Melissa Etheridge takes great pride in her music and in speaking (and being) out
The Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and LGBTQ icon speaks candidly about her music, her career, coming out and her devotion to social causes
Melissa Etheridge, lounge singer?
The hard-rocking star — whose volcanic vocals and impassioned songs of empowerment are her trademarks — crooning easy-listening Top 40 hits in hotel bars?
Such a scenario might sound like the plot to a twisted sci-fi-inspired musical, set in an alternate universe. An alternate universe, specifically, in which Etheridge politely sings such middle-of-the-road Barry Manilow hits as “Mandy” and “I Write the Songs” while Manilow belts out such fierce Etheridge classics as “I’m the Only One,” “Bring Me Some Water” and “Come to My Window.”
Yet, before she became an uncompromising star and an icon for the LGBTQ movement, Etheridge played in a succession of lounge bands in her Kansas hometown of Leavenworth.
The alternate universe described above was reality, at least for her. Manilow, so far as is known, has yet to record any songs remotely akin to the bluesy hard rock that has long been Etheridge’s calling card.
Moreover, playing Top 40 hits in lounge bands provided her with some of the key skills and stagecraft that she will draw from on Sunday when she headlines the second day of San Diego Pride in Balboa Park. (Ticket information appears below.)
“Yeah, completely,” said the multiple Grammy Award winner. “It taught me how to be in front of an audience, how to entertain, how to get by if something goes wrong on stage, how to maneuver through it if someone in the audience is drunk — how to get through anything.
“I feel complete confidence because of the years I spent playing in bars and lounges — when I was the background music.”
Etheridge laughed heartily.
“Oh, man!” she said. “I used to do a Manilow medley, a (Barbra) Streisand medley ...”
She laughed again when asked to name some of the lounge bands she played with in Leavenworth.
“The first one was Chuck Summersmith & The Wranglers,” Etheridge replied. “Then came The Show Men — I was one of the Show Men! Then I was in Midwest Express and then The Road Show.”
The budding troubadour was barely a teen when she started her performing career in her Kansas hometown. She sang in nursing homes, Elks clubs, the state prison in Leavenworth and any other place that would have her, along with the lounges and bars where she began to really hone her chops.
Kansas to Boston to Long Beach
Not yet aware that she was a lesbian, Etheridge dated boys in her mid-teens, but there were no sparks. And even if she had been aware, growing up in the 1970s in the American Midwest was not a conducive time for coming out.
Asked if she could have conceived of an event like the all-accepting Pride in Kansas back then, Etheridge sounded almost incredulous.
“No, no, not at all,” she replied.
“Being gay was something in the back of your mind, where you worried: ‘Am I sick? Am I mentally ill? What does this mean?’ And because I had a huge drive to be a rock ‘n’ roll musician, that was my excuse to get out of town. I knew I couldn’t be this gay person in this small town. I knew big cities were a safer place to be.”
She enrolled at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, a jazz-oriented school that she left after just five months.
“I wish I’d been brave, stayed and learned (the jazz standard) ‘On Green Dolphin Street,’ because I think I’d be a better player,” Etheridge recalled in a 2017 Union-Tribune interview. “But I did learn the basics of music there and how you talk to other musicians.”
In 1982, at the age of 21, she moved to Los Angeles, where she spent the next six years playing in lesbian bars in Long Beach. It was only then that Etheridge became aware of the largely under-the-radar women’s music scene. It was spearheaded by such independent record labels as Olivia and Redwood, which championed such talented singer-songwriters as Holly Near, Meg Christian, Cris Williamson and Linda Tillery.
“When I was growing up, I looked to Linda Ronstadt. I didn’t understand Janis Joplin at the time; I was too young and didn’t get to enjoy her until I was in my 20s,” said Etheridge, who — in the 1990s — was selected to star in a Joplin bio-pic that, alas, has yet to be made.
