Melba Moore’s enduring beauty and strong, four-octave voice have assured her a rewarding career in theater, television, and film. Finding fame in the offbeat hippie musical Hair in the late 1960s, the singer has not been out of work since. As a chanteuse, Moore has been at home in a variety of genres, including rhythm and blues, gospel, rock and roll, and pop. Newsday contributor Bill Kaufman described the versatile entertainer as “a superb stylist who bounces on stage looking like a lithe African princess.… One gets the feeling that Miss Moore can become anyone she wants. She’s a belter. Then she transforms into a sultry song goddess.”
Melba Moore was born Beatrice Hill in New York City on October 27, 1945. Her parents, Bonnie and Ted Hill, were both successful entertainers; Bonnie was a singer and Ted played jazz saxophone. While Melba was still a baby her mother remarried, this time to a pianist/singer named Clem Moorman. As the daughter of professional musicians, Moore was often left in the care of a nanny named Lulu Hawkins while her parents toured. Although she remembers Hawkins fondly, Moore has admitted that she was often beaten by her old-style nursemaid. She noted that the corporal punishment made her “tough,” and as a result, she never felt particularly out of place on the harsh streets of Harlem where she lived.
Moore’s family eventually moved to Newark, New Jersey, where she attended a special high school for the performing arts; she studied voice and piano, planning to follow a career on stage. After high school she entered nearby Montclair State Teachers College and majored in music education. She received her bachelor’s degree and, on her parents’ advice, began a teaching career. But she soon found herself regretting the decision to set aside her original goal of being a performer: “I had been singing since I was four years old,” she told the New York Sunday News. “God gave me an opera voice and I wanted to use it.”
Turning to show business in the mid-1960s, Moore took work as a singer/pianist with a group called Voices, Inc., and also did solo shows at clubs in New Jersey and the Catskills. In addition, she was able to supplement her income by doing background vocals for several Manhattan recording studios. At one such recording session in 1968 she met the composer of the Off-Broadway musical Hair. He encouraged her to audition for the new production of the show that was being planned for Broadway. On the strength of her
For the Record…
Born Beatrice Hill, October 29, 1945, in New York, NY; daughter of Melba (a singer; professional name, Bonnie) and Ted (a jazz saxophonist) Hill. Education: Received bachelor’s degree from Montclair State Teachers College.
Singer and actress, 1968—. Solo singer and singer/pianist for group Voices, Inc., 1965-68; signed with Mercury Records and released first album, Learning to Give, 1970. Original cast member of Hair, 1968, became lead, 1969; has appeared in other Broadway musicals, including Purlie, 1970, and Inacent Black, 1981. Actress appearing in motion pictures, including Lost in the Stars, 1974, Hair, 1979, and Flamingo Road, 1980; and on television programs, including the Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show, 1972, Ellis Island, 1984, and Melba, 1986.
Selected awards: Tony Award for best supporting actress in a musical, 1971, for Purlie.
Addresses: Record company —Capitol Records, Inc., 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90028.
audition Moore was offered a role in the play, which opened on April 29, 1968.
Hair, a no-holds-barred exploration of the 1960s hippie culture, proved extremely popular with Broadway audiences. Moore remained with the show for 18 months, moving from role to role until she finally found herself in the lead. It was the first time in the history of Broadway that a black actress had replaced a white, and critics hailed Moore for her groundbreaking performance. Moore found the work in Hair liberating; she declared in Newsweek, “I had been a misfit, a rule-breaker.… But the Hair experience informed and reformed my deepest feelings.… What Hair taught me was to take a chance, to try.”
From Hair Moore moved to another Broadway show, Purlie, a musical recounting the experience of blacks on plantations in the southern United States. Moore took the role of Lutiebelle, an innocent Georgia domestic who falls in love with a fast-talking preacher named Purlie. Reviews of the show invariably pointed to Moore’s outstanding performance, and she was awarded a Tony in 1971 for her work in the musical. Newsday critic George Oppenheimer, for example, praised the singer as “enchanting in her wide-eyed looks, her infectious personality, her comic ability, and her singing and dancing.”
