Melba Moore: Unraveling Crucial Circumstances
Interviewed and written by Elder Lee M Harris, Sr
For many years I’ve asked the question, “What happened to someone that seemed to have everything going for themselves in this world of fame?” What I’ve come to realize over the years is that every one of us are only human beings. Things happen in our lives that can either push us forward or break us in half and leave us where we stand. Inspiration is a word that can sometimes become confused with a temporary fix, but not in the case of a very inspiring lady that absorbed the hurts and pains the world had to offer her and still remained standing flatfooted as I speak. When our careersand lives seem to be on their last leg and we allow God to step in and carry us the rest of the way, we see the results.
As I walked around my home a week ago, I could hear Melba Moore’s voice ringing in my head singing, “There’s No Other Like You.” This was the song that marked Melba’s greatness many years ago, and here it was again. I married this special lady that made Melba’s song so special to me. After this, I just had to talk with her. It’s strange because when I mentioned this to my friend and co-worker Mr. Aaron Robinson, he informed me that he had recently viewed Melba’s website and was looking up information pertaining to her career. I definitely felt then that we had to do this interview.
After talking with her Manager Ron Richardson, a time was set and here I am about to share a very special conversation with this very special lady and woman of God, National Recording Artist, Broadway Tony Award Winner and Actress, Miss Melba Moore.
Lee Harris: Melba, if you would, prior to gaining your professional name, tell us about your family and growing up as Beatrice Melba Smith?
Melba Moore: I was born and started my life in Manhattan, New York City. My mother was a professional. She traveled around the country with the big bands. That’s how she met my natural father, Teddy Hill, who also had a big band. They worked together and fell in love. And of course, I was the product, but they didn’t stay together. When I was about nine years old, my mother met my step father who was also a musician. They formed a group and my step father plays the piano still, but my mother has passed on. Then they married. My step father already had a daughter and son by a prior marriage, but his first wife passed away. I had an instant brother and sister. The person raising me at that time was a wonderful woman from the backwoods of South Carolina. We used to call her Momma Lu. She stayed with me and used to take care of my indolent grandmother, who had a stroke, while my mother was on the road trying to raise money.
LH: Singing was definitely a major part of who you were.
MM: Even before I became conscious of it, my mother was a singer. She was away all the time. That had an impact on when she was there.
LH: What was it that ignited your attention toward the stage as far as the singing and the acting at the same time?
MM: I started my professional life as a music educator in the public schools in Newark, New Jersey. Our family had moved because my stepfather and his kids moved to Newark, New Jersey. When my mother married him, we moved also. They told me, my sister and my brother to get real jobs and get an education. The closest thing I could think of to music was teaching music in the public schools. After doing it for a very short while…like about a year or so, I told my dad and my mother that I really wanted to try the entertainment business. My dad, in particular, started taking me around to business associates of his within the industry to try to get me started in the music industry. I met a girl by the name of Nikki Harris at one of the people’s offices that he took me to. She was a songwriter. While we were in the other office waiting to go in to conduct this meeting, we were talking and she asked me did I read music? I said yes! She was a very outgoing and friendly person. She said, “Do you want to do some backup work or something,” and I said yeah! She got me started doing jingles and studio work. At one of the recording recessions, two hippies came in with no shoes, raggedy dated out jeans and tied shirts. One of them had thick bad bushy curly hair that looked like his fingers were still stuck in a live plug. He asked me did I want to do, “Hair.” It didn’t hit me that it was a Broadway show.
LH: (Laughing) You’re credited for your Broadway performance in the stage play, “Hair.” It is known that your performance was superb through that particular stage play.
MM: The role of Sheila was always cast as a blue eyed blond haired young lady. After quite a long run…I mean the show ran for many years. Even after I left it, I stayed there for a whole year and a half. During the last few months that I was in it, they had been through several different people. They were never able to settle on anybody, but they always chose White People. One of the black folks in the cast said, “I thought this was an open, free society, free love, you know, equality.” She then went on to say, “Why can’t a strong Black Woman go up for the role?” a lady by the name of Mary Davis replied, “We never thought about that, you wanna go up for the role?” One cast member said, “Yeah!” So I said, “I wanna go up for the role too (laugh).” I ended up getting the female lead and replacing Dianne Keaton, which made history. I became the first Black Actress to replace a White Actress in a lead role on Broadway.
