American Rhythm & Blues singer and actress Melba Moore (b. New York, NY, 29 October 1945) is a four-time Grammy® nominee and the winner of the 1970 Tony Award® for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, for her performance as Lutiebelle in Purlie. With a total of eleven top ten U.S. hits on the Billboard charts over the past 40 years, both singles and albums, Melba Moore continues into the 21st century as one of pop music’s most enduring artists.
Moore was born Beatrice Melba Smith to the popular R & B singer known as Bonnie Davis (originally named Gertrude Melba Smith) and saxophonist Teddy Hill, who managed the influential Harlem jazz club Minton’s Playhouse in its heyday. The first nine years of the child’s life in Harlem were difficult; her mother was single, and distracted with her busy career (she had a Number One R & B hit, “Don’t Stop Now,” in 1943, before Melba was born). In 1954 Bonnie Davis married her long-time accompanist, pianist Clement Moorman, and the family moved permanently to Newark, New Jersey.
Clem Moorman, and the large family of siblings, aunts, and uncles to which he belonged, transformed Melba’s life. He insisted that she and the other children learn to play the piano (although her primary interest was dance) and kept a watchful eye over her musical development. At the High School for Performing Arts in Newark she studied piano and voice, and went on to Montclair State College (New Jersey) for a bachelor’s degree in music education.
After graduation she worked briefly as a music teacher, but a life in the classroom was not what she had envisioned for herself. Moorman was in a position to introduce her to several agents, and soon Melba Moore (a name she chose in honor of her stepfather, abbreviating it slightly) was on track for a singing career, making backup tracks (with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson on Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” in 1966), some of them for stars as prominent as Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin – although she was not actually working in the same space with them.
During one recording session for a commercial voice-over in 1967 she met Galt MacDermot, composer of the musical Hair. (It is reported that he was not wearing shoes at the time.) Offhandedly, he invited her to join the cast of his new show off-Broadway, and she jumped at the chance. Melba Moore moved to Broadway with the original cast of Hair as the character named Dionne, and after several months she replaced Diane Keaton in the role of Sheila. (Keaton had started as a “Waitress” and had moved to “Sheila” a month or so after the Broadway opening. The interchangeability of cast members in this highly unconventional show made it possible for Moore to become the first African-American actress to replace a white actress in a lead role on Broadway.)
In a very short time, Moore was cast as Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins, opposite Cleavon Little, in the musical Purlie (1970). Having absolutely no training in acting, she found that working in such company was very scary, and yet she had no fear of being rejected, since stage acting had never been her own ambition. Originally she was assigned only one song, “Purlie,” in the show, but she had such success with it in previews that songwriters Gary Geld and Peter Udell gave her another, “I Got Love.” This song was such a smash hit that it shot her to stardom. Not only did it supply the title to her debut album with Mercury Records, which earned her a 1971 Grammy® nomination as Best New Artist, but it boosted her to the 1970 Tony Award® for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, a 1970 Theatre World Award, and a 1970 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance.
In much later interviews, Moore has revealed that she considers this Broadway period, despite the three top awards, a hiatus, an interruption in her pilgrimage toward becoming a lead singer in the world of Rhythm and Blues. Still, it led to her first recording contract (three albums with Mercury Records: I Got Love 1970; Look What You’re Doing to the Man 1971; Melba Moore Live! 1972) and a firm foothold as a guest on television (Ed Sullivan, David Frost, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett, Carol Burnett, Flip Wilson, and thirteen appearances within three years on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show).
In the summer of 1972, Melba Moore and actor Clifton Davis co-starred in their own television series. It was intended as a temporary replacement for Carol Burnett’s variety show, but was so successful that it would have continued, had not the couple’s off-screen relationship come to an end. Moore’s career began to slump when her managers and accountants abandoned her in 1973, and she returned to Newark, singing only for benefits.
Following a performance at the Apollo Theater in 1974, she met manager and business promoter Charles Huggins, and her career began to pick up again, with a leading role in a film version of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Lost in the Stars, opposite Brock Peters and Raymond St. Jacques. Moore and Huggins married in 1975 and formed their own company, Hush Productions, signing several other R & B artists, including Freddie Jackson and Meli’sa Morgan.
Melba Moore’s next four albums (Peach Melba 1975; This Is It 1976; Melba ’76; and A Portrait of Melba 1977) were recorded by Buddah Records. Peach Melba brought her a second Grammy® nomination. Nineteen seventy-six was a banner year for her, with five singles approaching the top of the charts, and one of them, “Lean on Me,” earning her third Grammy® nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Vocal Performance, Female. As a single, “This Is It” reached Number Two on the U.S. dance charts. Moore also returned to television with a serious acting assignment, playing Harriet Tubman in The American Woman: Portraits of Courage, and emerging with an Emmy nomination.
