Melba Moore… Still Standing
By Vin Taylor
Melba Moore, Icon, Diva, Actress, Songstress, Talent. All of these don’t even come close to describing this Living Legend. Melba Moore, as she has become know to us, was born Beatrice Melba Hill, to a then single mom Gertrude Melba Smith, known to the R&B world as singer Bonnie Davis.
Ms. Moore has had over seventy singles, nineteen albums, made over fourteen compilations, appeared in numerous TV shows, movies, Broadway shows, even voiced animated characters, and Ms. Moore isn’t stopping there. She has a new Cd coming out in 2015 called,"Forever Moore", Check out her new single "Just Dance"
which is her first in more than twenty years. So where did we start the interview? At the beginning of course.
which is her first in more than twenty years. So where did we start the interview? At the beginning of course.
WTLE: “Your mother was a singer, your father a saxophonist, your step father a pianist. What was it like growing up around so much music?”
MM: “My natural father never married my mother, so I didn’t really have a relationship with him. I found out that he was a very famous musician… When my mother married my stepfather who is also a musician… who still plays at ninety eight… they pay him to still play… he’s amazing… that’s when the real songs, passion and influence of music came into my life. I was about nine years old at that time. My stepfather had been married before, so he had a son and a daughter… He was a piano player so he made us all take piano lessons… and that was the beginning of really starting to get enmeshed in music and having it be the center of our lives.”
WTLE: “You were born in New York. Grew up in Harlem, and then at age 9 or 10 moved to Newark New Jersey. Later you went to The High School for Performing Arts in Newark where you studied piano and voice, and then you went on to Montclair State College in New Jersey, and received a bachelor's degree in music education. For a while you became a music teacher, but you really wanted to perform, is that true?”
MM: “That’s true, yes… It was in my blood by then, of course… I just seemed to really focus… on voice. I played piano, but I was really better at singing.”
WTLE: “You sang with Ashford & Simpson, Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin. What was that experience like?”
MM: “We were colleagues and when I stopped teaching school, my stepdad tried to get me into the industry. I just inadvertently met Valerie Simpson. At the time she was singing back up… She ushered me into the industry as a back up singer with her… We did all the top dates, so we sang behind Dionne Warwick, Aretha Franklin, we sang behind everybody.”
WTLE: “During a recording session back in 1967 you met Galt McDermott, composer of the musical Hair and he asked you to join the cast?”
MM: “He’s a keyboardist. So he was doing his album of the music of Hair that he had composed and we were hired as back up singers on the date. When the date finished, Galt, Jim Rado and Jerry Ragni who of course wrote the lyrics for all the music and the book for Hair and he (Galt)… invited Valerie, myself and all the rest of the singers to come down and audition for the director and the producer, who was Tom O'Horgan at the time, if we wanted to be in the Broadway production of Hair.”
WTLE: “…And then you replaced Diane Keaton?”
MM: “Eventually… I wound up auditioning for the part and getting the lead, replacing Diane Keaton… To have been in the same shoes with her is a great, great, great honor.”
WTLE: “You were the first African-American actress to replace a white actress in a lead role on Broadway?”
MM: “That was an important thing to have happened, period. Even if Diane hadn’t been who she became.”
WTLE: “A short time later in 1970, you were cast as Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, opposite Cleavon Little, in my favorite musical Purlie, written by the late great Ossie Davis. You had no acting training at the time. How did you get through that?”
MM: ”It was very… scary. It wasn’t too difficult because the part seemed to be natural for me, but being on the stage, in front of people, not really knowing… having no technical background… you always feel like your not going to make it… You don’t think anybody wants you to be yourself… You’re supposed to be acting.”
WTLE: “In 1981, you did the TV Movie Purlie, starring Robert Guillaume, Sherman Hemsley, Linda Hopkins, Clarice Taylor, Suzzanne Douglas, Ted Ross. Pauletta Pearson now Pauletta Washington (Denzel’s wife) and my friend Brenda Braxton (Smokey Joe’s Café). What was that like reliving it all over again?”
MM: “I was just at Ruby Dee’s memorial service… she was the original Lutiebelle (in Purlie Victorious)… My now ex husband… and I were kind of forced to fill rolls to put it on tape… It was a video production… I realized that we were ahead of our time… putting theatre pieces on tape… It was just Déjà vu baby, but this time it wasn’t scary, it was just fun.”
WTLE: “You sang ‘Purlie”, “The Harder They Fall”, “I Got Love”, my favorite “He Can Do It” with Novella Nelson. What was your favorite song?”
MM: “I think my favorite song is Purlie… Because its hokey, it kind of tells the story, it gives me a chance to hit the high notes… and play the joyful, country, silly character. I still enjoy singing that. (starts singing) ‘I love to sit and hear him dream…’ It is so cute.” (we laughed).
WTLE: “In 1970 you received a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, a Theatre World Award, and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance, but you really just wanted to be a singer?”
MM: ”I wanted to be anything! I didn’t know that there was any future or any thought about theatre or anything else for me. I mean music was all we knew or cared about and it wasn’t musical! (deep laugh). I was just really, really happy with being in music, and then having the extended aspect of having theatre added to it… it was surprising… I didn’t know that it would be part of my future ”
WTLE: “Wow. Then you received a Grammy nomination as Best New Artist in 1971 for your debut album with Mercury Records I Got Love. Then you did Look What You're Doing To The Man 1971, you did Melba Moore Live! in 1972. You became an ever present guest on television, The Ed Sullivan Show, David Frost, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, The Carol Burnett Show, my favorite The Flip Wilson Show, and thirteen appearances on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show and then in the summer of 1972, you and actor Clifton Davis co-starred in your own television series. What was that experience like?”
