By the time Melba Moore landed on Broadway in 1968 as “Dionne” in the legendary rock musical Hair, the petite lady with the powerhouse vocal chords was already riding on a wealth of musical talent and history. Her mother had scored a #1 hit in the early days of the R&B charts, and Melba herself had attended Newark Arts High School. Her appreciation of music education even led her to become a teacher for a brief time.
With the release of her first R&B album since 1999’s overlooked Solitary Journey, Melba is now coming full circle with her “eclectic” brand of soul. Driven by her spiritual foundation, Melba joins forces with fellow vocal dynamo Phil Perry to cover an array of R&B and gospel favorites on The Gift of Love -- among them songs that were part of her childhood, like The Spinners’ “Sadie” and the inspirational staple “I Believe.0 There’s also a number of R&B radio strongholds that fans of the singer’s 70’s and 80’s run of hits will approve of -- Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “You’re All I Need to Get By,” The Sounds of Blackness’ “Optimistic.”
Melba talked with Soulmusic.com recently about her new album (which was executive-produced by our own David Nathan), as well as her rich, multi-dimensional history in theater, TV, recording, and then some. She also opened up about her personal struggles after being embezzled, and even blacklisted in the industry.
Justin Kantor: Hi Melba, this is Justin Kantor from Soulmusic.com.
JK: Are you getting excited about the release of Gift of Love?
MM: Yeah, boy! (laughs)
JK: I’m sure. Tell me how it all came about. What were the beginnings of this project?
MM: Okay, let me go back a second. It came through David. He came to me and my partner, Ron Richardson first with the project that we did for Time Life (Songs 4 Worship Soul), which is part of a series of inspirational songs, or actually gospel songs that had been done by great gospel artists like Donnie McClurkin, Andrae Crouch, and many others, but by R&B artists. I did ‘Days of Elijah, which was beautifully done by Donnie McClurkin, I think. Then, I re-united with my former protégé, Freddie Jackson to do ‘My Tribute’, which is a beautiful hymn, written by Andrae Crouch. We did it as a duet. That’s how it started, and then David suggested that, maybe he might shop the idea to a label, and he went to Shanachie, and Freddie declined, he didn’t want to do anything more, but then David and his production partner Preston Glass and their partner Glenda Gracia, the former manager of Phyllis Hyman. I guess they talked with Daniel Weiss and Randall Glass from Shanachie to see if they were interested in the project, and some other possibilities, and they all came up with Phil Perry and presented it to me, and I screamed “Yes!”
JK: He’s awesome. I think it’s such a cool combination between the two of you, because you both have such dynamic vocal ranges, which makes it a really powerful combination.
MM: Right. Right.
JK: How did you go about selecting the songs for this album, because you have an eclectic selection of songs on here?
MM: We are some eclectic people (laughs), and that’s how we went about it. Well, Daniel Weiss brought a bunch of songs to Phil, and Chris ‘Big Dog’ Davis, who produced several of the songs, and David and Preston Glass, who produced some of the songs too, brought some songs to the project. Then, Phil and myself brought songs separately to the project, so everybody brought songs, kind of dumped them in the pot, and we chewed them around to see which ones we wanted. That’s how we came up with all of the songs.
JK: So it was a family affair?
JK: Take me back a little bit, or maybe more than a little bit, depending how you look at it. I know you come from a musical family, and your mom was a singer who had success of her own on the R&B charts back in the day, and your dad was a famous band leader, Teddy Hill, so tell me about growing up in that kind of musical environment.
MM: Okay, but you left out the most important person in this family affair, but of course you’re not expected to know all that, it’s my family. My mother and my natural father were never married, so I have it in my blood, but my mother married a wonderful man by the name of Clement Moormon, who also was a musician, and he had a daughter and a son, and so I had a family all of a sudden. I was an only child before, but he also made music the centre of our lives. Because he was a piano player, he made us all take piano lessons. He made us take piano lessons. I wanted to take dance, but my older brother, Dennis loved piano, was really, really good at it. He became like a little prodigy, you know? I loved it, so I just played it. We used to fight over who was going to practice on the piano. My sister, she could draw and paint well, so she kind of dropped out of the piano, but the point is, it became a centerpiece of our lives, because our parents were performers, so they rehearsed in the home, and all of my stepfather’s sisters and brothers were musical; they all played instruments. Then, after my mother married my stepfather, music was always in my life. Before she married my stepfather, there was no music in my life. I probably never would have found that I could sing.
JK: Was that because she was still touring around a lot, doing performances?
MM: That’s right, and my grandmother had had a stroke, and she wasn’t able to speak, so there was really no one to tell me about my history. I’m told that she was a great singer too, but she didn’t sing, so it was kind of cut off. The family was really splintered and broken at that point, until my mother married.
