It’s very rare to come across someone who has paved the way for so many African American women on a repeated basis, but if you’re Melba Moore, then that’s the norm.
Starting back in the 1960s, Moore backed the legendary Dionne Warwick and the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. Then in the blink of an eye, she opened the door and became the first black woman to replace a white actress, Diane Keaton, in the lead role in the Broadway musical Hair. Fast forward a few years, and Ms. Moore is knocking down more barriers, becoming the first African American woman to take home a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in the musical Purlie. Melba Moore later landed the female lead role on Broadway in the musical Les Miserables, making her the first African American woman to perform in that role.
But she doesn’t stop there. Moore began releasing hits such as “You Stepped Into My Life” and “Read My Lips,” racking up a host of other award nominations. The icon laid down the foundation by taking her talents to television and starring in her own variety show with actor Clifton Davis, Melba. Ms. Moore was also the first female pop artist to perform a non-operatic solo concert at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House.
Soultrain.com caught up with the legendary Melba Moore to discuss her pivotal role in theater and music history, and the lessons she has learned throughout her career.
Soultrain.com: You are a woman of “firsts.” How does it feel knowing that you are the one that paved the way and opened the door for a lot of African American women?
Melba Moore: In a word, good [laughs]! I say good because I have had time now to really reflect and God has given me quite a nice space of longevity, so you have time to reminisce, have time to kind of assess what your life is and if it had any meaning. You know I had some real serious challenges, and I feel like I’m in a wonderful place now, so I can see a pattern of how great the “firsts” are. When it’s happening, you just don’t know what is going to happen, and with me being the first, I had never done it before either. So looking back, I think oh man, that was good and I can really savor it and appreciate it because now there’s not all the excitement, anxiety, and the fear that was going on at the time since you just don’t know where you are, it was new territory. If you’re going through something first that no one else has gone through before, it’s exciting, but also scary. Now when I say it’s good, I’m very grateful. Now as I enter this next chapter in my life, I hope I can continue the pattern. Maybe I am destined to be first at some things, so I’ll proceed with some caution since I am a little older now.
Soultrain.com: Do you have any regrets at all?
Melba Moore: When I say regrets, I mean I’m really grateful for the way my life has turned out. There are some things that I’ve done in the past that I’m very, very sorry for and would never do them again. If I have the opportunity where I see young people coming along that could make the same mistakes, and then if it’s appropriate, I would warn them, don’t do it, because you could hurt yourself and it could be something that you will regret. I have found the ability to be sorry for them, and to do something better so I don’t have a regret that I didn’t get the chance then, or I didn’t take the chance at the time, or I didn’t get back up when I fell down. In that sense, I don’t have a regret, but I did make some really bad mistakes I’m sorry for. So the answer is yes and no.
Soultrain.com: Speaking of falling down and getting back up again, and the challenges that you have faced yet you still have found enough gumption to jump right back in, what gave you the push once you hit rock bottom to say, ok, let’s get up and try again?
Melba Moore: Well, it was probably more like crawling instead of jumping back in! But I’m not sure except that I know that I have been low more than once, and I want people to know that it won’t happen just once, it will happen many times. I guess if you have a dream, and you have something that you want to live for, that makes you think about more than the devastation that you are experiencing…maybe people that you love that need you, or maybe you have a question like why did that happen or am I going to live through this? Sometimes you really feel like you want it to be over and even contemplate suicide, but for some reason you don’t, so you wait a minute, and wait a minute, and wait another minute, then after a while you just get the heck up! [Laughs] Then you’re so shocked you can laugh about it, because life is a mystery.
Soultrain.com: What would you say is your biggest career highlight?
Melba Moore: The thing that seems to have the most influence on my career was the Broadway play Purlie because I got the Tony Award and people were really impressed with that. It’s a Broadway play that many black people went to see for the first time in their lives. They didn’t even know what the play was about and they didn’t care, but they knew if they didn’t go see a black play, that there wouldn’t be anymore so they had to support it. I would say that it’s one of the most indelible, but probably not the most important. The first one would probably be the play Hair. It was a white play about hippies that had black people in it, but it broke all the rules about how black people were used in the play. That’s how I wound up being the first black actress to replace a white actress in a lead role on Broadway because they broke all the rules. I just happened to be there to take advantage of the opportunity, and it of course opened the door to lead me to Broadway. Of course many people, most of them white people–because it’s about their culture–remember Hair and still celebrate Hair because it’s being revived here and there and it’s going to continue to be around and it still supports my career. I had a part of an important part in theater history; it’s the thing that got me started. It’s the piece that has brought all different cultures together.
