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Etheridge, Melissa (b. 1961)  
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Award-winning rock singer and songwriter Melissa Etheridge has not only managed to carve out a spectacularly successful career as a popular mainstream performer, but she has also become a lesbian icon and activist for gay and lesbian causes. With a style characterized by intense emotion and unbridled energy, Etheridge has become one of the most distinctive artists in rock music.

Early Years

She was born in Leavenworth, Kansas, on May 29, 1961. Her father, John Etheridge, was a math teacher and athletic director at the local high school, and her mother, Elizabeth Williamson Etheridge, worked as a computer specialist for the U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth.

Etheridge's fascination with music began early. When she was eight, her father bought her her first real guitar, a six-string Harmony Stella, and arranged for her to take lessons with Don Raymond, who had been a big-band jazz guitarist. By the age of ten, Etheridge was beginning to write songs.

When she was eleven "Missy" Etheridge gave her first public performance, singing with two friends at a talent show in Leavenworth. By the age of twelve, she was playing and singing with adult musical groups, doing mostly country and western material. She was also learning to play more instruments--piano, drums, saxophone and clarinet.

Coming Out and Launching a Career

After high school Etheridge attended Berklee College of Music in Boston. Her roommate in the dormitory was a lesbian who introduced her to women's bars and afforded her the opportunity to talk freely about her sexuality. Etheridge had realized that she was a lesbian at the age of seventeen but, coming from a family in which emotional matters were not much discussed, had never broached the subject with her parents or publicly acknowledged her homosexuality.

Etheridge did not remain long at Berklee. She began singing in bars and eventually dropped out of college. Realizing that Boston was not the ideal place to launch a career in rock-and-roll, she resolved to go to Los Angeles. First, however, she returned home to Kansas to earn money for the trip to California.

Etheridge got a job as music assistant at the Army chapel at Fort Leavenworth. She also began meeting and dating other lesbians in town, on one occasion inviting a woman home to spend the night. The following morning Etheridge found a note from her mother that referred to her "psychological illness" and warned her "not [to] bring that girl over here anymore" if she wanted to continue to live in the house.

Neither Etheridge nor her mother ever mentioned the letter, but Etheridge was deeply disturbed by it and turned to the Army chaplain for guidance. He cautioned her that some people would condemn her but said that he could not believe "that God would have invented a love that could be wrong" and urged her to be true to herself, which she called "one of the most valuable lessons of my life."

By the eve of her twenty-first birthday she had saved enough money for the planned move to Los Angeles. Before leaving for California, she came out to her father, who had already guessed and who expressed his support.

In Los Angeles Etheridge initially stayed with an aunt. She also made contact with two paternal uncles and learned that they were gay. Etheridge's uncles introduced her to the gay community in Los Angeles.

Etheridge soon found a job playing at a women's bar in Long Beach, where she developed an appreciative following. She worked in other bars as well, including Vermie's in Pasadena, where some loyal fans brought a soccer teammate, Karla Leopold, to a show in hopes that she would persuade her husband, Bill Leopold, a manager in the music business, to represent Etheridge. Bill Leopold was indeed impressed when he heard Etheridge perform, became her manager, and began attempting to secure a recording contract.

Although several companies expressed some interest, no record deal was immediately forthcoming, but Leopold did get Etheridge a song-writing contract with Almo/Irving Music. Songs by Etheridge eventually became part of the sound-track of four movies: Scenes from the Goldmine (1987, directed by Mark Rocco), Weeds (1987, directed by John Hancock), Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael (1990, directed by Jim Abrahams), and Boys on the Side (1995, directed by Herbert Ross).

A Record Contract and Success

In 1986 Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, heard Etheridge perform and was eager to sign her for his label. He was less than pleased, however, when he heard the initial version of her first album. Producers had added keyboard tracks that yielded a pop sound completely uncharacteristic of Etheridge.

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Melissa Etheridge. Photograph by Lester Cohen.
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