– L. Arthalia Cravin
If there ever was a woman whose life is the personification of Langston Hughes’ 1922 poem entitled, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” it is Melba Moore.
Recently TVOne featured Melba’s life on its hit series “Unsung” that chronicles the “ups and downs” of stardom. Melba’s life is spell-binding. She was born New York in 1945 and raised in Harlem until she was nine. After her mother remarried she moved to Newark, New Jersey. Her mother was a singer, her father was a big band leader and saxophonist, and her stepfather, Clement Moorman, was also a musician. Melba shortened his last name to become her stage name Moore. She graduated from college and began work as a music teacher. She soon realized that her early exposure to music beckoned her to other pursuits. She left teaching and headed to New York where she learned to dance, act, and sing.
Melba began her professional singing career by replacing Diane Keaton in the original 1967 Broadway musical “Hair.” Melba had a voice that was truly distinctive. Someone once said that Melba could hold a note so long that you could go to the bathroom and come back and Melba would still be holding the same note—perfectly in tune. I saw Melba in 1970 when a friend and I hopped in a yellow, convertible Corvette, and drove from Ann Arbor, Michigan to New York City to see the off-Broadway play Purlie Victorious. The play was based on a story written by Ossie Davis. Melba later won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical. Melba played the roll of the maid named Lutiebelle, who was in love with Purlie, played by Cleavon Little. Several actors who went on to achieve television and movie success appeared in Purlie, including Cleavon Little, Sherman Hemsley who later starred in “The Jeffersons,” and Robert Guillaume who started in “Benson.” Melba and Clifton Davis, who started in the television show “Amen” and other roles, were at one time a real-life couple, who also starred together in their own television musical variety show
Moore later became the victim to what so many black performers have encountered– crooked accountants and managers who rob them blind. After working hard to achieve success, Melba learned that her accountant and lawyers had stolen every dime she ever earned. When she called her accountant she learned that had left town. Moore returned to Newark broke and nearly broken. Not be held down, Melba garnered sufficient strength to start over again. Starting in 1970 Melba recorded a string of hits that topped the charts. She also starred in her own television show called “Melba,” but the show was instantly canceled. In 1975 Moore married Charles Huggins, a record manager and business promoter. Together they formed Hush Productions that signed numerous successful artists. Melba had one daughter and according to “Unsung,” Hush Productions was worth upwards of $20 million and Melba’s life and career were at their peak. According to “Unsung” in 1990, out of the clear blue, Melba was given “Final Divorce Decree” papers. She had no idea that her husband had even filed for divorce later discovering that her signature had been forged. The final decree left her stunned and broke. When she finally confronted her husband he ridiculed her to her face, admitted infidelity, boasted that he was the “Big dog,” and, in her face told her, that he did it and “What can you do about it?” Melba later learned that all her savings as well as the investment company were gone. She was also defamed with untrue rumors that she was addicted to drugs. Melba went on public assistance with a media eating frenzy. She later filed for bankruptcy and lost custody of her daughter. Again, Melba returned to Newark, broke and nearly broken.
But Melba bounced back returning to music and acting including a role in “The Fighting Temptations” with Cuba Gooding, Jr, and Beyonce Knowles. In 2002 Melba recorded a CD gospel album entitled “I’m Still Here.” Melba is still recording and performing. When Melba sings “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand” hers rendition comes up out the depths of despair and hope. Melba’s life gives true substance to the power of “Get Back Up!” and Maya Angelou’s, “Still I Rise.”
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
Melba Moore is still standing.
Copyright 2011 – L. Arthalia Cravin. All rights Reserved. No part of this commentary may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission from the author.