MM: “Once again, breaking new territory, developing as an actress in a persona in the TV industry… with comedy that’s about our afro centric culture as well as showbiz and contemporary life… there were no guidelines… it was very difficult… we had to help come up with concepts… especially comedy ideas and guests and stuff… we weren’t writers… it was very strenuous and stressful. Plus, Clifton and I were a couple, we were trying to have a love affair at the same time, (laugh) so it was very difficult, but I gotta say very exciting. You don’t come into this industry to sit home and watch TV! We had a very exciting time.”
WTLE: “Did he write Never Can Say Goodbye about you?”
MM: “I’m not sure if he wrote it for me or Michael Jackson. He probably told me it was for me. (big laugh).
WTLE: “I want to get to your present day career, but first, I want to ask you about a couple of things. So I want you to say the first thing that comes to your mind. In 1974 you performed at The Apollo Theatre…”
MM: “I’m not sure I remember Vinny. I have been there so many times… I can remember thinking… please don’t let it close before I can get on the stage!... Every time I’ve been there it’s always been an honor… something special to me… I was there maybe about a year ago and it was still very special to me… we had a special theme of contemporary African American women… I think it was called the Sisterhood Experience. So now I… could be an example for younger singers that we sang with… like Allison Williams, Monifah, Miki Howard, Melissa Morgan… Many times I’ve been there it was a special theme… I probably remember those better than the first time I performed there.”
WTLE: “OK. Now, Lost in the Stars, opposite Brock Peters and Raymond St. Jacques. How was that?”
MM: “Once again, it was an extension of acting. It was… classic… I was pleased to do that… a very sad movie… a quality piece.”
WTLE: “Timbuktu, with Eartha Kitt.”
MM: “Now that was a unique experience for a couple of reasons. I had never worked with Geoffrey Holder before… He was a wonderful dancer, choreographer. He designed the costumes and the sets. He was always like a genie that popped out of the bottle honey. Which was bigger than life!... And working opposite Eartha Kitt was like working opposite the Iconic Diva of the age. She came back there with the tough girls like Pearl Bailey… They were very strong, well skilled… and they made their own deals, they were good business women! They were something to be around… they were a force!”
WTLE: “Appearing on The Love Boat.”
MM: “I’m just gonna chuckle right now, because they were always enjoyable, fun, funny. The cast and directors and the people were always sweet… I was just laughing till I laughed myself silly… I loved doing it… Nothing scary about that… I had a good manager by that time, I had a good structure in my life.”
WTLE: “Just A Little Bit More with Freddie Jackson.”
MM: “Very exiting… It was my first duet… It was interesting working on stage… coordinating costumes… you’re used to working as a solo artist, he’s a solo artist and getting to know each other, doing interviews together, it was a whole new learning experience, but the great thing about myself and Freddie, I think that we are both just naturally joyful types of people… We loved each other. It was always enjoyable though it might have been a little awkward sometimes.”
WTLE: “You did what I would call the first We Are The World, when you performed on "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which featured many well known artists such as Freddie Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Baker, and Stephanie Mills among others. The song was entered into the Congressional Record as the African American National Anthem. Was this a great moment for you?”
MM: “ABSOLUTLY! Yes, because it’s part of our African American history, and one of the things that is unique and important about us is we have had a very oppressive… depressive… suppressive existence. Trying to be first class citizens. Trying to get our education. Trying not to be profiled; trying not to be racially prejudice against… that struggle has made us a nation within a nation, because we came here as slaves and everybody else came here a immigrants... Every nation has a song that identifies them. We have the Star Spangled Banner, but we had another struggle, and out of that struggle came Lift Every Voice And Sing, and what was important to me was that many of us were not aware of that and so for me it was a great moment to bring it to everybody’s attention.”
WTLE: “You toured in Michael Matthews’s Gospel Play Mama I'm Sorry and began to perform your one-woman musical autobiography, that went through a few title changes that became Sweet Songs of the Soul. Why did you settle on that title?
MM: “It’s now called Still Standing, The Melba Moore Story… it’s been evolving, I haven’t really settled on anything, it may change again (we laugh). It’s a work in progress.”
WTLE: “You have done so much in your life. TV, plays, musicals, albums, the list goes on. I just heard Just Dance as well as What Can I Do To Survive. What is the inspiration behind those songs?”
MM: “Well, they’re contemporary music, and I’m a singer, so I have to have something out now, and I think it kind of represents a good message for somebody in my stage of life and in the industry… the song writer and the producer are the ones who came up with the inspiration… I just said, Yeah that’s great, I think I could sing that… Not too much techno… sounds natural… That’s important to me now because it’s time to have something fresh out… you want to compete with the market, but you don’t wanna jump on the band wagon… have your own identity… I like to present something that makes you feel good and it’s happy... has a good strong positive message… I think both of them do that.”
WTLE: “ You’re here, you’re still standing and I know you will be standing for a long time, but how do you want people to remember you?”
You can visit Melba Moore website http://www.melbamoore.com/ and follow her on twitter https://twitter.com/MelbaMoore1 for her latest music, videos and updates