Soultrain.com: Here you are on Broadway, then you make the leap to television. How did your television show Melba come about?
Melba Moore: It was a natural progression; once you do something successful and you get a Tony award, then people in all different forms of entertainment want you to participate in whatever it is they are doing, whether it’s supper clubs, casinos, television. That’s what it does to you–it opens doors. I got to be on all these talk shows, but that’s how it all comes together. As for Melba, that came a little later.
Soultrain.com: Since you have already ventured into the television realm, have you thought about trying reality television?
Melba Moore: I have seen some of the shows, but I haven’t seen a format that I care for too much. I think with reality shows, you can come up with a lot of different things to make it work, but I’m open to it. Some of the shows are so gaudy, but I don’t think I’d fit in those. I’m gentle [laughs]! But I think you can really create the type of show that you want whether it’s scripted or not.
Soultrain.com: What are your thoughts on the music industry and theater today versus from when you started? What’s different?
Melba Moore: It’s much more open these days. You have to be careful because it’s open to everything. People know how to raise money so they can put anything on the stage anyway they want to. It’s not a bad thing, but people with good ideas who are very artistic and creative may not be very business savvy, and it’s important to be able to do both. Also, I think it’s much better in terms of grassroots creativity. I guess I’m focused on theater because it’s been a big blessing for me, and I can understand that it should be a burgeoning area for black people. Our stories still need to be told, and we have to be the ones to tell them. We have to get the other skills to go with it, such as learning the business side of it.
Soultrain.com: Do you think that social media is a good thing for entertainers?
Melba Moore: I think it’s a great thing! It’s an amazing thing because it doesn’t pigeon hole, we’re not under the thumbs of one company. You need to have diversity and you need to have access to your public, your audience, and your buyer.
Soultrain.com: How do you deal with naysayers saying that isn’t you on your Facebook page or that’s not you in photos or singing?
Melba Moore: I just say they haven’t seen anything yet honey! They ain’t seen nothing yet! I’m feeling really great that it’s not self-indulgence. I’m the only one seeing it in the mirror, but people can see that I’m looking good and I’m changing for the better. I’m not getting old, and raggedy, wrinkled and spotted up. I would like to be the poster child for “black don’t crack!” [laughs] But usually you become the butt of jokes when you’re really successful and doing something, so I hope I have that problem.
Soultrain.com: What do you think about when you hear the Jacksons sing “Never Can Say Goodbye”? Was the song written to you?
Melba Moore: Well, Clifton Davis and I were lovers. He wrote the song to me, and pitched it to Michael Jackson, but I recorded it first, but it wasn’t a big hit for me. Gloria Gaynor and Isaac Hayes also recorded it. When I hear that song, I think, ‘Wow, we were really living out our fantasies, we weren’t crazy!’ You know when people say follow your dreams? You don’t know if they are good enough, but you’re just excited, and I mean Clifton was able to get that song to Michael Jackson, and Michael at that time was a child, but he was an icon already. I look back and think, ‘My God, who did we think we were? Do I still have it in me to dream like that? Do I have that same tenacity and boldness to do something like that? There are dreams that you actually went out and did it.’
Soultrain.com: Do you think that’s the difference between today’s generation versus then? Some artists have said in previous interviews it’s like a microwave society now and this generation wants success quick without working for it.
Melba Moore: That’s because that’s what they see happening. I don’t watch a lot of television, but what I do see is so many more opportunities for people to make it instantly. That’s not a bad thing, it’s just a part of our age; we’ve come along way from 1500 years ago. There is more information, more opportunity, and with it there comes more difficulty and challenges. I think it’s amazing; you just have to figure out how to adjust and deal with it. With the gifts come challenges and difficulties. It’s part of the good things that come along. I would rather have it this way then still be back in slavery.
Soultrain.com: What has been the greatest lesson that you have learned throughout your career?
Melba Moore: I’d have to say humility and to stay close to God, because you don’t know what is going to happen. In a beautiful way, but in a cautioning way, life is a mystery, so keep your eyes open but with humility, develop that gift.
Soultrain.com: What’s next for Melba Moore?
Melba Moore: I’m working on my one woman play, Still Standing: The Melba Moore Story. I’m working on my new album which is called Forever More, and the current single is “Love Is.”
Check out Melba Moore on her website www.melbamoore.com and follow her on Twitter @MelbaMoore1.
Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Vibe, Creative Loafing, or her own site, www.themofochronicles.com. She’s also a special guest contributor on The Social Hour on Urban Soul Radio. Follow her on Twitter @mofochronicles.