American Rhythm & Blues singer and actress Melba Moore (b. New York, NY, 29 October 1945) is a four-time Grammy nominee and the winner of the 1970 Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical, for her performance as Lutiebelle in Purlie. With a total of eleven top ten U.S. hits on the Billboard charts over the past 40 years, both singles and albums, Melba Moore continues into the 21st century as one of pop music’s most enduring artists.
Moore was born Beatrice Melba Hill to the popular R & B singer known as Bonnie Davis (originally named Gertrude Melba Smith) and saxophonist Teddy Hill, who managed the influential Harlem jazz club Minton’s Playhouse in its heyday. The first nine years of the child’s life in Harlem were difficult; her mother was single, and distracted with her busy career (she had a Number One R & B hit, “Don’t Stop Now,” in 1943, before Melba was born). In 1954 Bonnie Davis married her long-time accompanist, pianist Clement Moorman, and the family moved permanently to Newark, New Jersey.
Clem Moorman, and the large family of siblings, aunts, and uncles to which he belonged, transformed Melba’s life. He insisted that she and the other children learn to play the piano (although her primary interest was dance) and kept a watchful eye over her musical development. At the High School for Performing Arts in Newark she studied piano and voice, and went on to Montclair State College (New Jersey) for a bachelor’s degree in music education.
After graduation she worked briefly as a music teacher, but a life in the classroom was not what she had envisioned for herself. Moorman was in a position to introduce her to several agents, and soon Melba Moore (a name she chose in honor of her stepfather, abbreviating it slightly) was on track for a singing career, making backup tracks (with Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson on Bobby Hebb’s “Sunny” in 1966), some of them for stars as prominent as Dionne Warwick and Aretha Franklin – although she was not actually working in the same space with them.
During one recording session for a commercial voice-over in 1967 she met Galt MacDermot, composer of the musical Hair. (It is reported that he was not wearing shoes at the time.) Offhandedly, he invited her to join the cast of his new show off-Broadway, and she jumped at the chance. Melba Moore moved to Broadway with the original cast of Hair as the character named Dionne, and after several months she replaced Diane Keaton in the role of Sheila. (Keaton had started as a “Waitress” and had moved to “Sheila” a month or so after the Broadway opening. The interchangeability of cast members in this highly unconventional show made it possible for Moore to become the first African-American actress to replace a white actress in a lead role on Broadway.)