Melinda’s set included some standards, some obscure picks and, on a good night, a few originals. She felt chosen by the songs she would sing. Most of them grabbed her during private expeditions into the far reaches of her friends’ record collections. If you’re interested in discovering some of her influences, here are a few things to check out on YouTube.
A Rainy Night in Georgia — The original by Brook Benton is the place to start. The record is over-orchestrated, but his voice plainly and surely captures the mood. Ray Charles sang the hell out of it, of course, and a performance by Aaron Neville, featuring Chris Botti, is well worth a listen. But if you really do feel like it’s raining all over the world, Shelby Lynne’s version will break your heart.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right — Who hasn’t performed this song? Bob Dylan himself has styled it in a variety of ways. Eric Clapton’s burning rendition of it at the Bob Dylan anniversary concert should not be missed. And there’s always Johnny Cash. I’m partial to the way Susan Tedeschi sings it, too — but you can’t go wrong. Melinda sang it with whimsy, taking a gentle jab at Dan Spitfire with a few self-composed lines.
Faust — Not a well-known song, but a great one: originally from the film Phantom of the Paradise. Sarah and Melinda heard it on the amazing live album, Tears of Steel and the Clowning Calaveras, by Jeannie Lewis — which is still available through her website (jeannielewis.com). On YouTube you can find Paul Williams, the composer, performing it.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress — Melinda also found this one through Jeannie Lewis — but her mom enjoyed the Glen Campbell version, and Linda Ronstadt sang it beautifully. Looking for more options, I found an achingly lovely version by the Norwegian singer Radka Toneff.
Harvest for the World — Cheeky to think one could improve on the Isley Brothers’s record, from the 1976 album of the same name. However, a band called The Christians did a very creditable version of it, which also has a cool video. You might also like the live performance by Incognito.
Letter Perfect — This is an Al Jarreau composition, and it leads off his 1976 live album Look to the Rainbow. I haven’t found any covers of it. Jarreau’s performance is infectious and utterly individual. Melinda needed all the privacy of Mark Ross’s back room to find a way to get it out of herself, and of all the songs she did that first year, this one took the greatest leap of faith.
Sweet Blindness — The Fifth Dimension made it famous — but this great song has been reimagined every which way. Livingston Taylor did a bizarre sort of Sesame Street version, and Liza Minelli interpretive-danced it on the Ed Sullivan show. But nothing tops the way the composer, the incomparable Laura Nyro, sang it (and here’s a live version, some years later). Melinda did it to joyously (or bravely, at least) open her show.
Winter, Time Waits for No One, Little T &A — Melinda’s three Rolling Stones songs, in reverse order: Little T &A was a banged-out goof; she’d only played it in public once. Time Waits for No One, with its iconic rising chorus, was a challenge Cliff Marron gave her to push her vocal range. But Winter was a sort of obsession. As far as she knew, it had been performed by no one but Mick Jagger. It seemed a crazy thing to try: to translate a fully orchestrated performance, with Mick Taylor’s lead guitar and Jagger’s inimitable vocals — yet it was what people remembered. People didn’t know it was a Stones song, or even what it was called, but they’d ask for “Wrap my coat around you.”
Opening Farewell — Melinda was right: this is not an easy song to sing. She dedicated it to Robin, but no way would she sing it in his presence: part to spare him the tears it would elicit, and part to avoid the risk of fucking it up in front of him. Alison Krauss made it sadder and less feisty, though her band, Union Station, offered great accompaniment. The composer’s original version is just as Melinda drunkenly described it. I don’t think anybody did it better than Bonnie Raitt.
The originals — Ah, well, here’s where the fiction loses verisimilitude, because I’m not a songwriter. I’ve only been able to hear snippets of the original songs Melinda was performing during her Georgetown summer. There weren’t many: performing her own compositions heightened the stagefright. By August, anyway, there were three that came out when the stars were lined up just so. One was dedicated to Margie Sue, her mom. Only one verse of it surfaced in the story: “She wore her teal track suit to the fall cotillion/Everybody said she looked like a million…” It was a country-rocker that got its share of laughs, I assure you.
The one she called “The Studious Girl” was a tribute to the way she’d lose herself at gigs by Dan Spitfire and the Noisome Joys. It was powered by her best impression of a Keith Richards-style riff. She summoned the nerve to play it that first evening things started to go right in Georgetown:
She’s a real quick study
the question was loaded
it was fully decoded
read her notes
in the dance floor dust
if you can find the key…
There was one more, a tender ballad whose chorus I was lucky enough to catch. I’d have given the fingers of my left hand to hear her sing this, on a summer evening on that riverfront deck:
I’ve never been a privilege
never been a gift
Your sweet praise
is more than I’m earning
There’s a call I’m returning
a lesson I’m learning
You give me everything
everything but the yearning