It takes a special kind of confidence to rewrite the best-known standard in the American Songbook, but Melissa Manchester has it, and she has earned it. In her 2018 composition “A Better Rainbow,” she revisits a song she has sung for years and that she recorded on her 1989 album, Tribute. Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg’s “Over the Rainbow” expresses heartfelt yearning in a way that’s unforgettable, and in her song sequel, “A Better Rainbow,” Manchester revives the feeling by paying tribute to “that girl who went to Oz / because she didn’t like the world the way it was.” It’s a great rhyme, and it gives a preview of what the singer will be up to when she appears at the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Friday, August 23 — delivering romantic, positive songs, and showing her love for beautiful ballads and the artists who sing them.
The concert, which benefits the Luke Theatre Sustainability Fund, is a precursor to a series of lectures coming to that venue this fall called Mind, Body, and Soul. Manchester has long been a favorite of Luke leader Rod Lathim, so this event and its timing come as a welcome sign that Lathim is back at the helm of the historic venue that he helped to restore.
Manchester arrives here on the heels of a starry engagement at Michael Feinstein’s Manhattan cabaret 54 Below, where she and Feinstein will be doing a show together called I Happen to Like New York. This prestigious billing indicates the exalted positions that Manchester occupies among those artists considered to be ambassadors for the Great American Songbook.
In addition to having recorded the definitive versions of such standards as “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and “Midnight Blue,” Manchester continues to influence younger generations of musicians through her work as a teacher at the USC Thornton School of Music and as artist in residence at Citrus College. The Blue Note Swing Orchestra, the big band that will back her on Friday night, consists of students, alumni, and professors from the school. They have been playing and recording with Manchester for several years now, and they provide the musical accompaniment for The Fellas, Manchester’s 2017 album honoring the great male singers of her youth, including Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, and Frank Sinatra. There’s even a duet on the album with one of Manchester’s oldest friends and earliest supporters, Barry Manilow.
When I spoke with Manchester by phone a few weeks ago, she expressed gratitude for the depth and longevity of her career, which stretches back to the 1970s and includes numerous honors, including a Grammy Award in 1982. She told me that it was her students at the Thornton School who taught her to cherish the opportunity to become an independent artist, financing and releasing her music herself, rather than relying on a major record label. “I no longer need to look over my shoulder,” Manchester said, referring to the micromanagement she received from A and R people early in her career. “It was competitive,” she said of the go-go atmosphere of the music industry in the 1980s, “but there was a lot that was great about it.”
A native of New York City — her father was a musician in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra — Manchester describes her upbringing as the product of “a festive version of a normal family.” Her early performing experiences were in the clubs of Greenwich Village, where she witnessed what amounted to a musical revolution. Today she’s more interested in celebrating the traditional values of the well-crafted song, and in spreading an optimistic point of view. “My sense is that these times are unlike any others I have known,” she told me, “and in a song like ‘A Better Rainbow,’ I’m trying to remind people of their essential goodness.”
4•1•1 | Melissa Manchester will perform Friday, August 23, at 7:30 p.m., at the Marjorie Luke Theatre (721 E. Cota St.). See luketheatre.org.