Even with a career that has spanned more than four decades and included a Tony Award, four Grammy nominations, television shows and movies, R&B legend Melba Moore has no plans to wind down.
“I’m just getting started,” she says.
Throughout her life, Moore, who graduated from Montclair State in 1970 with a music education degree, has been both the student and the teacher – always ready to share her knowledge and talent, and eager to learn something new.
With the recent release of Forever Moore, a compilation album, and a new reality TV show titled Step into My Life in the works, Moore is still doing both.
“In my career, I have become a magnet for new songwriters, producers and promoters,” she says. “There are still so many possibilities for work and growth.”
Her music education began when she was a child and discovered her voice and her love of piano after her stepfather signed her up for piano lessons.
“My mother was a singer and Daddy wrote, performed and made arrangements. He made us all take piano lessons,” she says. “I wanted to be a jazz piano player and a dancer. But I knew my piano playing could never be as good as my singing.”
Her parents urged her to go to Montclair State, where she studied with a professor who also performed with the Metropolitan Opera and encouraged her to embrace her culture. “We worked on Italian arias, but he encouraged me to sing African American hymns, to be the best of who I am,” Moore says.
This lesson stuck with her and throughout her career, she has taught other musicians and students to do the same.
“I encourage young people to develop their spirituality – that takes you beyond thinking about yourself, your family, your friends and helps you to develop into the best person you can be,” says Moore, a born-again Christian. “Then, you’ll be a star no matter what.”
Moore’s career took off even before graduation, when she landed a role in the original Broadway production of Hair, starring Diane Keaton. When Keaton left, Moore took over the role, becoming the first African American actress to replace a white actress in a starring role. In 1970, she performed in Purlie and was the first African American woman to win a Tony as a featured actress.
From Broadway, she went on to have her own TV series and a chart-topping recording career in the ’70s and ’80s with such R&B hits as “Love’s Comin’ at Ya,” “Living for Your Love” and “Read My Lips.” But by the ’90s, she was mismanaged, unemployed and looking to start over.
In 1995 she returned to Broadway in the lead role of Fantine in Les Misérables, and later toured with her own one-woman show and started recording albums again. Through the years, she has acted in numerous Broadway shows, TV shows and movies including The Fighting Temptations with Beyoncé and Cuba Gooding Jr. in 2003.
She was the first female artist to perform a nonoperatic solo concert at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, and in 2015 she was inducted into the Official R&B Hall of Fame in Detroit. Earlier this year, she released Forever Moore, a retrospective of her work in gospel, pop, dance, soul, jazz and R&B. The album and her recent performances have received rave reviews.“I’m a person who never gives up,” she says. “…I love being a performer, even with all the difficulties, I would do it again. You’ll have challenges with everything – it’s great to have challenges doing something you absolutely adore.”
During her student-teaching, she learned lessons in the classroom that also proved invaluable in her music and acting career.
“I met a marvelous, gifted, talented teacher who absolutely inspired me,” she says. “Observing her work, I realized I wanted to be a student and a teacher for the rest of my life.”
And Melba Moore has excelled at learning. She learned a range of styles. She learned how to preserve her vocal chords. She learned, albeit the hard way, how to manage her own business and she learned how to give back. She combines performing with community service, supporting nonprofits that help with marriage and relationship issues, women’s shelters, hunger and domestic violence.
“Education led me into community service, communicating effectively and realizing it’s not all about me,” says Moore, who received the Distinguished Alumni award for the College of the Arts in May. “It protects your work ethic – not just doing it for you.”