New Music: The Legendary Melba Moore Invites Us All To ‘Imagine’

2022 Press Photo / Vinyl Disco Art – Epic Records

One of the great perks of being an entertainment journalist and blogger is having the privilege to interview an icon who was one of your biggest inspirations growing up. I had that opportunity when I sat down with the incomparable recording artist and actress Melba Moore.  

As a four-time Grammy nominee and a Tony Award winner, Melba has had an illustrious entertainment career spanning over 50 years. Her fans worldwide, including me, rallied in delight to learn weeks ago that she had been named as a 2022 Hollywood Walk of Fame inductee. 

Melba made her indelible mark on Broadway when she debuted in the original cast of Hair. Shortly after that, she made history in that show as the first black actress ever on Broadway to take over a lead role initially portrayed by a white actress — that actress was a then up-and-coming Diane Keaton. 

As the magic voice behind the era-defining Disco hits “This is it” and “You Stepped Into My Life” (written by the BeeGees), Melba became an icon of dance music.  “This Is It” was Melba’s first big hit; it peaked in the top 10 in the UK, the top 20 on the R&B chart, and the Billboard Hot 100. Additional hits followed, such as the joyous McFadden & Whitehead- produced “Pick Me Up, I’ll Dance,” released in May 1979, and a highly successful cover version of the Bee Gees’ hit “You Stepped Into My Life,” which reached the top 20 on the R&B charts and 47 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Melba has an extensive TV/filmography with a more recent role in The Fighting Temptations with Beyoncé and Cuba Gooding. And with her signature powerhouse vocal range in top form, Melba is still performing across the US and abroad at premiere music festivals as well as headlining on cruise ships.  

During past interviews, Melba has been candid in discussing devastating high-profile setbacks in her life, including a painful divorce in conjunction with her ex-husband’s incarceration for a multimillion-dollar investment scam. But I didn’t want to ask her to revisit all that negativity in our discussion.

Cover of the 12 inch Single for “Read My Lips,” which earned Melba Moore her 4th Grammy nomination: Best Female Rock/Pop Performance

No, this was about celebrating Melba and all the magic she’s brought to the world —and still does. Vaguely touching upon that difficult period in her life, I asked how she’s maintained such optimism over the years, dealing with things that would have left most of us completely bereaved. 

Melba responded with the direct simplicity of a tougher-than-nails girl born and raised in New York City, “Corey…..you just keep going. You have to keep going.”

The following excerpt is from my interview with Melba Moore for The National Society of Leadership and Success. Watch the full video below:

Corey Andrew:

This is such an honor. Thank you for joining me today, Melba. I follow you on Instagram, and you’re always so positive. So also, thank you for the motivation. I know you were born in New York, and I’ve read that your musical beginnings started with your stepfather’s help. But then I read that you had a chance encounter with Valerie Simpson, which got you started. So, okay, can you clarify in your own words how you got started in music?

Melba Moore:

All of the above — a bunch of little steps forward. Starting from a broken family, my mother was a professional singer, so it’s in my DNA. My natural father was a famous band leader who began the movement that helped usher in Bebo music at Mitten’s Playhouse. So it’s in my DNA, but he and my mother didn’t marry. So I didn’t have music in my life yet, but my mother married my stepfather, who was from Newark, New Jersey. He was a piano player, and they formed a group together and rehearsed in our house. So, I went from no music to being inundated with music. And then, my stepfather had a son and a daughter, and later we had two more brothers. So we went from no children to <laugh> no siblings of which now there’s five of us.

Corey Andrew:

A house full.

Melba Moore:

Oh Yeah. We had a family, and that’s your first community. That’s very important. My stepfather gave us all piano lessons, and we started getting more intimately involved with music and studying music. And everybody sings, everybody plays, even all the aunts and uncles are musical. So music was everywhere, and I realized I wanted to stay with it by the time I got through junior high school. I got to go to art and music high school and major in vocal music. I didn’t have the money to go to Julliard or Manhattan school of music, o I went to Montclair State Teacher’s College and studied music, education, and vocal music. Then I taught vocal music education in public schools.

