MEL LIGHTNER, HOLIDAY SINGER
by Brick Walters, 12/24/99
Brick: The world is awash in Christmas recordings. Every soloist,
every band, from the Haughty Philharmonic to Slime Mold, has released a Christmas
disc. But when I visited a local record outlet, I met several shoppers who were
interested in picking up a holiday recording and wanted only one artist.
Guy: Mel Lightner. He's the greatest.
Gal: He makes me feel like he's someone I could know.
Guy: Or someone I could BE.
Gal: Only Mel Lightner understands the way it is with us and these songs.
Guy: My Christmas music library is pretty much all Mel Lightner.
Gal: Mine too.
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Brick: What is it about Mel Lightner that inspires this kind of devotion?
I asked someone who should know ... Mel Lightner himself.
Mel: Really, Brick, I have no idea. It's not often I draw a blank, but ... man,
I don't get it. The thing is, there are better singers.
Brick: (int) Oh, you're pretty good.
Mel: No, no. Let's be honest. There are people who have more rhythm, who are better
at interpreting the songs, who can hit the notes.
Brick: Don't sell yourself short. You have fans for a reason.
Mel: Oh, obviously, I have something. What it is ... I don't think anybody knows.
Brick: But if you talk to people in the record industry, they say they DO know
what's behind the appeal of Mel Lightner. Just ask people like Wanda Pfieffer
of Mel's label, Chutzpah Records.
Wanda: Mel is ... everyman. And everywoman. He's Every Singer. Every Amateur Singer.
Every Bad singer. Every NON singer. He has a rough idea of the melody, and a real
loose grip on the words. Really, when you get right down to it, when you EXAMINE
what's going on ... there are only a few words he knows in each song. But people
don't examine Mel's music ...they just enjoy.
(example - Winter Wonderland)
Brick: I don't get it, though. If these are songs that people love, why aren't
they annoyed that he can't seem to remember the words?
Wanda: Because in his ignorance, he represents them. He legitimizes THEM. He makes
it O.K. for people to be THEMSELVES. Their poor pathetic, not even half-good selves.
He shows them that somebody with no talent who doesn't want to work very hard
can still go a long way.
Brick: There are plenty of us in public life who demonstrate that.
Wanda: Yeah, but Mel Lightner really brings it home.
Brick: (annc) And Mel Lightner has been "bringing it home" for over
20 years, as a soloist and as the leader of a choir, and various combinations
of singers including the Mel Lightner Quartet.
(example - Chestnuts Roasting)
(intv) How is it, Mel, that the whole choir draws a blank on the same words?
Mel: Odd, isn't it?
Brick: I suppose it's almost like a piece of performance art. You're showing us
real life. This is the way people sing.
Mel: It IS the way most people sing. Pick any group, and you'll find that between
them, they know all the words. And when they sing what they know, if the group
is large enough, we hear the whole song.
What we did in the Mel Lightner Singers was ... we decided to show you that we're
as clueless as you are, so we agreed which words we would sing and which words
we wouldn't. If that's "performance art," so be it.
Brick: So when some of you sang "La La La," you really KNEW the words?
Mel: By faking it, we made it more real. For the listener.
Brick: And now? Today? After many, many, many performances ... you must know these
Mel: No. Not really.
Brick: You have to be dropping in "ooo-ooo's" and "dum diddle dum's"
in places where you really know what to say.
Mel: No, no. I can see why you think that, but no. I try to keep each performance
fresh, so I don't study the words and really don't pay attention very much while
I'm singing. The only song where I PLAN to "la la" in is "Deck
the Halls." And "Little Drummer Boy," one of my favorites.
(excerpt - Drummer Boy)
Man, I love that. The rest of them ... I'm floatin' along, signing whatever comes
into my head.
Brick: But after SO MANY performances!
Mel: These songs are timeless. They're treasures. Like any great work of art ...
there's something about them that ... you can't put your finger on. They are BEYOND
human understanding ... certainly beyond my understanding, and I'm very, very
Brick: Still ... How is it possible that you don't learn them? How can you stay
so ignorant for so long?
Mel: That's a question without an answer. There's a popular song that goes like
that. "How much do I love you? I'll tell you no lie. How high is the ocean?
How deep is the sky?"
Brick: I think that's how Deep is the ocean, how High is the sky?
Brick: Whatever? It IS important.
Mel: Maybe, but I'm not going to spend a lot of my time agonizing over lyrics.
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Brick: A problem for purists, perhaps. But for Mel Lightner's fans, it's music
to their ears.
Guy: I know I can sing along with Mel, and sing ONLY the words I know, and it's
OK. I fit in.
Gal: He is so .... I don't even know the word for it.
Guy: Neither do I. Neither does he.
Gal: That's what's so GREAT about it.
Brick: But isn't it just possible that the popularity of Mel Lightner is a symptom
of society's larger problem of "dumbing down?"
Both: Huh? Wha?
Brick: I mean ... let's face it ... as a singer the guy is incompetent. Isn't
this a celebration of the inept?
Guy: Just because he's inept, that doesn't mean he shouldn't have fans.
Gal: We're definitely "Melheads" for the duration. He speaks to us.
Sometimes in words ... sometimes just in syllables.
Guy: And we're listening!
Brick: Out in the field, I'm Brick Walters.
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(music: song up)
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