Glasses and silverware clink over the steady rumble of conversations. Melanie Morrison Zeigler stands beside a booth at Otto’s Pub and Brewery, out with her family on a Friday night, but she’s not holding a drink.
Both hands are occupied with Theo.
Her 4-month-old gazes at the room, eyelids drooping but fighting to stay open. She gently bounces him and jokes about gaining muscled arms.
“He’s a beefcake,” she says. “He’s sleepy, but he won’t give up the ghost.”
Below sits her husband, Robert Zeigler, and 8-year-old son, Max, who’s wearing a snappy fedora. Her younger son, Wes, is on a camping trip. Max has a birthday coming up, and he and his mother discuss what kind of special cake she’ll make — a family tradition.
Max wants a tie-dye theme. Past creations have included Doctor Who’s TARDIS time-travel machine and Darth Vader.
“I used black licorice to line (Vader’s) face, then I used different chocolates — dark and regular — to get the shadows,” she says.
Suddenly, it’s 9:04 p.m., and she has to be creative again.
“Here you go,” she says, handing Theo to her husband. “It’s time to go.”
She’s got a gig.
In the blink of an eye, she goes from mommy to Miss Melanie, blues and soul singer extraordinaire and front woman for the popular local roots music band Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats.
Tucked in a corner, she launches into a jump blues number, her three bandmates swinging hard behind her. Her sultry voice hearkens from another era, a time of smoky nightclubs and rough-and-tumble juke joints. When Morrison Zeigler belts out Etta James’ classic “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” it’s as if she’s channeling the spirit of the late, great R&B chanteuse.
She sounds born to stand in front of a microphone. But until she ran into Mark Ross, a veteran blues guitarist, three years ago and he formed a band around her, her gift was limited to church choirs and karaoke competitions.
“It’s astonishing. She just keeps getting better and better,” Ross said. “So many people wish they could be half as good as when she first started.”
Since then, she has juggled her music and family life all the way to opening for B.B. King on Oct. 13 at the Bryce Jordan Center — a scenario that would have paralyzed her younger self, the natural with stage fright.
“To this day, I don’t take the microphone off the stand,” she said. “It’s just kind of a habit I formed from before, because my hands would shake so badly. Now it’s kind of set in stone.”
‘Authentic and natural’
Now 34, Morrison Zeigler grew up Catholic in Pittsburgh’s West End neighborhood, across the Ohio River from the old Three Rivers Stadium.
Starting in high school, she sang soprano in her church choir — the extent of her musical expression other than occasional weddings and singing around the house.
“I was never into that whole tons of attention on ‘just you’ kind of thing,” she recalled. “That was really terrifying to me when I was younger.”
She was such a bundle of nerves that for the wedding gigs, she insisted on taking her choir director along for comfort.
“I never read music, so he would record the songs that we would need to do, with him singing them, and then I would practice them until I could sing them forwards and backwards,” Morrison Zeigler said.
Even then, performing didn’t come easy. She loved to sing and enjoyed delighting people. Her brain just wouldn’t cooperate.
“I really had a fear of being in front of people,” she said. “I would get so super-nervous. I would sweat. I couldn’t eat all day. So, it was a great weight-loss program.”
At home, her parents listened to classic rock such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Who. Their daughter gravitated more to R&B divas.
Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan and Gladys Knight entranced her with their melismatic singing.
“I loved the harmony that’s present in so many of the songs. I loved the beat,” she said. “I mean, a good bass line, you know, was just so interesting to me. And the different vocalizations — just the way an artist could take a note and just run with it.”
Franklin’s voice, in particular, captivated her.
“It just comes from her. She opens her mouth, and there it is,” Morrison Zeigler said. “I find sometimes that some singers’ voices seem contrived, like you know they don’t sing naturally like that. They do something to their voice to make it sound like that, to maybe make it seem like they have power or give the illusion that their voice has more depth.
“But what I love about singers like Aretha Franklin and Chaka Khan, it’s just so authentic and natural.”
While studying elementary education and Spanish at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, she sometimes sang at Campus Crusade for Christ meetings. Mostly, she sang in private, for fun.
That’s probably how it would have remained — if not for a couple of karaoke contests and a chance meeting about a decade later.
‘Girl at karaoke’
After graduating in 2002, she married her first husband, her college boyfriend, and settled in Bellefonte.
She went to work teaching an after-school Spanish program in the Penns Valley district, a job she held until she had her first son. Just before getting pregnant, she experienced another change in her life.
A friend persuaded her to enter an “American Idol”-style competition in a State College nightclub. She wore wigs, did her best Franklin and Houston covers, and finished second. More importantly, she loosened up a bit.
Her second bid for karaoke glory, this time as a mother of two, was more fruitful — even if first place again narrowly escaped her.
Instead of the cash prize, she took home a shot of confidence.
For the finale, she pulled out a solo version of the 2001 remake of “Lady Marmalade” featuring the singers Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mya and Pink. She did all four parts, including Lil’ Kim’s rap.
“I had a wig on. I had on a kind of burlesque-style outfit, and I had sunglasses on,” she said. “And then for the Lil’ Kim part, I took my sunglasses off. And for the Christina part, I ripped my wig off. It was so much fun.”
But that was all.
“I was fully content to be the girl at karaoke that everybody said, ‘Oh, you should totally be in a band.’ And I’d go, ‘Ha, ha, ha, thanks so much.’ I had never been in a band before.
