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. Addresses: Record company-- Capitol Records, Inc., 1750 N. Vine St., Hollywood, CA 90028.
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 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 born-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."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Melba Moore's Career
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.
Melba Moore's Awards
Tony Award for best supporting actress in a musical, 1971, for Purlie.
- Selective Works
- 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.
- Melba Epic.
- 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.
August 3, 2004: Moore's album, Nobody but Jesus, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_5/index.jsp, August 6, 2004.
- 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.