JK: Wow, so it became quite a change when she remarried? MM: Eclectic. (Laughs)
JK: Had you heard your mom’s recordings early on, like that song ‘Don’t Stop Now’, that was a Number 1 hit for her in the ‘40s?
MM: I have them, and I've heard them, yes. I heard them later on, actually. I didn’t hear them when I was little.
JK: Was your grandmother raising you during that time, when your mom was performing?
MM: No, we had a nanny. We called her Mama Lou. My grandmother was sick.
JK: So you were taking care of her.
MM: Yes, because she was invalid, kind of half-paralyzed.
JK: The love of music obviously stayed with you, and you ended up going to a performing arts high school, right? Newark Arts High School?
MM: That’s right.
JK: Tell me about that experience. What did you get out of that, and what kinds of classes went on there?
MM: Well, music was the centerpiece, and the head of our curriculum. Of course, academics were extremely important. It really felt like you were in a preppie, private school. (laughs)
JK: Was that a change of environment from what you had been in before?
MM: Well, I had been in both. My mother started me out, thank God, in St. Thomas Aquinas Elementary School, and St. Thomas is like one of the doctors of the Catholic Church. He was like a genius at intellect and that kind of thing. So, that kind of educational discipline, you know when the nuns would crack you over, you know. I was baptized at birth, and had a very strong spiritual experience already, but at home it was quite a bit different. You’re talking about school now, well after my mother married, I went into public schools in Newark, and that very different. I had good elementary schools, but there was never the kind of discipline and high standard that there was at St Thomas Aquinas. Then, I went to junior high school, and all hell broke loose! I know it’s a very difficult time in teenagers’ lives, because they’re all crazy, but nobody was in charge, so the kids just wreaked havoc in junior high school. I felt like I lost a lot during those times, because you sat there because you were accustomed to being obedient, and you were ready to learn, because that was a habit, but many times there was nothing to learn, because the teacher just sat there while the kids tore the class up.
JK: So, it’s almost like you wanted to speak up about it, but you didn’t know how?
MM: Well, yeah! You really did want to learn. I never knew anything except learning, and enjoying that, and growing, and then there was all of this mayhem, plus you had to watch out how you left school, because somebody was always setting a time to beat you down...you know, see you after school!
JK: So it was a violent atmosphere?
MM: It was very violent, yeah.
JK: Was this in Montclair?
MM: No, this was in Newark. Then, it came time to go to high school, and I discovered by then that I really, really loved and adored music, so I found out about Arts High, and auditioned and took the tests and everything to get into there.
JK: I know that ‘Hair’ was the first big Broadway production for you, but was that your first actual professional theatre peformance?
MM: Well, it was the first theatre performance, period.
JK: Okay, so you really hit gold the first time out. MM: Yes. Yes.
JK: Was it a direct path for you to Broadway, or was it an accident?
MM: It was an eclectic accident!
JK: That’s our key word today, eclectic.
MM: I got a degree in music education, and I taught school for about a year and a half, but I felt an urge to try to get into show business, and really do that directly, and in an effort to do that, I started doing work regularly as a studio singer. One of the recording sessions turned out to be for Galt MacDermot, and assisting him were the people who wrote the book and the lyrics for the Broadway show, ‘Hair’. They invited all the background singers, or backup singers, I don't know what you call them, because there was no lead singing.
JK: It was the chorus, right?
MM: No, because I’m talking about the studio. We were the backups, but instead of like a lead singer, Galt was the keyboard. The keyboard was the star. So, none of the other people said yes. I said yes.
JK: So you were the only one that agreed to do it?
MM: I think Valerie, who was on the same day went down and sang for them, and they wanted her, but she declined.
JK: You mean to do the actual auditions for the show?
MM: She went down and sang for them, but said, “No thank you. Y’all don’t pay no money.” Valerie was always a smart business lady.
JK: Now, you started as an understudy, right?
JK: I read that you were an understudy for the role of Sheila.
MM: No, I was never the understudy. I came in as part of the chorus, but the chorus was not a normal chorus. It, too, was eclectic. Everybody really was the chorus, but then everybody had featured parts, and the way we thought of it, even with the lead roles of Berger and Hud and the female lead, they were kind of feature roles, I mean in terms of the way we looked at it.
JK: It was more equal.
MM: The way that we described it was ‘the tribe’, so that everybody really was the chorus, or the choir, and then we had featured roles, but in actuality, Sheila was the female lead. The first person to do that role was Lynn Kellog, who of course nobody probably knows who that is now.
JK: I recognize the name, but I can’t place what she did with the name.
MM: Exactly, because she didn’t go on to be really famous like Diane Keaton did. Diane Keaton was her understudy.
JK: Was the role of Dionne something that you played before, or after Sheila?
MM: Dionne was my role, and it was one of the featured characters too.
