It has been 37 years since the dynamo called Melba Moore captured theatergoers hearts and won a coveted Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress in a musical for her performance in “Purlie,” the first African-American to win in that category. A few years earlier she had already made Broadway history as the first African-American to replace a white actress in the tribute to America’s “flower children,” “Hair.” She was a member of the original cast and over the run played a number of different roles “letting the sun shine in” before taking over the role originally played by Diane Keaton. In 1995 she joined the cast of “Les Miserables” on Broadway, as the first African-American woman in the role of Fantine. She is always lauded for her four-octave vocal range.
Moore’s life had a lot of drama before her stage breakthrough and even more since then. About 12 years ago, she decided that since a number of singers had used their own stories to build successful performance pieces, she would give this a try for herself. It was also a time when she knew that her career definitely needed to be rekindled. Using songs that express various times in her life, she has developed “Sweet Songs of the Soul,” which opens at Crossroads Theater in New Brunswick on Friday, September 28. Moore initially performed the piece in various venues, primarily as a concert with some talk, and she has now teamed with Crossroads Theater’s Ricardo Kahn to polish and mold the work into a “play with music.” The show runs through Sunday, October 7.
Moore and I talked in the tenant’s lounge of a high-rise apartment building on the Palisades of New Jersey, where she assures me that her apartment (“a mess”) has a glorious view of Manhattan. To reach the lounge, we pass through the building’s health club, where Moore works out every day — and here she is, looking young, slim, and strong, wearing no makeup and looking not unlike the spunky Lutie Bell in “Purlie” rather than the sophisticated chanteuse on her album covers who will soon turn 62 years old. And no matter how difficult times have been in her life, I think spunk may have been one of the things that saw her through. More recently, she has become a born again Christian, which she credits as giving her an anchor in her life.
“Sweet Songs of the Soul” also pays homage to her mother, singer Bonnie Davis, with songs she sang including “Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Stormy Weather.” “I try to imagine what she was like on stage singing those songs,” Moore says. Because her mother was often away on singing engagements, she was frequently left in the care of “Nanny.” From her, Moore heard gospel hymns that she identifies as “Baptist Holy Roller Songs.” Moore’s birth father was the famous band leader Teddy Hill. Her parents never married. “So we never had a family,” she says, referring to her early years as a very difficult time marked with violence and abuse. “If you’ve been brutalized, that stays with you. I now am able to look back on this and find something positive but I’ve been trained to be very strong.”
Her life changed markedly when Moore was nine years old. Her mother married Clement Moorman, and she gained a ready-made family complete with father (another musician), two sisters, and a brother. “My stepfather really brought music into my life,” says Moore. “There always was music in our house, live music, not radio. And he insisted that all of us take piano lessons. Music brought something to me that soothed and brought joy and comfort. I loved to play classical music.” She says that she found focus and structure, sadly needed after early chaotic times.
Her mother and father had a combo, performing professionally, and they often rehearsed at home. “I sucked it up; it was like magic for me,” Moore says. She currently has a warm relationship with her stepfather and his wife (not Moore’s mother, who is dead.) “I love my daddy. He’s the one who brought music, wholeness, and family into my life. His name is Clement, which means mercy. Clement Moorman: that’s where I got Moore for my stage name. He is 92 but still plays the piano like he’s 32 and serenades the customers at an Italian restaurant.” She refers to her brother, Dennis Moorman, as “almost my twin — he is six months older than I.” She describes him now as “a piano virtuoso.”
Moore attended Newark Arts High School followed by Montclair State College, where she majored in voice, earning a bachelors degree in music education. “I wanted to major in voice because it was easy,” she says. “And I could take piano. I loved piano.” After graduation she was encouraged to get a “real job.” So she taught in the Newark school system, traveling from school to school to teach music to kindergarten through 12th grade students. But the Broadway career came her way and that was it for teaching.
Other Broadway credits include the 1978 musical “Timbuktu,” based on “Kismet,” which also starred Eartha Kitt and a comedy, “Inacent Black,” which didn’t fare as well and played only 14 previews, closing in May, 1981. She has appeared in a few films, including the musical comedy “The Fighting Temptations,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyonce Knowles, and a number of television shows including the night-time soap, “Falcon Crest.” She starred in television variety shows, the “Melba Moore/Clifton Davis Show” (1972) and “Melba” (1986) and made guest appearances on many others.
Throughout this time she made numerous recordings and collaborated with her then-husband Charles Huggins in a management organization that not only focused on Moore’s career but also those of other singers. Moore’s split from Huggins was another major hardship for her and the couple’s daughter. When I comment that her life has been filled with drama, she replies with a laugh, “Is that a ‘d’ or a ‘t?’” Probably from the stories she tells, trauma is more accurate.
However, during the mid-1970s into the ‘80s she made many hit records, including her debut album, “Peach Melba,” which earned a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. Another Grammy nomination came in 1976 for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance – Female for the song “Lean on Me.” Other hits include “You Stepped Into My Life,” “Love’s Comin’ At Ya,” “This Is It,” “The Greatest Feeling,” “A Little Bit More.” and “Read My Lips.”
With the split from her husband came a number of rude awakenings regarding the business side of her career. She still wonders, “Why did he do the things he did to me?” She tells me with great candor that he propagandized against her, telling everyone that she was “a crack head.” Continuing, she says, “No one would even talk to me about work. He killed my career.” She realized that she herself had to take control of her life and rebuild her work as a performer.
Relying on what she calls her “born again Christian network,” she began going from church to church singing and as was expected of a visitor, to “give testimony of what Jesus had done for me.” From this she began to develop the material that is now structured as the piece debuting at Crossroads.
Says Moore: “I had been yelling at God: Give me some work. I had to tell my story so I’d have some work.”
A major concern for her now is learning the business end of show business. Therefore she is very hands-on with the people she has carefully selected as her support staff. “I could have had ‘bigger’ people but I was more concerned with having the right people.” After her gig at Crossroads she has a number of engagements lined up, including performances overseas. But when she gets a break, she would like to go back to Montclair State and earn a degree in arts management. Her plan is for her daughter to attend and study beside her. “I’m working carefully to protect my daughter,” she says.
She draws an analogy about her own story with, surprise, a pair of shoes that she owns that is decorated with tiny turtles. “That’s me, a little turtle — working very slowly. I love the industry. I love my art. I love doing this with my life so why not take my time with it?” Looking back at her life, she sums up, “I could end up angry or defeated. I decided instead to let everything that has happened to me make me a better person.”
Melba Moore: Sweet Songs of the Soul, Friday, September 28, through Sunday, October 7, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Autobiographical production written and performed by Moore. Through narrative and a mix of jazz, gospel, and Broadway tunes, Moore chronicles her story about hardships, men, and money. Her four-octave voice is backed by Levi Barcourt’s band. $40 to $55. 732-545-8100.