For decades Melba Moore has knocked down doors, paving the way for African American actresses and singers making her mark on America’s soundtrack. From being the first Black woman to replace a white actress, Diane Keaton, in the lead role in the Broadway musical Hair, to being the first African American woman to take home a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the musical Purlie, and later starring as the female lead on Broadway in the musical Les Miserables, making her the first African American woman to perform in that role. Melba Moore rose to the top of the charts with hits like “Falling,” “You Stepped into My Life,” “Love’s Comin’ At Ya,” and “A Little Bit More,” to name a few. She then took her talents to television where she starred in her own variety show Melba. She eventually found love, got married, and together they crafted her music career through Hush Productions, which also jump started the careers of a multitude of artists that created the R&B soundtrack of the 80s.
Melba Moore spoke with the National Museum of African American Music about her contributions to America’s soundtrack through the decades in various genres, and some of her favorite moments in music history.
You are a woman of so many firsts, how does that feel knowing that you are the one that paved the way and opened the door for a lot of African American Women?
Melba Moore: It just showed me that God is in control of everything; no matter how smart or stupid you are, because first of all you have a chance. I didn’t have an agent or a manager. I left my career as a public-school music teacher in New Jersey. I wanted to try my hand at being a professional singer. My stepdad was a performer and so was my mother, so I know I caught the fever from them. I know that when people have desires and dreams that God put in you that it doesn’t always mean it’s going to turn out like it has for me, but you definitely should pursue it to see if there’s something to it. I didn’t think that I would be a star or an outstanding artist, but I knew I wanted to be in the field.
What is your biggest career highlight?
Melba Moore: It would definitely be Purlie and wining a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress. That just catapulted me all by itself. I had never really been anywhere but New York City
Did you audition for that role? How did you get the part?
Melba Moore: I was actually learning how to audition after I had already been in the musical Hair and I had already replaced Diane Keaton when she left the show. One of the girls in the show told me about this random audition for this black musical called Purlie and I went and got the part, it wasn’t really acting I was just being country and got the part. I didn’t have a manager or an agent at the time. I’ve never really gotten anything auditioning. I still don’t know how to audition (laughs).
You have dabbled in a lot of different genres. Let’s walk through them, starting with the 1960s when you were backing Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick. How was that experience?
Melba Moore: I was so glad to be out of that classroom honey! It really was fun. I sang with people like Valerie Simpson and several others you won’t know but they were talented fun people to work with. I worked all the time and I made a very good living. I quit teaching school; and saw that I could make a living and put a roof over my own head being in the music industry. I was ecstatic and I could have kept doing that, but one of the recording sessions was for the Broadway musical Hair and that’s how I got into theater.
Let’s hop into the 70s with the classic hit “You Stepped into My Life.”
Melba Moore: That’s when I first met my first manager and we married. He was truly, a young gifted, talented, uneducated man from the south that came up to New York City, and every young black man wanted to be a manager, but he was really good at it. He said you already have a Broadway career, and we need to make you a lead singer in R&B. He was going out working on getting record deals and songwriters and producers for me. He went out and got Van McCoy for me. He got me signed to Buddah Records. That’s when you really have to have a manager because you have to meet with executives and plan out how you are going to get and pay these songwriters and producers, and what kind of music you’re going to do and what genre you can fit into. I’m very good and diverse now but back then I couldn’t tell you where I could go and what I should do. As a backup singer, first of all you could wind up staying in the background forever and if you do that you never develop a singing personality. He helped me with these songs to develop my singing personality and my style.
During that time period, you were singing songs that were disco and dance music. Were you comfortable singing that type of music since you were coming from the theater?
Melba Moore: No, actually theater was the thing that took me out of my comfort zone, I was scared to death doing that. Looking back, it came across natural, but it didn’t feel natural. Dance music, I was comfortable doing that, and I had really good producers and songwriters. “You Stepped into My Life,” and that was really handcrafted for me by Gene McFadden and John Whitehead. We basically started to develop a rapport with them. Teddy Pendergrass would come up and do backgrounds on our records and stuff. “You Stepped into My Life” was very successful. With the Bee Gees, every single album had been successful so we tried to pick one that hadn’t been released, and we picked “You Stepped into My Life.” It was Gene McFadden and John Whitehead’s arrangement on it that made it such a hit. My little barbie doll voice was just so cute on it (laughs). I think that combination working with them helped me fit into the dance genre.