LH: There were other plays, such as Purlie and Les Miserables; what was the outcome of those two plays?
MM: Well, I got a Tony Award; a whole career in television and recordings. I was a guest on all the major TV Shows. Then I was given a record contract as a lead artist. A big notoriety of fame came with, “Purlie.”
LH: So you won a Tony Award for, “Purlie”?
LH: “There’s No Other Like You,” kept ringing, ringing, and ringing in my head. I wonder why! Why do you think that is?
MM: I think it’s a special song because it’s one of those still international feelings. Gene McFadden of McFadden & Whitehead had a peculiar personality trait with a ballot. It lingers with you because he was very talented at that, and he wrote quite a few for me.
LH: You were nominated for a Grammy for the song, “Lean on Me,” and your 1990 recording, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was entered into the Congressional Record as the African American National Anthem. Tell us about that.
MM: Well at the time of my next recording for Capital Records, I was having a great deal of difficulty with my now ex-husband, who was also my manager. It was very difficult to take part in choosing the music, working with the A & R people or working with the company to create my albums. What I did was kind of intervened my own life and career and talked with the A & R people. I told them some of the things that were on my heart. I wanted to do something that would serve the community, bring other artist together and remind people that besides making hit records, we’re a race of people. We’ve had issues. The reason we even have R & B music is because we’ve had to overcome racism and be creative under the worse circumstances. One of the great examples we have of that is the song that is identified with the success of our Civil Rights Movement which is, “Lift up Every Voice and Sing.” I thought it was a great opportunity to bring people together like Dion Warrick, Take Six, The Clark Sisters, Stevie Wonder, Stephanie Mills and Freddie Jackson. Debbie Allen directed the video. It was a collective effort because it was our national anthem. CeCe Winans sung on it and BeBe Winans actually arranged, produced it and got all the artist together. I presented it to the people that I worked with in terms of community service like Dr. Dorothy Height in the National Council of Negro Women and Dr. C. Delores Tucker in the National Political Congress of Black Women. They helped me take it to the Black Caucus and Congress entered it into the Congressional Record, as the official of what used to be called, “Negro National Anthem.” We brought it up to date to call it the Black National Anthem.
LH: Melba, there were other TV shows…what were some of those and who were some of the co-stars that starred in them?
MM: Well, I had a comedy series that was really short lived because it kept getting interrupted by a track of events; one of them when the space shuttle went up. We were in the middle eighties, the Columbia Special. I think it was, and it crashed. We just never really got a good airing. It was called the Melba Show…a little TV sitcom and then there would be the Melba Moore & Clifton Davis Show. That was the summer in which we replaced it for the Carol Burnet Show. The guess artist on the show included Gladys Knight & the Pips, Moms Mabley, Timmy Rodgers, the comedian at that time, Nancy Wilson, Florence Leachman and Jean Stapleton from, “All in the Family,” who played the wife, Edith (laugh).
LH: Through every career, heartaches, headaches and let downs always appear. Something happened to you during a time of marriage that crippled many things in your life, what was it that happened?
MM: What my ex-husband did was use a phony or forged document to create a divorce proceeding that I was to never find out about. One day, I went down to get the mail and I got the final divorce decree. I was in shock because we hadn’t been talking about the divorce. We were making love with each other, sleeping together, and we were a married couple. When I got the document, I took it to an attorney and found out indeed I was divorced. I said well, how could that have happed? When I got the documents, I realized by looking at the signatures that it was not my signature. What he basically did was forged and signed all our marital and business assets over to himself. Of course before I knew all that, I asked him what the document was…so he knew that I knew it. Then he began to essentially erode and destroy my life, and my career. We have a daughter and he just wrecked our life. It’s just been very difficult to build it back again. First of all, it was like, he was a great, great business person, which he still is. Why did he do that…I asked him why? And he said,“Well, that’s just the way I am.”
LH: This gentleman…was he older, younger?
