or plays that I love and quickly become aware that the critic is not even a fan of the genre or artist he or she is reviewing. That isn’t really helpful to me. I want to know if someone like me is likely to appreciate it. Sometimes I can figure out whether I might like it, even if it’s a bad review, by what they say. 

If you’ve followed me much, or know me, you are aware that Grammy Award winner Melissa Manchester is a huge musical force in my life. I even included a mashup of two of her songs on my Acoustic Remedy album. Whether or not you are a fan, I think you will find this review to be helpful because I can talk about why I am so enamored of her and why her new album, You Gotta Love the Life is so splendid.

Abe Sylvia’s delightful recent film Dirty Girl starring Juno Temple and featuring William H. Macy, Jeremy Dozier, Tim McGraw, Mary Steenburgen (who co-wrote a song with Melissa for the film), Mila Jovovich and Dwight Yoakam, shows a gay kid who is comforted, inspired and enriched by Melissa’s music. She is his muse and his obsession. Like many lgbt individuals my age, I was that kid. As a confused, scared,  closeted gay son of a Lutheran minister growing up in homophobic Porterville, CA in the 1970s, Melissa was my beacon of light in frightening darkness. Her songs have an empowering quality, a self-assurance that transfers to the listener. Her sonorous voice touches places in the soul that few others can.  She once told students at USC, where she teaches songwriting and singing, “We make the music that inspires lovers to make a baby or talks someone down from a ledge.” Indeed, I was on a ledge and Melissa strengthened me with the reassuring quality in her voice until I had wings to fly from the ledge instead of jumping off of it. This quality has only improved with time. Melissa continues to impart her sweet wisdom and astute insight into this journey we call life with commanding artistry and ageless style.

The good thing about the music industry today is that it is being wrested away from callous businessmen who see music purely as a product to profit from. Independent musicians like me can circumvent the big machine and share our music with the world. I understand that there is a place for youthful energy and all that comes with it in our culture. But for me, artists ranging from Melissa Manchester to Annie Lennox to Rickie Lee Jones and even Alanis Morrissette are doing some of their best work now, just when many people seem to have stopped listening. A lifetime of experiences and lessons learned, of broken and mended hearts, of songs sung, heard, and absorbed, informs their work and their voices, too. Because the industry has moved on to the next shiny thing, more and more artists are turning to crowd funding by their fans to empower them to make the music they’ve always wanted to make, free of the constraints and whims of music executives, and it’s a beautiful thing. Melissa is one of us now, independent, fierce and free. You Gotta Love the Life is a shining celebration of that.

This is Melissa’s 20th album, and she wove some of her favorite musicians into the fabric of the project. You’ll hear a delightful duet with her muse, Dionne Warwick on Other End of the Phone, a gentle tune she wrote with the late Hal David (which turned out to be his last) featuring the jazz keyboard mastery of the late Joe Sample (his last recording, as well). A friend joked “maybe it’s not a good idea to sing with Melissa”, but, of course, the reality is that one comes away from any encounter with her, whether in person or through her music, richer, wiser, and more alive.

With artists like Melissa, I always feel like they sat down and had a cup of coffee with me to catch up on what was going on in my life, then they went out and wrote songs that spoke specifically to me. Melissa’s songs have always been woven into my journey, my soundtrack as I engage life. She took a decade or so off to raise her kids, so it’s wonderful to have a new set of songs to add to the mix. And what a set! Melissa has been touring with phenomenal musician Stephan Oberhoff and all around talent Sue Holder for years. The intimate, efficient dynamic of the performances and Oberhoff’s jazz prowess have had a refining impact on her music. Everything has jazz flavoring stirred in and the rich harmonic colors and Melissa’s soaring melodies are wonderful vehicles for the powerful lyrics she has penned with an impressive collection of outstanding songwriters. My favorite track on the album is No There There, a smart, sexy tune that, for me, is like the Sade song we’ve never really gotten. I enjoy Sade, but the songs I’ve heard are harmonically and lyrically REALLY simple. This is like a grown up Sade song with meatier vocals. “I was tricked by the horizon, I was fooled by something slick, love’s a crazy back of tricks.” The intelligent release in the repetition of the phrase “I let it go” in the chorus is healing. Such a lovely track.