But I still wanted to try music as a career, so my dad started taking me to different places to get me into the industry. And one of the first people I met was Valerie Simpson. She was already involved in studio backup singing work. So we exchanged numbers in somebody’s office. And I started doing backup with her and Nick Ashford. But one of the recording sessions was for GA McDermot. He wrote the music for the Broadway musical Hair. He was also the music director and the wonderful keyboardist doing his own performances of the music from Hair. They were still casting. So they invited us to come down. I went down and auditioned for the director and the producer. And that’s how I got my first Broadway show. 

Corey Andrew 

Oh my Goodness!

Melba Moore 

But Wait, wait a minute. <Laughs> Before I left the show, I auditioned for and got the female lead, but inadvertently I replaced Diane Keaton. So I became the first black actress to replace a white actress in a lead role on Broadway. Soon after, one of my girlfriends told me about auditions for a Broadway show: Pearlie, which gave me the Tony Award, television, and recording contracts. It put me on the map. That’s pretty much the whole story.

Melba Moore and Corey Andrew backstage – Grace Jones Concert, Hurricane Tour / Roseland, NYC

Corey Andrew:

Unbelievable. And I still remember the commercials for Pearly as a kid. And you were these like pigtails <laugh> I think in the commercials. And one of the lines was, I think, you sang, “Pearlie, I’m in love with you — Uh oooh” or something like that?

Melba Moore:

That was the song, yes.

From the Broadway Playbill for Purlie, L-R: Sherman Hensley, Melba Moore, Robert Guillaume

Corey Andrew

It feels like it was yesterday. And I want to tell you why that’s so important —as a little black boy in the seventies growing up with musical aspirations seeing affirmations like that was so important. Seeing you, Ben Vereen, or when Dream Girls became a success and seeing those black people showing their prowess on Broadway. So, so important to influence a generation of children. So that was incredible. 

Did your parents have reservations at all about you becoming a professional performer? Because they knew how hard that life was, right?

Melba Moore 

You just said a mouthful. They were black. Racism was rampant. It still is, but it was, you know, injuring and binding. Then you couldn’t go here; you couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that. And you couldn’t make a living. Even now, I mean, you have to have agents, you have to have managers, you have to have a business side of your ability. And during those days, you know, you really had to do it all, and it was very ‘catch as you can.’ Very, very sketchy. And so they wanted me to have some financial security.

Corey Andrew:

Yeah. Yeah. It was a wise decision, of course, but I mean, obviously, you had other plans, so, um, <laugh>

Melba Moore 

Well, you know, thank God they worked out.

Corey Andrew:

Yeah. It’s funny you say that. My mother was always so terrified of me going to New York and being another, you know, starving singer. And she kept trying to get me to go to college and get a music theory degree, and I would not have it at all. I was like, no, I’m going to be the next Michael Jackson! But thinking back to you replacing Diane Keaton, it seems like not a big deal, maybe today but at the time, was that a big deal? As far as being in the industry and how you perceived yourself at that point —replacing a white woman for the first time on Broadway, was there added pressure?

Melba Moore:

No pressure. My biggest pressure was I didn’t know how to act and had no experience. Oh my God. I was like, “Home Alone.”

Corey Andrew:

<laugh> So you must have had some great natural talent!

Melba Moore: 

But your question is so well-taken because there is so much that you deal with. And let me say, too, that the Broadway show Hair broke all the rules, opened all the doors, and broke down all the barriers. We had a black woman doing the Gettysburg Address, dressed as Abe Lincoln. Of course, it was a parody. It was a joke, right? But you can say some pretty powerful things when it sounds like a “joke.”

Corey Andrew:

Mm-hmm <affirmative> yeah, yeah, absolutely.

Melba Moore:

So I knew it was a big deal. I mean, when was it that Martin Luther king was killed?

Corey Andrew:

67? Maybe? I don’t even know the date, and I should know that date.

Melba Moore:

Yeah. So I’m talking about 67, 68, 69 — Both Kennedys were killed. And then, we’re talking about the little kids being killed in the church.

