An Interview With Legendary Performer and Tony Award Winner, Melba Moore!
Posted On 22 Sep 2014
Tag: An Evening With Melba Moore: Forever Moore, Arts High School, Beyonce, Bonnie Davis, Broadway, Cece Winans, Clement Moorman, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick, Dizzy Gillispie, Dorothy Norwood, Dr. Cissy Houston, Eartha Kitt, Fleet Wilson, Forever Moore, Freddie Jackson, Gladys Knight, Grammy, Hair, Just Dance, Lutiebelle, Marsinah, McDonalds Gospel Fest, Melba Moore, Motown, Newark Arts High School, Nicki Minaj, Pharrell, Phil Perry, Purlie, Rihanna, Sarah Vaughn, Shirley Ceaser, SoulTracks, Teddy Hill, The Gift Of Love, The Supremes, Timbuktu, Tony, Usher, Whitney Houston, Whoopi Goldberg
Melba Moore is certainly a living legend! She is a star of the stage, screen and recordings. She is the daughter of saxophonist Teddy Hill and R&B singer, Bonnie Davis.
Her career all began when her stepfather, pianist Clement Moorman, introduced her to several agents which eventually landed her a role in the cult classic musical HAIR. It was in HAIR that Ms. Moore became the first African-American woman to replace a white actress, who happened to be the acclaimed Diane Keaton, in a lead role on Broadway. A year and a half later, she starred in PURLIE, which earned her a TONY Award for her portrayal as “Lutiebelle.” Then, Ms. Moore later appeared alongside the iconic Eartha Kitt as “Marsinah” in the musical TIMBUKTU!
Ms. Moore’s upcoming album, Forever Moore, will be her first since she and Phil Perry released the SoulTracks Award-winning The Gift Of Love in 2009. The single out currently from Forever Moore is entitled, “Just Dance” and it encourages world harmony and is about the joy of simple dancing and singing.
From her New York home, Ms. Moore and I chatted about her career highs and lows and what the future holds for her.
Your parents come from a very musical background. Is this what led you to choose this path as an entertainer?
I’m certain it is because my mother was a single parent and when I was very very young, like when I was born till I was about 5 years old, I really didn’t have a proper normal family. My grandmother had a stroke so she couldn’t speak and I didn’t have any siblings so I was raised by a nanny and my mother was gone a lot but when I was saw her, she was the most beautiful and glamorous woman. I mean, I think I caught the fever just from looking at her. She married my stepfather who is in his 90’s now and is still a working musician. So I caught that passion for it from my parents for sure.
So they were encouraging?
No, they told me to get a real job! <Hahaha> But they had a passion for it and you know how kids are. If they are around you, they watch you. They will look into your soul and they see what you are saying and everything but they also see especially when there is music around all the time. My parents worked together and they rehearsed at home, and my stepfather still has a great passion for music. He made all of us, my stepsister and stepbrother take piano lessons. I didn’t even want to. But by the time, I got intimately acquainted with studying music, by the time I was 9, I got sucked into it so it didn’t matter what they told me! <Hahaha>
And then you went on to attend Newark Arts High School, which specialized in the visual and performing arts. This must have been an exciting time for you.
That’s correct. I think by the time I finished the rest of elementary school and junior high school and being surrounded by so much love of music and great great great music, I was determined that if I could, I would like to major in music. I didn’t really know if I had any talent or not but I knew that I wanted to spend my life in the arts. So that was my emphasis. So I went and auditioned to try to get into the school.
You really felt special because it was a small school so you really had a chance to major in music. I continued to study piano at home, but then I was taking voice lessons and doing opera and participating in chorus and choir in a very special way. It wasn’t just like any high school choir.
Fast forwarding a number of years, you’ve appeared on stage in a number of critically acclaimed productions, including Purlie (for which you were awarded a Tony). You’ve also done films and television. Which do you prefer and why?
I absolutely adore theater because it was a surprise to me but it was a natural growth of my music and being around so many drama kings and queens to get on the stage and learn on the job. The first thing it taught to me was to come out of myself and not to be aware of your performance but your audience and what they were teaching you and what was happening spontaneously there for you. To take that under your belt and learn on the job. I mean the applause and that excitement and getting your craft too. I meant learning on the job is trial by fire. My first play was Hair, my second was Purlie, my third was Timbuktu and my 4th play was Les Miserables. So I felt like, I got some good luck in this area and so these things happened to me without having a manager or an agent. I still don’t know how to audition.. <Haha> So these were really good luck pieces so I love them in that magical fantastical way.