Moore was at the height of her career in the mid-1970s when she toured as a singer and made appearances on numerous television programs. She has also been the star of network variety shows, including the Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show in 1972 and Melba in 1986. Ironically, Moore has often found herself cast as an unsophisticate in dramas, a trend she has sought to reverse since 1984 when she starred as a wealthy and dignified singer in the television miniseries Ellis Island.
That stereotype, though, has never followed Moore in her club appearances. There she projects a sophisticated and contemporary image and an unforced vitality. While she has never had a huge hit, her albums—most of them with Mercury and Capitol Records—have consistently sold well within the rhythm and blues market. Essence correspondent Herschel Johnson contended that through her extraordinary vocal work, Moore has “established herself as a powerhouse of an entertainer.”
In the 1980s, Moore added a new dimension to her public image: she began donating a portion of her earnings to the Melba Moore Foundation for Children, a nonprofit organization that funds a variety of charities for needy youth. Now a bom-again Christian who has added gospel numbers to her repertoire, Moore told the Detroit Free Press: “I see my work as an entertainer and my work for the foundation and other charities as connected. With every show I do, I want some part of the proceeds to go to something worthwhile.” That attitude has sparked Moore’s biggest single hit to date, a version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” unofficially recognized as the black national anthem.
Moore further explained in the Detroit Free Press that she sees her work with children’s charities as “God’s will” and added, “He said, ‘If you love me, feed my sheep.’ I think each of us has a calling … and if each of us does our little part, our life is worthwhile. I want my life to be worth something.”
Learning to Give, Mercury, 1970.
Look What You’re Doing to the Man, Mercury, 1971.
Melba Moore Live!, Mercury, 1972.
Living to Give, Mercury.
This Is It, Buddah.
What a Woman Needs, Capitol.
A Lot of Love, Capitol, 1986.
Soul Exposed, Capitol, 1990.
Also recorded The Other Side of the Rainbow, Never Say Never, Read My Lips, Peach Melba, and A Portrait of Melba.
Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1990.
Essence, September 1984.
Jet, May 6, 1991.
Newsday, March 16, 1970; October 12, 1971; October 13, 1971.
Newsweek, March 30, 1970; June 28, 1971.
People, May 28, 1990; September 10, 1990.
Stereo Review, June 1971.
Sunday News (New York), July 2, 1972.
—Anne Janette Johnson
Moore, Melba 1945–
Melba Moore 1945–
The saga of Melba Moore is your typical rags-to-riches-to-rags story. After winning a Tony Award, getting her own network television program and becoming a household name in the early 1970s, her career went into a prolonged slump which did not let up until she was nearly destitute in the 1990s. But after reaching her rock bottom, Moore rebounded with a career renaissance which left her fans hoping she would still have a career in show business for years yet to come.
Moore, originally named Beatrice Hill, was born October 29, 1945, in New York City. Her mother, Melba (Bonnie) Smith, was a singer, and her father, Teddy Hill, was a jazz saxophonist. The union of her parents did not last, but Smith married pianist Clement Moorman while Moore was still young. The musical background could not help but rub off on young Melba. Moorman brought three of his own children, all musically inclined, into the new family, and Moore remembered to People Weekly, “Everyone would gather around the piano. My mother would have musicians come in, and we’d have parties.”
Apart from music, the other major influence in Moore’s early life was Harlem, the community in which she grew up. The rough environment contributed much to her pride in being black, but it also left scars which would take years to heal. As she told Newsweek, as related by Notable Black American Women, “Personally, I was protected. But I was surrounded by violence, by uncles in and out of jail, people cutting each other up. It was a world of the streets, of too many kids, a whole different code of living…I had never learned to talk to people. In Harlem they taught me not only not to be heard but not to be seen.”