Melissa rocked the house in two sold out shows at Spaghettini and Dave Koz Lounge in Beverly Hills for her album release party. Koz himself was on hand to play Claudia, a touching tribute to Melissa's sister Cluadia Cagan written by Claudia's husband, Steven Cagan.  Melissa's confident vocals and Koz's well-constructed sax solo make for a memorable song that feels timeless.

Stevie Wonder shares his unmatched harmonica skills on Your Love is Where I Live and the timelessness of his lilting licks throughout the song compliment the sweetness of its message and Melissa’s expression of it.

The first single, Feelin’ for You, is a smoldering vamp featuring Keb’ Mo’ on some smokin’ guitar licks. Melissa and Keb’ dance and play with each other, answering one another’s licks. The song is already heading up the charts and it’s no wonder. It is reminiscent of some of Bonnie Raitt’s best stuff.

The opening title track You Gotta Love the Life features kickass horns and the frenetic energy of life on the road.  Rickie Lee Jones also has a song that talks about not knowing what city she’s in when traveling as a musician. Each lady tells that story in her own uniquely satisfying way. Rickie’s is loose and playful. Melissa’s captures the sophistication, glamour and high energy I have always associated with New York. It’s a fun ride and a great way to begin the album.

In Big Light, Melissa reunites with Al Jarreau and their seamless collaboration perfectly drives home the song’s uplifting, timely message. Two big lights coming together is a brilliant beacon, indeed.

Dear to me personally is You Are My Heart, a song Melissa composed for two gay friends who were finally able to marry.  I married the love of my life, Paco, in July of 2014 and sang a song I wrote to him which said “We see the angels finally found us”. Melissa sings that “the angels fill the air with love, love, love”. I absolutely did have that feeling that day of being surrounded by angels in my family, friends and some literal angels as well. Melissa’s joyful song is a beautiful new connection to the gay community that has always returned her lovely embrace.

A song that epitomizes the fostering of a healthy self image prevalent in Melissa’s music is I Know Who I am, written for Tyler Perry’s film For Colored Girls. Melissa’s piano and vocals on this song are nothing short of stunning. She smartly begins with acoustic piano and builds instrumentation until the passionate climax. It’s a spectacular anthem for anyone looking to get their mojo back, or find it for the first time.

I am also very happy she chose to include her mesmerizing a cappella arrangement of Something Wonderful from The King and I on this collection.  In her shows, Holder and Oberhoff have been providing a magic carpet of delicious harmony on which Melissa’s thoughtful and heartfelt rendition of this classic rides, and it is such a treat to have a recording of it to listen to whenever I want to be transported to its beautiful destination.

Some of my favorite instrumentation on the album comes with Open My Heart, a happy song in 6/8 time that brilliantly utilizes accordion and terrific mandolin (I think) in a way that sounds fresh and jubilant. Where in this song she sings “Now that I know you’re the one”, in another selection she says “I’m the one, you’re the other one.” That those two sentiments can both reside on the same album is not contradictory, though. Melissa’s music has always taught us to love ourselves, which makes us capable of opening our hearts to others. We can’t do one without the other, and I think we’re in a process of learning to do both at the same time. Melissa helped me learn that.

For fans of intimate, aching Melissa, your appetite will be satisfied with The Other One, a hauntingly beautiful song of strong self-realization bourne of pain and reflection. “My tears have turned to icicles, guess they’ll forever spring, if I can just hold on, who knows what life may bring”. Those lines voice the hope I have always found in Melissa’s music. Real, tangible, transformative, reassuring hope. Lucky for us, her life is bringing a new chapter of composing, singing and sharing. And we get to receive it any time we want by playing this music.

You’ve gotta love that, and you’ve gotta get this album! (You can do so here) Find out more about Melissa Manchester at   Melissa’s Twitter name is @MelissaShares. Her Facebook page is

 Johnny Schaefer is a Los Angeles based singer-songwiter. His album, Acoustic Remedy, is available at his website as well as places like Amazon and iTunes,Spotify and more.

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