JK: And then when Diane Keaton left, you took over for her.
MM: That’s right.
JK: What was the whole experience like? Did you feel a lot of pressure? I know you were the first black actress to replace a white one on Broadway. Did that have any impact on how you felt when you were doing the show?
MM: Absolutely. I could probably be more conscious of it now that I’m looking back on it, because I guess doing the lead, not having done any theatre before, there were a lot of things that were putting pressure on me. Maybe I didn’t think about the fact that I was the first black. I wasn’t so conscious of that, because there was always pressure on you because you were black, so I was kind of used to that. The thing that seemed outrageous was like, “Oh my God, what did I do?” out here by myself. Now I can see that it’s a lead role, and I have to do that now. I can’t just be Melba or Dionne.
JK: You mean the scope of the role, at the time seemed smaller?
MM: Not at the time. Any time, you understand, when you’re up singing and acting that role, that’s a character, and you have to be that person. You can’t be yourself. I was conscious of that.
JK: So, trying to step out of yourself.
MM: Yes. Not so much about being black, I mean you’re always conscious of that, and so used to handling that, but we were also in a very loving environment, so that seemed to be so much of an issue, that I had to adjust to. As a matter of fact, now that I think of it, that wasn’t an issue at all, and it seemed like it should have been.
JK: I guess that was good though, because that might have sent you over the edge if you had even more pressure.
MM: The only reason that you would have had more pressure is that for some reason it didn’t work, and the scary part is, you don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not, until you do it.
JK: So, it was maybe to some degree, the fact that it was all so new to you that you could only think about so much I guess.
JK: Did you go straight from doing ‘Hair’ to doing ‘Purlie’?
JK: What drew you to that production?
MM: One of the girls in the tribe told me that there were auditions for a show, and she said, “Don’t worry about getting it, but you need to learn how to audition now. You’re on Broadway. The door is open for you. Start going around learning about the environment that you’re in.” She gave me the information and told me about the role, and told me what I should do, for instance what they call typecasting. She said that means you try to look like what the role is when you go there. I did that. I looked very country.
JK: So you were prepared.
JK: Tell me about the whole experience of winning the Tony for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. What was your reaction, was there a build-up to it, or was it just out of nowhere?
MM: It wasn’t really out of nowhere. I kind of made it out of nowhere, because I was in such shock once again, that I got the role, but now I had to focus to try to learn how to be an actress for real, because Sheila was kind of in and out of the tribe and the character. Now you had to be in the character from the beginning to the end. I had a southern accent, and I had to keep it and not drop it. I had to sustain the character, and it was very scary because I didn’t know how to think like that or do that. Once again, the lack of experience kicks in. When they started talking about a Tony Award and all that, I really just decided not to think about it, and just try to focus on staying in the character and learning how to do that, and sustaining that. When the time for it came, I didn’t even have anything to wear, but at the time, the young man who has become a great director and choreographer was in the dance chorus, his name is George Faison, well he was making clothes on the side to make a few extra dollars.
JK: I didn’t realize that he had started as a dancer in that.
MM: Yes. Well, he said, “Melba, you have so have something to wear. This is the Tony Awards!” He made my dress for me. He explained to me that I couldn’t just go, that I had to dress up.
JK: You had a lot of people supporting you and helping you out.
MM: They came to my aid, and I never will forget. We really became a family, with Novella Nelson, who played the role of Aunt Missy, and Cleavon Little who played the lead, and Sherman Hemsley who played Gitlow, and they really supported me, and made me laugh, and helped me focus, and just encouraged me, and did as much as they could to take away my frights and nervousness, and of course Novella, I don’t know whether to blame her or to thank her, introduced me to Clifton Davis, so I had a little romance to distract me. (laughs) I’m just trying to paint a picture of all the stuff that was going on. JK: Also around this time, you started your recording career. You signed with Mercury Records.
MM: That’s right. At the same time.
JK: Were you approached by them, or were you shopping for a deal?
MM: I was approached. I was trying to shop for deals before, but nothing had really come about, but once Purlie happened, then some offers started to come to me, one of which was Mercury.
JK: Was it difficult to transition from the world of theatre to the music business?
MM: Yeah, they are really quite different. What may have made it a little more possible, was that Purlie was making an attempt at having fairly contemporary music. One of the interesting things is that when I auditioned for it, I never sang for the director, Phil Rose, who was also one of the producers and writers. During previews, I had one song, the title song, and we kept stopping the show with it. They created ‘I Got Love’ to work around my range and my style, which again was kind of a coming together of r&b music, or recorded music, or contemporary music, and theatre. There was maybe a time, or a cusp of coming together, because the chorus of ‘Hair’ was actually the first one to put rock music into a play. They were starting to come together, but then you were talking about the Tony Awards. I guess the thing of it is, I remember at the Tony Awards, we did a performance of 'Purlie,' and I remember being in such great shock., because I was accustomed to the theatre being dark, and now it was light, and you could actually see people. I saw these stars out there, and it was absolutely frightening. I mean, you could say it was exciting, but it bordered on really frightening. JK: You just didn’t know how to react.