MM: No, he’s a young man, and people asked me was this his daughter by a prior marriage. This is his blood daughter, our only child; you’d want to know why he would do that to his own flesh and blood. I stopped asking why. One of the things I had to do was ask, “Who is this person and what is it that I’m involved with?” I didn’t know these things all the time that we were married because he kept them secret. You can’t get a divorce by yourself. You have to have attorneys, witnesses, and people to help you do this. Basically, it was a conspiracy. When I realized what had happened to me, I realized that my daughter and I were in a great deal of danger. We had to proceed carefully. So I stopped asking why and asked, “How can I get out of here alive?”
LH: Oh God! Did you ever get it straightened out?
MM: What I did was file for a counter divorce. I was able to do that because once I got all the documents, it became clear to me that there was no mention that we had a child. I was able to counter sue for custody of my daughter; this actually overturned that divorce. I never received any spousal support, alimony nor child support. I just got a whole bunch of law suits resulting from accounts that he’d run up and also bills in real-estate. He’s let them go into foreclosure and put them all into my name. So the detective came after me for law suits and that’s one of the reasons I had to file bankruptcy. I had no career and no money. I had never been into a courtroom. I had no idea how to fight it. I didn’t even know how you do it or what you do. I had about two or three attorneys to handle my divorce, because I didn’t understand that you had to go through a divorce attorney. I really had to start from lower than scratch to get my life back together and get my daughter out of harms way. She’s with her father now; they have a good relationship. For a while, I didn’t know where she was because she’d run away. It had become the war of roses…it was a living hell. I was able to get her back through prayer. I was also able to work in the gospel field and gospel theatre. We were able to get back together. Thereafter, I made a truce with her that I wouldn’t talk to her about her dad, because there wasn’t anything I could say good about him. That’s the way we were able to move forward with our lives and then I can say, “Yes, I have a very, very good independent, peaceful and productive life.”
LH: You’re a very spiritual hearted person and the need to give back is nothing less than a must for you. What are some of the programs, activities and foundations that you support in an effort to help God’s People?
MM: Absolutely, I love giving! Oh heavens! I can’t tell you, there’s just so many. I just got through doing a wonderful thing with the broadcasters organizations. What they do is help people that have been on air or anything to do with the broadcasting industry who has fallen on hard times trying to make sure they have a roof over their head. For anything that anybody’s doing, if I can help, I lend myself to do so.
LH: I’ve read a lot of different things that you were doing. I’m sure you will continue and I’m sure you’re enjoying it.
MM: I do, yes!
LH: I’m a person that totally believes in not letting our pioneers be forgotten, simply, because if we forget how we got to where we are, we won’t know which direction to go during a crisis. In saying this, please tell us about the very beneficial project that you’re involved in which is titled, “UNSUNG.”
MM: First of all, one of the pioneers that is engineering this whole thing is Cathy Hughes, who is a black lady who had done things unheard of in radio and television, in terms of owning a broadcasting station. She is the first lady of black radio and now television. On her cable station and also BET, she’s doing a TV Series called, “UNSUNG,” which includes people who were icons and should still be icons. They’re doing profiles on us to see how we are, what we’re doing and what happened; hopefully help us along the way to re-establish ourselves, which should be our destinies that God made us to do. It’s a wonderful profile on several of the artist. The one that actually launched the series, the one who seem to be the most favored watched was the one they did on Phyllis Hyman.
LH: I just love seeing people pave that road that’s continuing to move forward.
MM: Once you’ve been through something, you generally keep fighting and stay strong in life. You have something to say that hopefully will inspire and reassure people who are in that stage in life. It could be young or older people. Sometimes life can beat you down so bad that you get tired of fighting. I’m so pleased with what I believe, and what I know God is doing in my life right now. It’s easy to look good when you’re twenty, but it isn’t so easy later on. You can see that a person has been disciplined, that God has had His hand on their life. I don’t care what you do, if He doesn’t bless it, it’s not going to happen. So, I would think towards the latter years of your life. You can really have an opportunity to show God’s glory if you got the heart honey (laugh).
LH: There is something called the musical testimony of your trials-and-tribulations; your two act, one woman play with music. This is a type of play that you’ve done in reference to your music. What exactly is that about?