But I really feel that music is my centerpiece, it’s what I grew up with. I really feel like it’s a ministry and I’ve been anointed to it so I feel like if I nurture that and other things will come out of it. So I look at it that way rather then just try to pick one out of the other. So I hope to continue doing both.
How do you think your experience on Broadway prepared you for being a solo artist?
It greatly prepared me. Because I was with an ensemble and you really had to become a character and you couldn’t just be yourself. Although you really had to develop yourself if you didn’t have a personality to bring to the part that you were playing. And I recall particular in Purlie when I got the Tony award, it was about my culture. Hair was about the American culture and the hippy culture. And at least one of us played in it, the African American what we contributed to it. Oh we did a parody for instance to Diana Ross and The Supremes so the art that Motown was in it. But Purlie was really about our culture so I had a chance to draw on my own personal experiences, without any acting training, I didn’t even know the language they were talking about-downstage, upstage.. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I had to rely on my fellow actors to help me walk me through it, to give me comfort and to teach me but also allow me to bring to the part whatever it is I had to bring to it. So let me put it this way, I didn’t go into Purlie for instance as the star, I came in as a unknown, when the director finally heard me, when I auditioned for that and I got the part, the director didn’t know I could sing, he didn’t care. And so after, when we were in previews, I had one song to sing just for my character and I guess I gave it my own little twist on it. So it got me not only another song that was written especially for me and my style but it got me the Tony award so that’s the way I really developed as a soul artist. Really developed myself so I came out of the ensemble and I stood out.
Could you see yourself doing Broadway again?
I hope I shall! I adore it, yes.
In your career, you’ve released over 20 albums, earned number one singles, 4 Grammy nominations and performed with many impressive artists. Which artist have you enjoyed performing with over the years? Who has really stood out?
Oh wow, stood out? Oh god, there’s so many. Well, the ones that come to mind now of course are Freddie Jackson as a fellow recording artist as someone that I helped groom and bring into the industry. It was and is a unique relationship, in terms of being a mentor and entrepreneurship as well as an artist. I worked with some people like Fleet Wilson who really mentored me and ushered me into television and helped me springboard what had gotten me into theater into television. It was a very unique and exciting experience. Then of course, over the years, I’ve crossed path with people like Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, some of these great great great recording artists. And most recently, I’m pleased to have been on the roster at the McDonalds Gospel Fest with many of the great gospel legends. First ladies like Shirley Ceaser, Dorothy Norwood, Cece Winans and Dr. Cissy Houston. I could go on… I mean it’s crazy! I shouldn’t even be on the bill with them. [laughing]Those are just some of the ones that stand out to me.
I read recently that you were working on an autobiography, which would detail your achievements over the span of your career. When you look back, what would you consider some of your biggest achievements? What have you decided to include in your autobiography?
Definitely some of the ones that I just mentioned because they have lasting power. People keep asking about them. They are so interested in them. It’s an honor to get a Tony award and to get it when you don’t even know what a TONY away was! <Hahaha>
Of course, my personal life is the reason I was able to do any of this. It’s also about being at the right place at the right time. I’d say my personal life is what I’d bring to the autobiography. I’d also like to include the fact that my mother was a professional singer and she married a musician so I got to meet many of the great musicians of her time. I met Lena Horne, I met Sarah Vaughn, She worked in Dizzy Gillispie’s band so these people were in my personal life. But then as your went on, you see the ups and down, part of everyone’s life but in particular the dramatic and traumatic in an artists life. And I think the main reason, especially for an African American coming up in my time, no one knew that much about the business or what our rights were, we were still developing that so we had many traumas and bumps and bruises because the people who knew wouldn’t teach us. If they wanted to take advantage of us for one thing. I asked my mother, what would you do if the record companies overlooked the contract, she didn’t know, she said, I guess we’ll just leave the contract out. I bet you Whitney Houston wouldn’t have said that and neither would Cissy because so much has progressed in a great amount of time. So I would definitely cover some of these points, not just because they are important to me, but I think people can glean something from it regardless of what their background is because of the culture they were part of, the time they were part of and of course the race they were part of and the country that I’m part of.