MM: Exactly. I do remember that they called someone else’s first name and my last name, and I didn’t understand the categories. I was trying to get out of the way and move out of the theater, and I heard the audience yelling, “Melba Moore! Melba Moore!” So, I stayed a minute to listen to what they were saying, and I was the one getting the Tony Award! To be honest with you, I don’t remember the rest.
JK: Didn’t the guy say your name as Melissa Moore?
MM: Was it Melissa? I know it was somebody else’s first name.
JK: I think he said Melissa Moore, so I didn’t know if that was why you didn’t hear your name.
MM: All I’m saying is that it was all just scary. I guess I was excited, and of course I know what show business is what it is, and so I can say I was sure I was delighted, but to be honest, I don’t remember most of it because it was too exciting. Really, the afterparty was great.
JK: That’s a good thing to remember! But when the album came out, you did really well yourself, because it even got nominated for a Grammy with the first album for Best New Artist. You did a few albums at Mercury, and then you did move into the world of TV as you mentioned, with your variety series with Clifton Davis. Was that another transition for you, as far as working in the realm of TV?
MM: Absolutely. That was a very, very different one because of the lights and the camera, and the different way that you had to act and move. It’s very, very different from theatre, and I wasn’t even used to theatre yet (laughs).
JK: You got a triple dose of everything.
MM: Yeah. I would say it was exciting and I can look back now and see I enjoyed it, and I love challenges. You know the adrenaline flows, and the intelligence comes, and you meet the challenge, so I can say that I love it, but I can say that it was very, very difficult.
JK: I guess no matter how much preparation, some of it has to come in the moment, as far as learning and how you respond.
MM: You can rehearse, and rehearse, and rehearse, and then once you’re up actually doing it, something else kicks in.
JK: After the series that you did with Clifton Davis, there was a period of time for a few years where you weren’t as active in the business. What happened during that period, between the time that you had ended your series, and the time that you signed with Buddah Records?
MM: Well, Clifton and I broke up, I really didn’t have any management, and the agents and representatives I had bled me dry, robbed me blind, and left town, and the agents didn’t even know where to reach me to get me work or anything, because everything had gone through my attorneys and accountants. Essentially, they really shut me down, so I had to start over.
JK: How did they manage to pull that kind of stunt? MM: Well, they had power of attorney. You don’t know not to do that, and so you have all your bills and your inquiries going through your attorney, and they’re representing you, but I didn’t know then, like I know now, that you shouldn’t ever have your communications go through an attorney. I don’t want to mention any names, because it’s not like it’s illegal, but it’s really bad business. “I’ll be your business manager” usually means everything goes to them; all your bills, your rent, and everything. They’ll take care of it. It doesn’t work, because you’re out of the loop. You say, “How can they do it”, well, that’s how they do it. You don’t have possession of anything that belongs to you. They do.
JK: So, you need to be able to have a look at everything, at least briefly, as opposed to having a third party take care of it.
MM: How can you council them and tell them what you want them to do if it doesn’t even come to you? But I’m saying to you, the buzz word is 'business manager,' and people hear that all the time and never think anything about it, but that’s what it means. He actually takes over your business life, and that should never, ever happen.
JK: So, it’s something of a hoax, maybe.
MM: It's a scam.
JK: How did you manage to get back in, when you ended up signing with Buddah? How did you make your way back into the business?
MM: Only by the grace of God, because everyone that I did talk to said, “You gotta get a manager. You gotta get an agent.” But at a point like that, you have to start somewhere. You have to really figure out how to book yourself. Everybody’s always saying, “You can’t represent yourself!” Well, I don’t have any representative. What do I do, just sit and wait? So, you have to learn how to make phone calls for yourself, and get yourself started.
JK: Well, it worked really well, and I guess the first minor hit you had on the R&B charts was with ‘I Am His Lady’, and then you did really well with ‘This Is It’ and ‘Lean On Me’, you got another Grammy nomination, and you also started to be a bona fide disco star at that period of time. What was your reaction to that, and how was that experience for you, having the string of disco hits that you had in the mid-to-late 70’s?
MM: Well, once again, we’re going with the flow. This is America. You never know what’s coming next; you’re just seeking to be part of it, and be relevant. I was able to, with the help of my now-ex-husband, which again, points out that you have to have good business management or input. Technically, it is business management, but not the way I meant it before. It’s what people would call personal management. With his genius, he was excellent at making phone calls and making deals, and he worked very, very hard, getting me to all the different music conferences, and every type of benefit you could think of to put me in front of people again, and to show them what I was, and then turn that into record deals, which he was able to get with Buddah, Epic, Capitol Records...