MM: It’s the autobiography of my life. When my husband shut my life down as if it no longer existed and when he decided to crush it, it was completely crushed. He did a thorough job of that. One of the things I had heard about was that other people had been through the same things one way or another. Not necessarily the same details, but they had to start over. They didn’t know what they were doing because it’s like you’re in a totally new territory. It’s like God put you in the promise land but you don’t know where you’re at. You can start with all you know. They all did something whether it was comedy, dancing or singing. They had to create it, so it was based on their lives and that’s what I did. I was a play writer, but what better to start a new craft with, than something that you know inside out. It started being called “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” because I started with the part of my story from the child on up. You know, your life belongs to you, but I’ll tell you something, you learn as a Christian that you’ve got to fight for it because the devil’s forces will come out, kill you and rob you in so many different ways. All you can do is continue to speak and tell, because what God says is your means of overcoming and that’s your testimony. I was in the church and I stayed in the church. In the church they call it your testimony, but in the theatre they call it your autobiography. I first called it, “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” and then it developed into a script that I had people help me develop, who are skilled writers in regional theatre, and they helped me put it up. We continued to have it up for about ten years. We changed titles from, “Sweet Songs of the Soul,” to “I’m Still Here.” Now we’re calling it, “Still Standing.”
LH: The album, “Nobody but Jesus,” was released, which certainly speaks for your spiritual growth. What ignited this, I mean the gospel?
MM: I’m a born again Christian. Once my commercial music had been taken from me, I was not a gospel singer, I was a born again Catholic. At a pretty young age my mother married my step father and he was Presbyterian, so my sister, and my brother and I would go to mass in the morning then we would go to the Presbyterian Church. After that we would sneak around to the Pentecostal church and hear the good ol’ screaming and hollowing good gospel music (Laugh). After I lost my daughter, I could have just been overcome with grief. Then I began to learn from scratch, the songs of Zion. I think my patriot saint is Mahalia Jackson. I began to basically get into her spirit and her songs and start singing again. Eventually, as I began to actually make the church my market place or the place where I would grow and start again as an artist, I eventually had enough of a repertory and enough money to go out and produce my own CD. The first one was called, “I’m Still Here,” and the most recent one is, “Nobody but Jesus.” This is about having a new life that’s totally based on Christ, the Bible and gospel music.
LH: Okay, Fighting Temptations, I loved it, I loved it.
MM: (Laugh) It was a nice family loving movie.
LH: That character you played, I’m telling you, it was funny.
MM: Did you see Bessie get happy in the jail?
LH: Yes, but that movie did something to me. I’ll have to say there was a bit of sadness there; I think it was mostly at the beginning.
MM: Oh, when the auntie died?
MM: I think it was very well done. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did a great job on the music.
LH: They did, that church, I have to tell you, when that music came on, doing what they do, I said “Man why can’t that be here in my neighborhood right now?
MM: And you know, they don’t play. I mean…it was a gospel movie comedy, but they don’t play with God, that’s what I love.
LH: I know we’ve covered a lot of territory, but there must be something we missed Melba, that you would like to say.
MM: There is a new time life project called, “Songs for Worship,” that has people like Peabo Bryson, Regina Belle, myself, Jodie Watley etc. Look for that, it’s called, “Songs for Worship #4.”
LH: Melba, give us any links and or contact information to you and where your works can be purchased or viewed.
MM: Well you can go to my website, melbamoore.com and of course everybody’s on MySpace now.
LH: Would you like to leave a word for Consciousness Magazine?
MM: I really wish you well because of the positivity and because of linking people like myself with so, so, so many people. You are the new age media and we need you desperately; you’re the bloodline. So we really thank you and we wish you all the success in the world because we need you very badly. I hope your audience wants you and needs you because we need you Bad (laugh)!
LH: We thank you for sharing your story with us and allowing us to share it with our readers. Thank you Miss Melba Moore!
MM: God Bless you, thank you so much too!
After growing up for many years with a mother and father spending most of their life on the road as musicians and also the nightmare that temporarily destroyed the career of this once highly famed icon of not only R & B Music but Broadway Theatre, a high dreamed accomplishment for many, Melba Moore turned her life over to Christ and her music into worship. Melba never gave up and her reward today speaks for the type of faith it took to give this woman of God a brand new wealth, “Christ!”
Also Read Melba Moore interview at http://consciousnessmagazine.com/MelbaMoore.html