Are you currently still working on the autobiography?
Basically, it’s done but I think when I get through with this next season, I’d like to add to it to bring it up to where I am now.
Tell me about your one-woman stage show. How did it come about?
Well, it started when my whole life and career basically crashed and I didn’t have anything to do. I heard from people like Whoopi Goldberg and some other genius’ is that you start with what you know and that’s your life and although I wasn’t a playwright, I began to try to do that and get some people to help me put into a script and start marketing and booking and managing myself. So I began to tour with it. I’ve been touring on and off for about 10 year with it. Now my production “An Evening With Melba Moore: Forever Moore” was developed to be partly about the music and then introduce part of my autobiography into it. So dependent on who is booking me, they may call it a concert if they like. So I have all these ways of saying yes to whoever wants to book me.
When did you decide to return to the studio and record your latest album and what are some the biggest changes you’ve seen since your last recording?
Oh I’ve been recording it over the last 10 years. I got tons of music but I recently came up with the title for it, Forever Moore.
I think the music industry has become fragmented and it’s become an independent business. And it’s become all about direct marketing because of the Internet. What I’ve noticed is I’ve done comeback after comeback after comeback, so it occurred to me, whatever I comeback or I don’t, I’m going to stay here and out of that, I came up with Forever Moore.
The music industry is better now. I say that because I’ve had some of my challenges beginning about 15 years ago, where I had absolutely nothing, of course what I realized what that a lot of people as individuals and as groups were going through the same thing. And so if I was going to have a roof over my head, I was going to continue to do something with singing, something that I liked to do. I had to reinvent myself and I had to find out where I could go, who I could be and where I would be accepted. All of that changed so I continues to adapt and since I didn’t have anything, well almost anything, I learned how to book myself and I convinced people who wouldn’t pay me a lot of money or who didn’t have a budget to pay for a live band, to hire me for tracks. So I developed that until it became evident to me that everybody else was working the tracks and that had become a great industry especially since we have such a great industry of house music, of disco, a lot of music where really tracks are so important that sometimes you don’t do yourself any justice by having a live band because you do it with just a piano, bass and drums. You need synthesizers and you have to have certain sounds. Some of the sounds you get in the studio are very unique to the hook and the reason why people love the song. So it developed a market for track development. I also created several bands. I even have several different gospel bands because that music is different then r&b music.
What music are you enjoying now… any particular artists?
Honestly, I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music because things are taking off again right now.
Primarily, I listen to the mainstream music to see basically what everyone is listening to and then I get music submitted to me all the time so I can find out what’s going on. Pharrell is a wonderful combination of what’s now but it still encompasses the good live feelings of the traditional music. I listen to things to see where I can fit in and where it occurs. People that are making some really good music… I think of Usher… And Rihanna, the uniqueness of her voice and her music. Cause to me, she’s put herself in that category for commercial reasons. I admire Beyonce. These two have developed themselves. They are young artists and should be doing fun dance music. Another artist that I admire for their entrepreneurship and hootspah is Nicki Minaj. I know she is way out there but right now, she is playing the fantasy and that’s what young people have a right to do that.
When you aren’t performing or writing new material, what do you like to do for fun and relaxation? How do you wind down?
My job is like winding down. <Hahaha> I look forward to that time because right now, I’m gearing up. I want to be available for a new marketing team and a new promotional team. I do do a lot of meditating and I stay in the gym. I’m also in a spiritual and mental fast because when I get ready to come out for this next season, I want to come out ‘lean and mean’. And my hope is that if I do a good job, in these next 3-4 months, I’ll finish my album and then I may be able to take some time off and maybe go parasailing and maybe discover some new hobbies.
Regarding your song, “Just Dance”, you’ve been quoted as saying “looking forward to taking music back to the basics, let’s all dance, let’s all sing, we can all live harmony”. Can you elaborate?
The music is very powerful and I think I am indeed taking it back. It’s always positive, always joyful. I like uptempo and happy music. I want to continue to write new music and fit into the community that I am in at that time. Hopefully, in there, there will always be room for something that is reminiscent of what was and what is. If I’m able to stay for awhile, I’ll be taking music back to the time when we really sang with all our hearts and music let us bring harmony together. I’m all about bringing harmony between each other.