The Melton Brothers go front and center11/10/2015 12:40PM ● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
In 2013, one of the most decorated films released was "20 Feet From Stardom," which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
As told by award-winning director Morgan Neville, the film shines a spotlight on the untold true story of the backup singers behind some of the greatest musical legends of the 21st century. Triumphant and heartbreaking, the film is both a tribute to the unsung voices who brought shape and style to popular music and a reflection on the conflicts, sacrifices and rewards of a career spent harmonizing with others.
If a local version of the film were ever produced on the same theme, the musical duo of Dale and Dennis Melton would be unquestionably be one of its key subjects.
On Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, twins Dennis and Dale Melton sat in front of the family television set and, like thousands of other young people just like them, they witnessed something that would set the course of their lives. The Beatles were performing on The Ed Sullivan Show. The brothers, then barely teenagers, looked at each other and said, "That is what we're going to do."
Indeed, that is exactly what the Melton brothers did, and over the next four decades, they canvassed the Mid-Atlantic region with a generous splash of their interpretations with rhythms and harmonies, infusing their sound with a blend of groove swing, R&B, country blues and roots rock. And yet, although they occasionally found themselves front and center during live shows, The Melton Brothers became known primarily for being the rhythm section and vocal support for recording artists Shirley Eikhard, Manhattan Transfer founding member Erin Dickins, The Watson Brothers Band, Alfie Moss, Vinyl Shockley and Washboard Bill.
The musical journey of Dale and Dennis, for all of its success, had become one of conjunctions: The Melton Brothers with...The Melton Brothers and...
About five years ago, The Melton Brothers' migration from the back of the stage to the front began. They decided they would scale back their number of live performances. No more bars. No more weddings. No more parties.
"We were just looking for the next thing we would do, as a way of asking ourselves, 'Where do we want to go from here?'" Dennis said recently. "Don't get me wrong. Our experiences working with others had been marvelous, truly wonderful, but it got to the point where we felt we were not focused on the sound that just the two of us wanted to make."
Enter long-time local percussionist Fred Berman, and guitarist John Lilley, formerly of The Hooters. As the Meltons began to refine their own "voice," Berman, and then Lilley, served as the perfect accompaniments. Along with Bob Beach on harmonica, the new band – and its sound – was eventually born.
"Dale and I felt like we just wanted to find the best players we could find, and over time, these guys helped us find our own sound, where now we believe we're playing in the best band we've ever been in in our lives," Dennis said. "The point became our need to find that sound, and when we get together with these guys, the sound becomes truly developed."
As their focus on the music began to become more intensified, so did their choices of where to play. They had access to Dale's recording studio near Coatesville, but they were really looking for more spontaneity; to be able to capture their sound live, but not in a place where their music would serve as mere background noise.
They were looking for listening rooms, not honky tonks.
They began to play at Upstairs at The Queen in Wilmington, and at the Steel City Coffeehouse in Phoenixville, but nowhere did they feel more comfortable than at The Kennett Flash. Over the last two years, they recorded an entire CD of songs from shows at The Kennett Flash – both covers and originals – that the Meltons have compiled in a new CD called "Live at The Flash." On Nov. 14 beginning at 8 p.m., the new Melton Brothers Band, along with Berman, Lilly and Beach, will perform live at The Kennett Flash, in celebration of the CD's official launch.
"When we decided to focus on developing The Melton Brothers sound, we looked at what and where we were playing, and only continued to perform songs and play the places that would be an honest interpretation of us, musically," Dennis said. "These places like The Flash have taught us how to perform a concert, where the focus of the room is on the performer. It allows us to develop a dialogue with the audience."
The newest incarnation of The Melton Brothers features Dale's unique organ sound and vocals, Dennis' bass guitar and vocals, in collaboration with Berman, Lilley and Beach. It's a sound that best plays live, Dennis said.
"Our approach to our sound relies a lot on being spontaneous and fresh," he said. "We have an original arrangement for the songs, but we rarely work out the parts everyone's playing. Essentially, it's a jazz approach to a number of different styles, and it allows musical moments to happen, unrehearsed."
Eventually, the Melton's goals will be to perform as second bills for musicians they admire, such as Bonnie Raitt or Taj Mahal, but that's all a far-off and distant dream, Dennis said.
"Our primary goal is to simply do what we're doing now," he said. "When it gets to the point when we're on the stage at The Flash, when we look out over the audience and begin playing, it doesn't need to be any better than that at all. That's the best it is."
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail [email protected].
The Melton Brothers, with Fred Berman and John Lilley
CD Release Celebration
November 14, 8 p.m.
The Kennett Flash, 102 Sycamore Alley, Kennett Square, Pa.
For tickets, visit www.kennettflash.org.