Moore found early that academics was a good venue in which to pursue her musical interests. She attended Waverly Avenue Elementary School and Cleveland Junior High School in Newark, New Jersey. She told Essence, “I went to Catholic school, and even that I liked. It was cold and mechanical—exactly what I knew and felt comfortable with…The only way I communicated was through music.” Moore majored in music at Arts High School in Newark, then went to Montclair State
At a Glance…
Born Beatrice Hill, October 29, 1945, in New York City; daughter of Melba Smith Hill (a singer) and Teddy Hill (a jazz saxophonist); married twice; daughter Charli. Education: Bachelor’s degree in musical education, Montclair State Teacher’s College.
Career: Singer, actress; Broadway roles: Hair; Purlie, 1970; Timbuktu, 1978; tnacent Black, 1981; Les Miserables; Movie roles: Cotton Comes to Harlem, 1970; Pigeons; Hair, 1979; Lost In The Stars; Flamingo Road; Television programs: The Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show, 1972; Ellis Island, 1984; Melba, 1986; Falcon Crest; The American Women; Portrayals of Courage. Record albums: What You’re Doing To The Man, 1971; Peach Melba, 1975; This Is It, 1976; Melba, 1976; A Portrait of Melba, 1978; Dancin’ with Melba Moore, 1979; Burn, 1979; What A Woman Needs, 1981; The Other Side of The Rainbow, 1982; Never Say Never, 1983; Read My Lips, 1985; A Lot of Love, 1 937; I’m in Love, 1988; Solitary Journey, 1997.
Selected awards: First black performer at Metro Opera House, 1977; Tony Award, Best Supporting Actress for Purlie, 1970; Drama Desk Award, Purlie, 1970; New York Drama Critics’ Award, Purlie, 1970; two Grammy nominations.
Addresses: Business—do Capitol Records, 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood, CA, 90028.
Teacher’s College with a major in music education. After graduation she went back to Newark Public Schools and taught music for a year at Pershine Avenue Elementary School, a job she found frustrating because of poor facilities and curriculum in the school system.” I taught in a black school and I enjoyed imparting my love for performing and music to the kids, but the more I performed, the less I liked teaching,” she told Ebony.
While working at the school Moore began to perform on the side with a group called Voices, made up of school teachers interested in entertainment. When that arrangement ended she performed on the cocktail lounge circuit in the Catskills and occasionally did background vocals for recording sessions by such acts as Aretha Franklin and Frank Sinatra. A more lucrative sideline for her in those years was television commercials. Moore did not get rich or famous during this period, but she told Ebony she earned a reputation in the business:” By the time I left the mountains, I was pretty well-respected and they knew who Melba Moore was.”
It was an audition for a background vocals job that proved to be the break which would send Moore’s career skyrocketing. In 1967 she showed up early for a recording session, and was asked by playwright Gerome Ragni if she’d like to do Hair. As she recalled to People Weekly, she bristled,” I didn’t get a bachelor’s degree in musical education to do nobody’s hair.” Ragni was referring to the musical production which had recently found its way to Broadway after its beginnings at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre. Moore was initially uncomfortable with the play, which featured sex, drugs, rock and roll and nudity, but she took the plunge.” She was a bit inexperienced—not hip to the Broadway scene,” play lyricist James Rado told People Weekly.” But her presence on stage and her voice electrified the audience,” he added. Moore’s stock with the production continued to rise until she was eventually given the lead female part. Moore apparently warmed up to the part overtime. In 1973 she told Essence, “I cringed throughout the tryout. The fear was unrelenting…. For me it was terror, except when I was singing.” But in 1997 she told People Weekly, “It was a joyful, wild and crazy time. It was really about being confident and being African-American. That was revolutionary.”
Moore stayed with the show for 18 months, then left to star in Purlie, a Broadway musical based on the stage play Purlie Victorious. She played Lutiebelle opposite Cleavon Little in the play, a love story set on a Georgia plantation and written by Ossie Davis. Moore received rave reviews for her performance, and it paid off with a Tony Award, a New York Drama Critics’ Award, and a Drama Desk Award.
