BACK, BETTER, AND BADDER THAN EVER!
Interview with Melba Moore
by William Gooch
published March 11, 2009
Still Standing: An Evening With Melba Moore
Performs Friday, March 13 @ 9:30 p.m.
at the Triad Theater, New York City
Everybody loves a good comeback story. Riches-to-rags-and-back-again tales confirm that in
America, life can be happily ever after, even if you get stuck in the valley for a while. Climbing back up that steep, slippery slope has been
no small feat for Melba Moore. With a voice that triumphs in such varied musical genres as American standards, Broadway show tunes, disco,
R&B, and gospel, Ms. Moore’s career early on was destined for heights unknown. But life rarely turns out the way you expect it. In spite of
insurmountable odds, Melba has persevered and she is back, delighting us with her silky stylings and
explosive, vocal acrobatics.
This past Friday I caught Ms. Moore’s performance at the Triad Theater. In this intimate venue, Melba Moore confirmed that she is
a musical force to be reckoned with. Whether serenading with Harold Arlen and Cole Porter standards or getting soulfully funky with club
hits from her lexicon—“Love’s Comin At Ya,” “You Stepped Into My Life,” and “This Is It” were my favorites—Melba knows how to blow the roof
off the joint and keep the party going. Gracious to a fault, Ms. Moore took some time out after her concert to talk to me about her life,
perseverance, and faith.
William Gooch: You won a Tony Award in 1970 for your portrayal of Lutiebelle Gussiemae Jenkins in Purlie. Who did you base that character on?
Melba Moore: I was raised by a southern black woman who took care of me while my mother was on the road singing, and my
characterization of Lutiebelle was based on her. She was like a surrogate mother to me and she had a thick South Carolina accent, kind of
like a Gullah patois. You had to be around her for a period time to understand her vernacular.
William Gooch: As we all know,
the great Eartha Kitt recently passed away. You were in the Broadway musical Timbuktu! with Ms. Kitt. What was it like working with her?
Melba Moore: It was like being with a real diva, but in the best sense of the word. You know in the mid-1960s she had been
blackballed and had to leave this country. At that time, racism was still very strong and brutal in the United States. [Eartha Kitt was ostracized in the United States for making
anti-war remarks at a White House luncheon for Lady Bird Johnson. Not able to find work, Kitt spent the ensuing years performing in
Europe. Timbuktu! was her triumphant return to Broadway in 1978] But when she returned to Broadway in Timbuktu!, she was just as powerful and glamorous as ever. Everything about her was strong. She was physically
strong, mentally strong; even her cheekbones were strong. And she was from the old school, where everything had to be perfect.
William Gooch: Could you talk
about the production itself?
Melba Moore: Timbuktu! was the black version
of the Broadway musical Kismet. It was a very opulent, beautiful production. I haven’t seen
anything on Broadway like it since.
William Gooch: How long did
Timbuktu! run on Broadway?
Melba Moore: I stayed with the show for about ten months and then my first crossover hit record, “You Stepped Into My Life,” came
out. I left the show to tour my hit record, but Timbuktu! ran for a couple of more months after I left the show.
William Gooch: Would you like to do another Broadway show?
Melba Moore: In the mid-1990s, I played Fantine in Les Miserables. I hope to do another Broadway show soon. Broadway has been so good to me. The reason I
haven’t done Broadway in a while is because I went through a rough period in my personal life and career where everything was taken away
from me. I feel now that my career is getting momentum and everything is coming back, more television, more recordings, and more stage
William Gooch: For a while you
were touring urban gospel dramas. Are you still involved in that genre?
Melba Moore: Some years ago when I first started performing urban gospel dramas, we
called them chitlin’ plays. I haven’t been involved in that genre for a while, although I have had offers. I am a little skeptical about
some of the offers I’ve recently received. Because of Tyler Perry’s success, everyone wants to jump on that train, so to speak. You have to be careful about who you sign a contract with. You know, not everyone can be a playwright or
a producer. I have agreed to do shows based on a fairly good script, and then you get out on
the road and things change. I had a situation where I went on tour with a show and there was no director and the music wasn’t finished.
They wanted the cast to direct themselves and come up with additional songs. I couldn’t believe it! I was paid to portray one character,
not direct or write music. When I started ten years ago with this genre, there was a more professional approach.
William Gooch: About three
years ago I saw you in Sweet Songs of the Soul, your biographical one-woman show. Why did you
decide to do a show about your life?
Melba Moore: One of the
reasons I decided to do a show about my life was to quell the rumors circulating about my life. My husband, who was my manager, alleged that I
was a crack cocaine addict. Because of these allegations, I wasn’t able to get work. As a result
of our divorce, I lost all my assets. Essentially, he shut me down. The only thing I had was artistry and my faith. Because no one would hire
me, I had to create performing opportunities for myself. It has taken me ten years to work my way
back. Sweet Songs of the Soul grew out of that experience.
William Gooch: Are you still
performing Sweet Songs of the Soul?
Melba Moore: I still
perform the work by request, if it fits in around my other engagements.
William Gooch: Tell me about your gospel CD, I’m Still Here?
Melba Moore: When I lost my career all I had was my faith. I was brought up in the church and my faith has been a guiding force
throughout my life. I’m Still Here, which is
produced by Shirley Murdock and Dale DeGroat, is my joyous expression of gratitude to my creator for all my many blessings.
Melba Moore will give one more performance at the Triad Theatre, located at 158 W. 72nd Street, on Friday, March 13,
2009. For more information, visit www.triadnyc.com.
williamgooch @ stageandcinema.com