JK: So were the deals themselves something that you were involved in negotiating, or was it kind of just going with the flow? MM: I was not involved in negotiating, and actually my ex-husband really did that, and did a good job of it, except he wound up scamming the record company, scamming me, scamming all the other artists that we worked with. What he did, is he would make whatever recording deals that he made with them, and you would get these huge advances for the budgeting of the album, the artwork, the covers, the still work, all of that.
JK: Videos, and things like that?
MM: Everything that you would need. In the beginning, he did a great job, because I guess he loved music, he enjoyed music, and he loved being a personal manager, but what he did was he really scammed a lot off the top. He and his friend, and there’s no point naming her, because nobody knows who she is, except me, but he and his pals wound up scamming the record companies in all of the different areas that we developed in, because we wound up being an entertainment management company and a publishing company, and what he would do is, he would make deals for them, but he would take the money. Toward the end of the existence of our management company, which was Hush Productions, we had wonderful artists who were supposed to have records coming out, and he got the budgets. He never even went into the studio to record the music. He just took the money. By that time, he had also placed many of his cronies in the company as A&R people, as promotion people, so they all helped each other. I know the next question will be, “How did he get away with it?” JK: Of course, I have read some about this, but I was going to say it just must have been quite a shocker after so many years, because it wasn’t just a few years that you guys were working together. It was more than a decade, so I don’t know, was it something that was a shocker, or was it something there were signs of before it went down? MM: Well, when you are not a crook, and you are involved with a master crook, there may be signs that you don’t recognize, because you don’t live like that. Of course, they do everything they can to mask and hide what they’re doing, as long as they have some kind of fear that they’re going to get caught, or if it’s going to be a problem. What I discovered was that once my ex-husband thought that I was absolutely powerless to do anything, he basically admitted what he did and was very proud of it. “Yeah, this is what I do. What are you gonna do?” There are two different sides to the face, I’ll put it that way. I’m not being emotional, and I’m not saying anything about him that he's not very proud of. He’s proud of what he does. JK: An interesting thing about it, besides the fact that obviously, there was a lack of regard for your feelings, like you said, at the time this started happening, you were still very successful on the R&B charts. MM: Well, in the beginning, he did a fabulous job, and he worked to the bone. He was inspired, and I think he was also needy. He wasn’t rich and powerful yet, so he needed to have these things work. Once he got what he wanted, the arrogance, and he had his boys in there, and the spending of the money. I noticed that, we had a beautiful little building on 58th Street, and I noticed after a while, something I’d never seen there before: they’d be in there drinking champagne, and doing cocaine, and I said, “Charles, what’s going on?” He never said anything, but those were the signs. By that time, I saw those signs. He was into it, and about to shut me down and kick me out, then finish polishing everybody else off and move on to something else. He didn’t care.
JK: During the 80’s, before that happened, were you able to enjoy the success you were having, particularly when you had a lot of hits, especially the songs you did with Kashif, and the duets you did with Lillo Thomas, and Freddie Jackson, was it something that you were able to enjoy at all?
MM: Yes, those were really, really fun times. Freddie and I laughed so much, because he’s just a funny person. We shared excitement. My husband and I had a beautiful daughter, so we were a happy family, we were travelling, and we went to Paris. It was a really great, super joyful time.
JK: One thing I’ve wondered about, which there hasn’t been a lot written about, was the sitcom you did, ‘Melba’. I have the pilot episode of it, but what I read was that after that aired, it was cancelled rather abruptly, and then the network chose later to air a few more episodes of it during the summer or something, but what exactly was the deal with that?
MM: Well, from what I see, again you have to have a good agent and management team, and my ex-husband was a novice at the record industry, and from what I can see, he was really afraid to venture into theatre and television, and he was representing me, so I had nobody representing me. He developed the relationships that the series came out of, but then he didn’t follow through. I can’t go to the network and tell them I want a TV series; my management has to do that. There was no follow-through. I had no representation.
JK: You obviously had a lot of impact in a lot of ways during that time. One thing that I always remember, because I was a kid at the time, watching BET in the early days of Video Soul and all those programs, I remember that they had a Melba Moore lookalike contest.
MM: Our office, we used to think of all of these kinds of promotional techniques, all different kinds of things to promote our products, and to promote my image, and my packaging and that kind of thing. We were very innovative in those areas. We had created a whole sales and marketing team. Actually, that was the whole reason that Hush Productions came into existence; to manage me, and to assist the label in promoting and marketing, and through that, we were able to sign other artists. Some of the other artists that we managed were McFadden & Whitehead, we started working with them on music projects, and they didn’t have any management, so we began to manage them, Paul Lawrence, who wrote ‘Rock Me Tonight’, who also came with Kashif, and Freddie Jackson and Lillo Thomas. They really were mainly a writing group, but each one of them sang as well.