Corey Andrew:

Oh yes, the Alabama church bombings?

Melba Moore:

Yes. That’s what time it was. And here I was, replacing a white woman.

Corey Andrew:

And like one of the whitest women, too, by the way. <laugh>, I mean, Diane Keaton; you can’t get much more white than that. And that’s pretty amazing because you’re right. The show Hair was progressive; even the music, like that whole number they do about ‘white boys’ and ‘black boys,’ is very provocative. 

Melba Moore:

Yes, and I’m calling it parody because they were, you know, that’s the technical name you call making a joke, but to some, it was a slap in white society’s face. But your question was, how did I feel about it? And yeah, I was part of the revolution, let me put it that way. In that show, I could wear my Hair in an Afro. As a school teacher, I wasn’t allowed to do that.

Corey Andrew:

Wow. Even then, when Afros were more prominent?

Melba Moore

Well, yeah. Because we were considered rebels just for wearing our own Hair. 

Corey Andrew:

Unbelievable.

Melba Moore 

Right?

Corey Andrew: 

Later in your recording career, outside of your big Disco hits, one of my favorite songs is “Read my lips,” for which you got a Grammy nomination. I remember you had this rock sort of raspy tone to your voice in that track, and I often thought, I would love to hear Melba do a rock album, but I always felt the industry pigeonholed you as only an R n’ B singer. What do you think about that?

Melba Moore:

I think I wasn’t sure what my niche should be. <laugh> I don’t have like, you know, a deep, deep, deep contralto gravely gospely voice. <laugh> I sound like I’m from New York. So, it was a challenge to find out, you know, where I fit in — and did I fit? And, what was my style? So I had a lot of help finding that, really from my ex-husband Charles Huggins who went and got record deals for me and got incredible songwriters and producers like, um, Jim McFadden and John Whitehead.  

They actually helped me develop my style. McFadden and Whitehead took, ‘You stepped into my life,” which the Bee Gees wrote — and everybody knows that song. If you heard the Bee Gees, you’ve heard their version of it. But if you’ve listened to McFadden and Whitehead, you’ve heard their version. But then they made it fit for my little voice.

Corey Andrew:

<laugh> Well, not so little, but yeah. I mean, you turned it into one of the most successful hits of your career. And, right now for me, when I listen to Sirius Radio 54, every Friday night when I do my weekly unwind — if they don’t play that song, I’m on the internet emailing them, like, “What? Ya’ll, ain’t playing Melba tonight?!” <laugh> So yea, that’s a big one.

Melba Moore:

Oh, Thank you! That’s how I stay there. Thank you.

Corey Andrew:

You’re very welcome! And now tell me about this beautiful new album you have out now called Imagine. I know it’s a family affair with your daughter producing. So share a bit about that album.

Cover Art – “Imagine” LP – Melba Moore

Melba Moore: 

Yes, it’s out now. You can get it on Amazon and all the digital platforms. It’s called Imagine, and there are ten songs on it. Imagine is the title song. I want you to please listen to that because the story is about a place of hope and peace with no more hate. We’d all be free, imagine. 

Corey Andrew:

We need that right now. So wonderful.

Melba Moore:

Yeah, we do. And I think it’s a hit record because it’s sincere and well-produced. And when I say it’s a family affair, it’s my daughter’s first executive production, along with her uncle Bo, who was her ex-uncle <laugh> cause you know he’s my ex-husband’s brother. Family is important because it’s one of the things that made me successful as a recording artist, and we’re brought back together again for this. They’re the ones who help me develop my style and develop a family life. Those basic elements come back to you in life <laugh> — as hit records!

Corey Andrew:

<laugh> that’s right. Well, yes, and you are so deserving. You are such an icon. And I know people throw that word around a lot. They throw the words ‘diva,’ ‘legend,’ and ‘icon’ around often, but you’ve put in the work, and the legacy is there. You are an icon and one of my favorites of all time. 

Melba Moore:

Thank you so very much.


Follow Melba Moore on Instagram & Watch Corey’s full interview with MelbaHere:

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