“But I guess life had other plans.”
‘See where this goes’
A shopping trip with a son turned into a pivotal encounter.
On the way into a State College store in 2010, she bumped into Ross, there to run a children’s music workshop.
They had met at a party years before. A friend and local singer had introduced her, recommending her voice. But nothing came of it.
Ross, however, remembered her.
Seven years later, he needed to record a demo for his musical children’s audio book. On the spot, he offered Morrison Zeigler $100 to go to a local studio.
She swallowed her old fears and agreed, and he made her a CD of the lyrics so she could practice them.
“I completely did not want to put myself out there like that, but I was in the middle of a divorce and I had two kids,” she said. “I was trying to figure ways to make cash, and I was like, ‘Oh, what the heck.’ ”
Little did she know that Ross was curious. In the 1990s, he had been the ringleader of the Grammy Award-nominated Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band, a local blues band fronted by the impressive Tonya Browne.
Ross certainly wasn’t anticipating the second coming of Browne, who died at 36 in 2001. Based on the prior recommendation, he thought Morrison Zeigler would be good enough for him to give her a few numbers to call.
Instead, he was thunderstruck.
“I wasn’t expecting her to be that good,” he said. “That’s a fact. I can recall hearing her open her mouth and I said, ‘Look, I’ve got to catch my breath. You’re freaking me out.’ ”
Morrison Zeigler laughed at the memory: “I totally didn’t see it coming, and I hoped he meant it in a positive way.”
He did — with all his heart.
“It was just everything about her: her voice quality, the amount of soul she had, the control she had, the range she had,” Ross said.
“She was just 150 percent legit. I figured after Queen Bee died, I would never back a singer of that magnitude again. And for (Melanie) to be in Tonya’s league was shocking to me.”
Ross asked her to record the whole book, but memories differ on what happened next. She said he suggested forming a band; he remembers it the other way around.
Regardless, then and there, the idea for Miss Melanie and the Valley Rats came about.
“She was so good, I guess I kept her for myself,” Ross said.
Finally, the karaoke star, the bathroom and kitchen diva, was a singer for real.
“It happened at the perfect time because I was going through such a transitional period in my life that I felt like: ‘Why not?’ ” she said. “Because things were kind of shifting, and ideas that I had held on to so tightly before weren’t panning out, so I figured, ‘Let’s just see where this goes.’ ”
‘My own little world’
Now she’s such a pro, she almost gave birth on stage.
Theo threatened to arrive while she was in the middle of a set at Zeno’s Pub.
“That was the running joke: If my water breaks during a song, I finish, right?” she said. “Of course you do, without question.”
She’s a long way from the anxious newbie who scrawled lyric reminders on her arms before her first gig, at the Lock Haven Regatta with Ross and Blue Hornet Band members. Patient musicians nodded for her cues to sing after solos.
After three years of performing, she has her style down: one hand cupped around the microphone base, the other gripping the stand, eyes closed as she pours herself into Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t that Loving You Baby” or Robert Cray’s “Phone Booth.”
Flashy stage antics aren’t her thing. Her voice, not her showmanship, conjures R&B’s past.
“I just stay in my own little world,” she said. “That’s why I close my eyes. It’s easier to stay focused.”
She already knew about Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone and other female jazz vocalists when Ross introduced her to the blues. When he gave her a song, she would study versions on YouTube until she found one that spoke to her.
“We talked about the blues and finding your place in it, and how important it was to settle into your place in each song,” she said. “And when you do that, that’s where that realness comes from.”
Valley Rats Matt Zelenz and James Harton became true believers when they first heard her voice at a rehearsal.
“I just couldn’t believe how big it was,” said Horton, the organist.
Zelenz, the drummer, recalled Morrison Zeigler’s power during an acoustic show in the State Theatre’s cozy Attic venue.
“Her voice just enveloped the room,” he said. “It’s amazing. It’s just like getting wrapped up in a warm, comfy blanket right out of the dryer.”
‘Jaws hitting the floor’
Harton sees a common reaction to Morrison Zeigler’s voice.
New audiences, he said, often gape at the deep soul welling from the slender, young woman with dyed red hair.
“You hear the lower jaws hitting the floor,” he said.
Although no longer trembling before a mike, Morrison Zeigler still doesn’t see herself as a star.
“I step off stage, and I’m still that same person who can’t take a compliment,” she said. “It’s embarrassing.”
Part of what keeps her grounded is her family.
They got her through her debut in Lock Haven, and they anchor her still.
However shows go, good or bad, she still has Tuesday family nights in a Millheim home filled with toys and patrolled by two Persian cats.
She’s still a mother who makes her own cleaning products and tries to buy local food as much as possible for her family’s health.
After all, they’re her biggest fans.
“When I decided to color my hair red, my son had a kid ask him: ‘Why does your mom have crazy red hair?’ ” she said. “And he said to the kid, like he was crazy, he said, ‘Because she’s a rock star, that’s why.’ ”
She may feel like one standing on the Jordan Center’s wide stage for her sound check before the B.B. King opening. If the moment overwhelms her, she’ll just remember a hungry Theo waiting backstage and she’ll find extra strength.
“Whatever outfit I choose to wear that night, can I nurse him?” she said. “So it really puts things into perspective.”