JK: When you mentioned McFadden & Whitehead, it reminded me of another Broadway show that you had done briefly, that I read you had worked with them on, which was called ‘Innocent Black’. Can you tell me about that? I don’t know much about that one.
MM: It was an attempt by Hush Productions at bringing some of the talented songwriters and producers that we managed into legitimate theatre as well, to do the scoring and get them experienced at that, and to bring contemporary music into theatre.
JK: That was kind of a gospel-themed show, right?
MM: I guess you would call it so, yeah.
JK: One of the other early gospel songs you did, even though the style, musically, was R&B, was a song that I really enjoyed called ‘Meet The Man’ with the group, Dayton.
MM: I remember the time and the event, but I don’t remember the song.
JK: You also were nominated, which I thought was really cool, for a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal, for the song ‘Read My Lips’. Was that just a coincidence, or was it also a style you wanted to get more into, doing rock-type music?
MM: Well, we were just searching, still developing my style and trying to see where I belong.
JK: I really enjoyed your remake of ‘Dreams’, the Fleetwood Mac song, and actually that’s one of my favourite albums of yours. I just thought it had a really nice balance of material, like the ballad ‘To Those Who Wait’, and even a song like ‘Winner’. It was just a lot different, coming off the heels of some of the other songs like ‘Love’s Comin’ At Ya’ or ‘Love Me Right’, which were obviously great R&B songs, so this was kind of a different direction.
MM: It’s just an attempt to grow and evolve, and see where we should go next to search.
JK: You mentioned, of course, that obviously in the end, things soured with the production company because of your ex-husband, but in the 90’s, I know you also got involved in some social causes, like you did some work protesting some music that you thought was degrading to women, with Dr. C. DeLores Tucker, you did some protesting.
MM: Yes, there was ongoing community service work that I had an opportunity, whenever I wasn’t in concerts, to work with C. DeLores Tucker and Dr. Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, and those were experiences that I wanted personally, for fellowship with the politicos, and the community services, especially back women’s organizations, to get that experience.
JK: With one of the demonstrations, I had read that it ended up resulting in an arrest. Was that something that was part of your plan to make a statement, or was it something that took you by surprise?
MM: We planned to do that. It was a statement, yes. We call it civil disobedience.
JK: Right. You did a number of things independently, like you did your ‘Solitary Journey’ album, which I thought was really nice, but didn’t get a lot of widespread exposure.
MM: Oh no, because that was really at my lowest, in terms of ability to create any music. I was not able to go to any label, or to fellowship with anyone. I really basically had to go with a couple of friends, and go in their basements, and trade services with whatever they could do.
MM: That’s it, bartering. We had no money. Absolutely none. Good people, who in good faith, did as much as we could.
JK: I was just listening to it again earlier this morning, as I hadn’t listened to it in a while, and there were some nice songs on it. I guess it’s just hard when, like you said, you don’t have a lot of money to promote it.
MM: We didn’t have any money. Not any!
JK: You have said, or I read at least, that you have spent a lot of the last 10 years trying to prove “that you’re not a crackhead; that you’re not crazy”. What kind of situations in the industry did the things that went down before make it hard for you in, in recent times?
MM: Well, just before everything totally fell apart, in terms of, well, maybe in the process of the final throes of it, I discovered what he had been doing over a period of months, maybe years, was spreading the rumor that I had I had retired, that I was obese, that I had lost my voice, and among other things, that I was on crack. By the time it had all surfaced, and I found this phony divorce decree that he had forged and was carrying on behind my back, by the time all this surfaced, that had been going on for so long, there was nobody that I could go to in the industry. The industry was just totally shut down to me. I was already a born-again Christian, so I retreated to the church. I wasn’t a gospel singer, so I didn’t even know any of the songs, but I started to learn some of the songs, and make what we call honorariums, or whatever they want to give you, they give you, so I could live, from the testimonials and stuff. I then started to get a repertoire, and went to people like my friend, Shirley Murdock. I was able to put together a couple thousand dollars, and what she did was, she and her husband Dale wrote some songs for me to express my testimony, because they’re performing gospel Christians, and actually, what they did was, they didn’t put any bindings on it, like 'you're gonna get royalties, and we're gonna do this.' They said, “Do what you need to survive.” She basically, except for the studio costs, gave me the songs.
JK: Was that the ‘I’m Still Here’ album?
JK: Did they also work with you on the Christmas album that you did?
MM: No, that was another man by the name of Dunn Pearson.
JK: Oh, okay. I didn’t realize that he was the one who had done that.
