Melba Moore

From a profile in the New York Times by Alvin Klein, June 27, 1999

Born Beatrice Melba Smith in Harlem, Ms. Moore, moved to Newark at age 9. ”Pick your ghetto,” she said. There, she went to Waverley Elementary School, Cleveland Junior High School and Arts High School, then Teachers College at Montclair State. But she dropped out and did substitute teaching for a year in a high school in Newark in 1964.

”I did not want to be a teacher,” she said. ”I wanted to be a performing artist but I was shy, I had no confidence in my dream to be a music major, and my parents, who were in entertainment, said ‘Get a real job.’ ”

Her mother, Gertrude Melba Smith, was a singer and usually on tour. After her grandmother, who was raising her, had a stroke, a guardian she called Mama Lou took over. Mama Lou beat her. Then there were two uncles who abused her sexually.

When Ms. Moore’s mother married Clem Mooreman, a piano player, some semblance of a stable family life emerged. Mr. Mooreman lives in Paterson with one of Ms. Moore’s younger brothers; her mother and her real father, whom she ”only met a few times,” are dead; her other brother, also younger, is a lawyer in Newark. A step-brother is a professor of music on Long Island and a step-sister teaches in Brooklyn.

At the age of 22, she left Newark and auditioned for ”Hair.” After switching roles from a memorable Diana Ross sendup, she became the first black actress to play a formerly white role in the show, and made ”scads of money” in television commercials. Still, she returned to Montclair State to get her degree. Then in 1970 she landed her breakout part, a young, dumb domestic stereotype in a plantation shack in the musical ”Purlie.” But she spread joy, notably in her show-stopping song, ”I Got Love.” One critic wrote of her ”God-given ability to walk straight into an audience’s heart and hang around there.” Another called her ”the discovery of the season.”

Ms. Moore won a Tony for the role. Cabaret acts and a concert at the Metropolitan Opera House followed. So did her own line of sportswear, her own management company, her own record-producing company, her own television shows — and her own pile of debts, given ”agents, managers and accountants who were dishonest with me.”

She picked herself up, started all over again, and married a businessman who had her assets put in his name. ”I got into the same trouble, only worse,” she said. ”I hit rock bottom.”

Then came confrontations in court, including one over the custody of their daughter, Melba Charli, a divorce and 30 days in prison for violating a gag order by speaking about her husband in public. Ms. Moore was ”sentenced to sing” — which happens to be the title of her memoirs-in-progress — for the prisoners in Bedford Hills, N.Y.

”I went into hiding where he couldn’t find me,” Ms. Moore recalled. ”I was all over the place — you have to be when you’re a moving target. He was stalking me and sabotaging my career.”

”I got my life back by ordinary people, not experts or V.I.P.’s, helping me when I was under siege, not because I was a celebrity,” she said.

Ms. Moore’s theatrical comeback began with a role in the play ”From the Mississippi Delta” in 1993 in Gainesville, Fla. All the while she was trying out her own play.

”I worked in the boondocks to get myself up — in churches and in community theaters and in storefronts and in sanctuaries and in banquet halls, all over the country. You can fill a church without having to advertise.” Six months as Fantine in ”Les Mis” in 1995 marked her return to Broadway.

Ms. Moore is reunited with her 21-year-old daughter, with whom she shares an apartment in Guttenberg. ”Her joy is coming back, and that’s a healer,” Ms. Moore said. ”And I have no fear.”

”I’m a born-again Christian,” she said. ”The Bible is my strategy book.”

She continued: ”I’m still a lyric soprano. My range is increasing — and I’m getting some alto tones in there. It’s fuller and stronger at the bottom. Now I really do gospel, with all the runs. There’s been no loss with age, only growth and refinement. You’re not supposed to go down the tubes.”

NFT Credits

Credit Type Production Season
PlaywrightSweet Songs of the Soul 2004-05 Season
Actor Sweet Songs of the Soul 2004-05 Season