By now, Moore was a star, and it seemed she was free to do whatever she wanted. She responded by doing a bit of everything. In 1970 she appeared in a pair of movies: Cotton Comes to Harlem and Pigeons. In 1971 she released her first record album, What You’re Doing to the Man. In 1972 she starred in The Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show on CBS-TV, a summer replacement for The Carol Burnett Show. She filled in the gaps by touring, performing a wide variety of music in her live shows.” I use a lot of different voices and styles,” she told Newsweek.” Why not? I’m a lot of different people inside. Aren’t we all? I’m a child sometimes, and a woman, and angry or sad, and black and human.”
Despite all her hard work, Moore found her career on hard times by the mid-1970s. Her managers had abandoned her, her last few projects had been less than successful, and there were not many new projects on the horizon. She put her trust for the future in promoter Charles Huggins, whom she married, bore a child, daughter Charli, and partnered a production company.
Regardless of how much credit goes to Huggins and how much to Moore, her career stayed above water for several more years. A contract with Buddah Records, and a subsequent one with Epic, allowed her to make several albums over the remainder of the decade, and she had a pair of minor hit singles with” This is It” in 1976 and” You Stepped Into My Life” in 1979. In 1978 she returned to Broadway, appearing as Mansinah in Timbuktu. In 1981 she appeared in another Broadway show, Inacent Black. In 1984 she had a featured role in the television miniseries Ellis Island.
Moore’s success continued into the second half of the 1980s, as she was nominated for a Grammy for the second time for the 1985 album Read My Lips. In 1986 she was given her second television program, titled Melba. It seemed the project was doomed from the beginning: The night the sitcom premiered, January 28, 1986, was the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded. The program was then yanked from the schedule until August 2, and when it was aired for the second time on that date, CBS suffered the lowest-rated evening of prime-time programming in its entire history. The program stayed on the air until September, but was not renewed for the following season. Moore still found more TV work, however, portraying Harriet Tubman in the television special The American Women: Portrayals of Courage.
The 1990s started out well for Moore, as she recorded a hit version of” Lift Every Voice and Sing” with Dionne Warwick, Anita Baker and others. But her fortunes took a turn for the worse in 1991, as Huggins filed for divorce. The divorce would be a particularly nasty one, and Moore found herself out of work, without career guidance, and, by 1993, broke. She was forced to file for welfare and food stamps when Huggins did not make his child support payments, and was even denied credit by a Manhattan supermarket.
Moore was willing to do whatever was necessary to revive her career, and she told People Weekly, “I don’t mind proving myself.” She started from scratch, joining a gospel bus tour of Mama, I’m Sorry. The work kept coming, as in 1996 she put together a one-woman show, appeared in Les Miserables and A Swell Party: The Cole Porter Songbook, and worked on a new album, Solitary Journey. Atourin 1997 drew a glowing review from the Los Angeles Times. She did a number of standards for her set, telling the newspaper,” Since God has resuscitated me, I decided I wasn’t going to do anything new. So I picked old songs to re-new.”
By the late 1990s, Melba Moore was back where she felt she belonged, reaching out and entertaining America through her acting, her singing and her comedy. She told the New York Times in 1981 she felt her role was to make America a better place:” The veils we wear have changed but underneath the situation is pretty much the same economically and racially…There is a melting pot, and eventually we’re going to be more like one another, but there are still differences…. The important thing is to be kind to each other… The rest will take care of itself.”
What You’re Doing To The Man, 1971.
Solitary Journey, 1997.
“This Is It.”
“You Stepped Into My Life.”
Nite, Norm N. with Charles Crespo, Rock On: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock n’ Roll, Volume Three, p. 221.
The Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Volume Four, edited by Colin Larkin, p. 2905.
Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith, p. 761.
Jet, December 27, 1993, p. 8.
Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1997.
People Weekly, December 1, 1997, p. 163.