MM: You know Dunn. At the bottom of the pit there was no money, and no reputation. His studio wasn’t even in his basement yet. It was in his living room! (laughs) In his living room, we recorded the Christmas album, so basically he just donated his services.
JK: Now, you also did a play called ‘Songs My Mother Taught Me’?
MM: Well, we changed the name to ‘Sweet Songs of the Soul’, and it’s still in development, but I’m calling it now ‘Still Standing: The Melba Moore Story’.
JK: So it’s essentially the same show, though?
JK: Okay, I thought they were two different things.
MM: Well, they probably are by now, but it’s been in development, so it’s the same premise.
JK: And you have been performing it at various nightclubs?
MM: No, in theatres.
JK: So is it an off-Broadway type of show?
MM: At this point, it’s a one-woman play.
JK: Where have you done it recently?
MM: The last place I did it was Crossroads Regional Theatre.
JK: Is it something you plan to continue?
MM: Yes. What I want to do now is put it up for showcase for credentialed writers, because I’m not a writer; playwrights; and a director.
JK: So you want to get some other people involved in the script?
MM: That’s right.
JK: I’ve also read that you have a book that you have written, or are working on.
MM: Yes, I’m working on a book by the same title, ‘Still Standing’.
JK: Is that your whole life story?
MM: The whole life, yes. You can’t really do it in a play, especially with music. You gotta leave room for the songs.
JK: That’s true. Do you have a publisher for it?
MM: No. Not yet.
JK: Okay, but it is something that we can hope to see in the near future?
MM: It’s probably going to be completed before the end of the year, which is three or four months, I think.
JK: With this new album with Phil Perry, ‘The Gift of Love’, are you planning on doing any performances in support of it?
MM: Absolutely! Everytime I can grab Phil!
JK: Is there any one song from the album that is most personal to you?
MM: Oh, boy. I’ll tell you one song that’s really the bomb, and I wasn’t expecting it to be, and that is ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’. That was rough, honey.
JK: What was so rough about it for you?
MM: You have to hear it.
JK: I enjoyed it a lot.
MM: Oh, I’m sorry. This is an interview. I gotta say something, right?
JK: I was just curious. What part of it did you find really challenging?
MM: Everywhere you listen is fabulous, from the moment it starts, with the strings, that Preston Glass, he is a genius at writing strings. He put these strange chord changes right at the beginning that suck you right in right there. Then there’s a beat, and it starts with the background, which is me. When I first heard it, I thought, “I really sound strange. I’m not used to hearing myself like that, but whoever that is, I like it!” (laughs) From there on, you just like it. It has a groove, a feeling, a beat that is charismatic. It draws you into it. I don’t know about you, but other people are saying the same thing, just that they want to hear it again, and again, and again, and again, and again.
JK: I just thought that the overall selection, like I said before, was really impressive, because you had a few songs like ‘You’re All I Need To Get By’ that are unmistakable classics, but there are some others that maybe a lot of people would know, but not everybody, like one interesting one I thought you did was the song ‘I Believe’.
MM: Yes, me too.
JK: It’s been done by everybody, from Elvis to Mahalia.
MM: I never sang it, and I kind of went along with the crew, you know? Daniel picked it, and Chris ‘Big Dog’ Davis said, “Oh, you can do this. I’ll support you” and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know”, but when I heard it, I thought, “Oh my goodness.” I never would have thought that it has its own feel and message.
JK: I was going to say, it seemed, lyrically, like it fit right in with a lot of your life.
MM: It’s absolutely natural for me. To me, I think that’s part of the fact of life that we live, that you can’t see yourself the way that others do. You can’t hear yourself the way that others do, and sometimes when you defer to them, and then you listen back, or look back, you will see something wonderful that you didn’t even know was there.
JK: So, this was something that Daniel picked. It wasn’t a song that you had been clinging to all your life or something like that.
MM: Well, my mother sang it, and I loved it when she sang it, but I forgot about that. When he brought it to me, I was kind of groaning, but it worked out.
JK: What about the John Kee song ‘It Will Be Alright’?
MM: Oh, now I picked that one!
JK: I thought that, from what I read in the bio, that that was something that was maybe a personal favourite of yours.
JK: I thought that was a really inspiring one as well.
MM: You know, I’m a born-again Christian and everything, but I’m a fan; I’m a groupie of hardcore, country, raw, low-down music, you know, unsophisticated.
JK: Just singing it like it is, right?
MM: Raw! That’s me. That’s my spirit and my love. Not even that I can sing it or whatever, I just really adore it, like some people have a passion or a love for something, even though they don't even perform it; they might not be performers. I’m like an observer and that kind of thing.