In 1978 Moore returned to Broadway, starring as Marsinah in Timbuktu! with Eartha Kitt. The cast of Timbuktu!, “A Musical Fable based on Kismet,” was all black, with the Robert Wright/George Forrest score supplemented by African folk music, and with direction and choreography by Geoffrey Holder. Despite its success, Moore left the show after only a few weeks.
Moving to Epic Records, she had another big hit with the disco track “You Stepped into My Life,” in 1979. Three albums later, she signed with Capitol EMI and reached the top five on the R & B charts in 1982 with the dance single, “Love’s Comin’ At Ya.” This was also a considerable hit in Europe and the UK. A string of successes followed (“Keepin’ My Lover Satisfied” and “Love Me Right” in 1983, “Livin’ For Your Love” in 1984, “When You Love Me Like This” in 1985), climaxing with “Read My Lips” (1985), which brought Moore a fourth nomination for a Grammy®, for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance.
Meanwhile, Melba Moore had not entirely abandoned acting. She had another brief Broadway appearance in May 1981 in the title role of Inacent Black, a play for which she wrote incidental music and lyrics. She also guested on several TV series – The Tim Conway Show, The Love Boat, Ellis Island, Hotel, two specials (The Adventures of a Two-Minute Werewolf and Charlotte Forten’s Mission: Experiment in Freedom) – and a TV movie version of Purlie (1981) in which she reprised her Tony®-winning role of Lutiebelle.
In 1986, she scored two number-one R & B hits, “Falling,” and a duet with Freddie Jackson, “A Little Bit More.” The same year she headlined her own TV sitcom, Melba. Unfortunately the premiere was the same night as the Challenger explosion and the remaining five episodes of the series had to be postponed, so that the project fizzled. The following year she appeared on four episodes of Falcon Crest. From 1987 to 1990, Moore released seven more singles: two reached the Top Twenty, and three were Top Ten hits, including “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which featured many well known artists (Freddie Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Jeffrey Osborne, Anita Baker, and Stephanie Mills among others) and was entered into the Congressional Record as the “African-American national anthem.”
Then in 1991 Melba Moore suffered a huge blow: her husband and manager of fifteen years abruptly divorced her without warning. Suddenly she was broke, and her career went into a worse slump than before. At one point she even went on welfare and was estranged from her daughter, who went to live with Bill Cosby’s family. But she managed to rebound: she toured with the Atkins sisters in Michael Matthews’s Gospel Play Mama I’m Sorry (Moore is both a Catholic and a born-again Christian), and began to perform the one-woman musical autobiography, variously titled, that would become Sweet Songs of the Soul.
A Broadway agent who caught her solo act somewhere in the provinces realized that Melba’s voice would be a perfect fit for the part of Fantine in Les Misérables, and in due course, in January 1995, Melba Moore was back on Broadway again, the first black actress to play the role. In 1996 she released her first album in six years, Happy Together, with the Lafayette Harris, Jr., Trio.
By calculations that may not be altogether reliable, Melba Moore has recorded about seventy singles and EPs overall, appears on fourteen compilations, and has made nineteen albums – among the more recent are Solitary Journey (1999), A Very Special Christmas (2001), I’m Still Here (2002), Night in St. Lucia (2002), Nobody but Jesus (2004), Live in Concert (2007), and, with singer Phil Perry, her first R & B album in nearly 20 years, The Gift of Love (2009).
In 2003, Moore was featured in the film The Fighting Temptations, which starred Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Beyoncé Knowles. In 2006 she toured with American Idol star Diana DeGarmo in the musical Brooklyn.
Other TV series, movies, and voiceovers for animated features to which Melba Moore has contributed her talents are ABC Afterschool Specials (1987), The Cosby Show (1988), Mother’s Day (1989), All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), Monsters (1989), Def by Temptation (1990), Mathnet (1992), Square One TV (1992), and Loving (1992).
Melba Moore has received honorary degrees in Humanities from Florida A&M University and from her alma mater, Montclair State.
After her success at the Café Carlyle in April 2011 in a cabaret act called Forever Moore, she has a new R & B album forthcoming, her first in twenty years, by the same title. Her single, “Love Is,” is now available on iTunes. She continues to perform and work on her one-woman play (a development of Sweet Songs of the Soul) called Still Standing: The Melba Moore Story.
Melba Moore is remarkably forthcoming about herself and the trials she has borne. In a recent (2012) interview she reveals, “I have been low more than once, and I want people to know that it won’t happen just once, it will happen many times. I guess if you have a dream, and you have something that you want to live for, that makes you think about more than the devastation that you are experiencing …maybe people that you love that need you, or maybe you have a question like why did that happen, or am I going to live through this? Sometimes you really feel like you want it to be over and even contemplate suicide, but for some reason you don’t, so you wait a minute, and wait a minute, and wait another minute, then after a while you just get the heck up! [She laughs.] Then you’re so shocked you can laugh about it, because life is a mystery.”
– Lucy E. Cross