“But, also in my 20s, I got really deep into the women’s culture and the lesbian community. And then I met Cris Williamson and the people at Olivia Records, and all these other beautiful people, and I did get to know them. I always felt I was outside of the music business and was more of a rock ‘n’ roller. And that meant I didn’t quite fit with anyone.”
‘Yes, we’re gay!’
In 1984, Etheridge attended her first Pride festival in Los Angeles. It was an eye-opening experience for her.
“I was living in Long Beach and they didn’t have a Pride there then. There was only the one in New York and the one in L.A. at that time,” she recalled.
“I went to the L.A. one with some friends and it was pretty amazing, because it was the first time I’d seen that many people at one gathering, saying: ‘Yes, we’re gay!’ And, in 1984, AIDS was ravaging everything, we were still very looked down upon and it was very difficult out to be out. So when we got together, there was really a strong sense of community.
“I went to a couple of more Prides in L.A. before I got my first record deal (in 1986), then one more after that, and hung out more in private. I probably didn’t go to another Pride until I was asked to play one in Pittsburgh 10 years ago.”
The differences between the first Pride that Etheridge attended in 1984 and the one she performed at in Pittsburgh in 2009 were dramatic.
“There wasn’t any corporate sponsorship and it wasn’t a parade in 1984; it was a march,” noted the veteran musician, who in late June was one of the headlining performers at World Pride in New York.
“Now,” she continued, “there are parades — with corporate sponsors —and there are things to celebrate. It’s funny, because this is the first year when we have actually protested the corporatization of Pride. Certainly, there are things we still need to look at and do, and make sure our fight continues. But we’ve come a long way and I’m proud to have been out for so long.”
Etheridge publicly came out in early 1993, at one of Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration balls, in Washington, D.C. Her fourth album, the triumphant “Yes I Am,” was released in September of that same year and remains her best-selling album to date.
Her most recent album, “The Medicine Show,” was released this year. It contains deeply moving songs that reflect her feelings about the state of the nation in the wake of the Parkland High School massacre in Florida and the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency, although neither he nor the school are mentioned by name in her lyrics.
“It’s important to make the music that is in your heart, and — if you feel a calling — to look around at what is happening and sing about it,” Etheridge said. “That’s what I do.”
In June, Etheridge was one of six stars from the LGBTQ community to be featured on six different covers of Entertainment Weekly magazine.
She also participated in a joint interview with the other five cover subjects: Anderson Cooper, Neil Patrick Harris, Janet Mock, Ruby Rose and Wilson Cruz. Their discussion reflects on a number of issues, including the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York that gave birth to the national gay rights movement.
Of course, Etheridge is no stranger to being on magazine covers. But for an unabashedly mainstream publication like Entertainment Weekly to devote not one cover, but six, to — as the headline on each issue proclaims — “Gay Pride” is dramatic.
“It’s huge!” Etheridge said. “When these magazines land in small towns, like the one where I grew up, it helps support people and makes them stronger and more confident. And we all are better off when individuals are confident in their own skin and accepted and recognized for what they are. That’s better for everyone.”
Is it more than an intriguing coincidence that the 50th anniversaries of Stonewall and the landmark Woodstock festival are both this summer?
“I think that, 50 years ago, a lot of changes were happening that were profound,” Etheridge replied. “People were (re-evaluating) the status quo. It was a time of enormous upheaval for people of color, women, gay liberation and all of that, and music is always the fuel behind important movements. So, no, it’s not a coincidence at all.”
2019 San Diego Pride Festival presents Melissa Etheridge
When: 7 p.m. Sunday (the music festival portion of Pride runs from noon to 10 a.m. Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday)
Where: Marston Point, Sixth Avenue and Laurel Street, Balboa Park
Tickets: $20 per day (advance price), $25 two-day pass (advance price), $30 per day Saturday and Sunday on day of show; $175 two-day VIP pass (advance price); $200 at the entrance
Phone: (619) 297-7683
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