You continued working with McFadden & Whitehead into the 80s, but you had more of a sophisticated sound. Talk about that.
Melba Moore: I was developing a sound and developing a rapport with songwriters because they learn how to write for you and also doing concerts, my voice was developing and getting better.
The duet you did with Freddie Jackson, “A Little Bit More” in the 80s is a classic!
Melba Moore: Now that was written for us by Gene McFadden and John Whitehead. We had formed our company, [Hush Productions/Orpheus Inc.], in an effort to get me established. We did “Just a Little Bit More” as duet. We had already mentored and placed Freddie Jackson with Capitol Records. We helped co-manage and mentor as well, and continued to develop myself, that’s the type of environment we were in, I’m crediting my now ex-husband, for making sure things were developed and you have to watch these things and babysit them, you can’t just throw it out there. There are record companies to deal with, tours, promotors, all kinds of people. It’s a business, not just the artistic side of it.
Another hit for you in the 80s was “Love’s Comin’ at Ya.” Can you talk about working with super producer/songwriter Paul Laurence?
Melba Moore: He was another one of our artists. Paul wrote for me, “Love’s Comin’ at Ya.” which was a huge hit for me. He’s a great songwriter. He came along with a bunch of really talented people that we had like Meli’sa Morgan and Kashif. Kashif had a whole stable of songwriters and musicians and producers. Eventually we brought them all aboard and managed their careers so I had access to all these best songwriters and producers of the 80s all right under our company. Our company had access to them, it was a good company.
How about “Read My Lips,” and some of the songs you took on had sort of a rock vibe to them. Talk about that.
Melba Moore: Well what I think what my husband was trying to do was explore the pop side of me. We had really been focused on the black side of me and we knew that worked out for us and we didn’t lose our base without going off too far trying to explore that aspect.
You also did a duet with Kashif called “Love the One I’m With (A Lot of Love).” What was it like working with Kashif?
Melba Moore: I loved working with Kashif, because Kashif was like a vocal coach. The thing that attributed to his style of music aside from the synthesizers and the musicality of his music, but his vocal arrangements are very technical. But since I’m slow, the more I sing something the better it gets and the more technical you make it for me, the easier it is for me. So, with Kashif, he knew exactly what he wanted. Everyone that came out of Kashif’s camp was like that, very picky about tones and how they want you to say the word, and very detailed how he wanted it and it made it easier.
Going back to Kashif- with his impact on the music industry and his contributions, what are your thoughts on the lack of tributes, or posthumous awards since his passing?
Melba Moore: I think that because our company didn’t do like what Berry Gordy did; he promoted his company and artists, like with Motown 25, he reminded you who he was, which was Motown and he put them on the map and kept them on the map and we didn’t do that. You have to promote and market, that’s what it’s about or people forget. They don’t honor you because they love your music, and they do love your music, they don’t honor you because they forgot about you. That’s my opinion.
Going into the 90s and early 2000s you ventured into Gospel. What was that transition like?
Melba Moore: I was already a born-again Christian, so I said let me learn how to sing gospel since I wasn’t brought up singing it. So, I was in church all the time anyway, so I met people who helped me get with Dr. Bobby Jones and I wasn’t a gospel singer. He let me sing “Lean on Me.”
I had people like Shirley Murdock who wrote some songs for me and helped me tell my testimony and gave me gospel music so that I could get into gospel music. I did everything backwards (laughs). I would have sung it as a child but I was Catholic.
To wrap things up, what is your favorite moment in music history?
Melba Moore: I think of the first time I saw Aretha Franklin live and I couldn’t believe those little hands could play the piano like that! The first time I met her, she said, “God is in the blessing business honey, because you sure can sing.” She told me that I could sing! Another one, was Patti Labelle said, “that voice is so powerful.” Another one is seeing James Brown on The Ed Sullivan Show. We have had so many unique personalities, it’s hard to mention them all. There’s so many moments.