JK: I think that comes across, even when you’re doing the theatre genre stuff, because that’s what makes your voice unique in that sense, is that you bring a little bit of that to it, or at least for me, when I saw you at the B.B. King showcase. That kind of struck me. There are a lot of great theatre singers, and belters, but I think you kind of add that extra dimension with the gospel.
MM: It’s kind of like a joy love fan explosion of energy! (laughs)
JK: That’s awesome.
MM: I don’t know how this sounds, but I just like it!
JK: That’s the most important thing, and that comes across when you’re performing, as does you appreciation of so many different types of singers. I was reading what you said about Philippe Wynne from The Spinners. From him to Dionne Warwick, you’re talking about a lot of great singers, each with their definite own mark.
MM: And I'm sure I'm expressing what the world thinks about them, why they are great and classic artists. They have these gifts from God, really.
JK: What do you hope will be the outcome with this project?
MM: I hope we have a great tour out of it, I hope it gets a lot of airplay, I hope it really gets on mainstream consciousness and awareness, because I really think it’s a great project.
JK: Is there one particular song that’s being promoted from it as a single?
MM: I don’t think that’s been discovered yet. I don’t know what Shanachie and their people there are planning, because we’re just getting everything mastered up really quickly. The project came together quickly.
JK: How long did it take to do it?
MM: All together, maybe three weeks, two weeks. We had to hurry up and schedule our time for everybody, because we wanted a fall release. If you do it like the old days, you know you go over, and over, and over, and over. Nope.
JK: Do you prefer one way over the other?
MM: I wish we had more time, but I don’t mind working in constraints, because you force yourself to be a little bit more disciplined. You can’t always scrutinize it, but sometimes you’re better than you think you are.
JK: Working under pressure brings out the best in you sometimes?
MM: Sometimes, yes.
JK: You opened the album with ‘Optimistic’, the Sounds of Blackness tune. Was that the first song that you picked?
MM: I didn’t pick that sequence. I wouldn’t have sequenced it that way, but I hope everybody loves that sequence.
JK: It seems to set a good tone. What would you have picked for the opener if you had chosen?
MM: I would have picked ‘Sadie’, but I’m thinking of the sound of the song, and then because it’s sweet and it draws you into the message, and it’s a classic thing, then when you hear the up-tempo songs, they really come at you.
JK: Was that personally significant to you, as far as your family?
MM: No, it’s just the sound of the song, the sweetness and the empathy that I know it evokes from so many, many, people, and they never really express it. It’s just that when you play it, oh it’s there again.
JK: You said, “Everything that’s old ain’t bad.” Were you referring to the song itself, or the lyrics, and what it’s about?
MM: I’m referring to life, especially American life, because we’re the new kids on the block as far as countries are concerned, especially countries that are developed, and we’re like teenagers. We throw everything away without appreciating it, and then we get to the next new thing, and if it’s not brand new, we try to say that it’s not relevant. If you go to Europe and some of the other places that I’ve had an opportunity to go to recently, they hold some of what we’ve thrown away so dear, and when you look at it from their point of view, you have another appreciation for what God has given you, and what he’s made you, and what we have. I’ve had an opportunity now to fight for the right to sing, to fight for the right to live, to fight to stay healthy and vital. I find a new value in maturity, because everything old is not worn out and useless, either. I’m thinking of the vitality of life, and I guess I’m thinking that I’m very, very blessed in some ways, but so much of my life and where I’ve come from is cut off, because my grandmother was stricken already, so I think I have a bit of an appreciation for the connecting of the old, to the middle, to the young so that it’s whole, we can see where we’ve been, with a solid foundation, where we are now, so we can have a concern, and a love, and a desire to stay vital and young, but to mature also, and enjoy what we have to give to the next generation. Don’t let it be old, and useless, and thrown away; let it stay vital.
JK: You’re right. I recently went to Switzerland, and I was really impressed with how the older people seemed to be much more of an active part of things than what I notice here. Aging is definitely something that we place too much of a negative connotation on here.
MM: I think we’re learning better. That’s what I love about America. If we find out we’ve got it wrong, we will fix it, like smoking and alcohol. A lot of people don’t drink like they used to, or don’t drink at all anymore. It’s just a common thing. We had such a bad problem with alcoholism, but we didn’t even recognize it as that. We just called it social drinking. We’ve gone from that, to almost the opposite. Everywhere you go, there’s an AA or something to help you with any kind of addictive problem that you have, and I think that’s great about America, so that we don’t waste our youth, and hopefully we don’t waste our maturity, either.
JK: It’s part of the 'Survival Kit,' like the song on the album.
JK: Well, I really thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I really enjoyed it, and it’s been great to learn more about you, after enjoying your music for so long. I wish you a lot of success with this album. I think you’ve got a real winner, and I hope that everybody will get to hear it, and it will do some good things for you,
MM: Thank you. I appreciate your time too, and I’m glad that you are interested!
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.