There was a time when MELBA MOORE was a frequent visitor to the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. She enjoyed five UK chart entries between 1976 and 1983, breaking into the British Top 10 with the rousing Van McCoy-penned dance anthem, ‘This Is It.’ But it was in her native America where she experienced most success, racking up an astonishing thirty two hits on Billboard’s R&B chart during a fertile fifteen-year period spanning the years 1975-1990.
Blessed with a supple multi-octave voice and renowned for sustaining a single note for a lung-bursting amount of time – exemplified on her signature song, 1976’s ‘Lean On Me’ or on the 1986 R&B chart-topping ballad, ‘Falling’ – Melba began her career as a background vocalist before successfully auditioning for the stage musical ‘Hair’ in 1970. A stint in another Broadway production, ‘Purlie,’ followed, for which she earned a prestigious Tony award. A year later, in 1971, at the age of 26, she signed with Mercury Records and received a Grammy nomination for her debut LP, ‘I Got Love.’
It was at Buddah Records in the mid-’70s that Melba began to accumulate hit records, her first being the plaintive romantic ballad, ‘I Am His Lady,’ in 1975. A productive session with the legendary soul music producer and songwriter, Van McCoy, in 1976 yielded two of Melba’s most enduring records – ‘This Is It’ and ‘Lean On Me.’ A label switch to Epic in 1978 witnessed a US Top 20 smash with a soulful interpretation of the Bee Gees’ ‘You Stepped Into My Life.’ In 1981, Melba joined EMI America briefly – a deal masterminded by her then husband, Charles Huggins – before switching to its parent company, Capitol, where she stayed until 1990. That phase of her recording career was the most productive in terms of commercial success and saw her scoring two Stateside number one records – ‘A Little Bit More,’ a duet with Freddie Jackson, and the impassioned ballad, ‘Falling.’ In addition to that, infectious groove-based songs such as ‘Mind Up Tonight’ and ‘Love’s Comin’ At Ya’ established her as the queen of early ’80s dance floor R&B.
The 1990s witnessed Melba Moore drop off the soul radar as changing tastes in music and the record industry’s obsession with youth pushed mature performers into the background. Fast forward to 2012 and Melba Moore – who returned to recording with ‘Gift Of Love,’ a duets album with Phil Perry in 2009 – is preparing a comeback. Not only is there a new solo album in the pipeline but she’s also just announced that she’s visiting the UK and will perform here for the first time ever (at London’s Jazz Café on April 29th).
SJF’s Charles Waring recently caught up with Melba, who talked excitedly about her new recording venture as well as her keenly-anticipated trip to the UK and also looked back at key events in her long career…
I can’t believe that you’ve never performed in London before.
Yes, this will be my debut performance – my first concert performance. I’ve done some television promotions a very long time ago but I’ve never performed in concert there. Never.
What can we expect to hear from you in London?
We’ll be doing ‘Standing Right Here,’ ‘Pick Me Up, I’ll Dance,’ ‘This Is It,’ ‘Lean On Me,’ ‘Love Is Comin’ At Ya,’ ‘Mind Up Tonight’….
You have a new single out.
Yes, it’s called ‘Love Is’
I believe it’s taken from a new album you’re working on.
Well, it’s brand new music, which very often veteran artists sometimes don’t get a chance to do; the audience only want to hear the old things. So I think what’s happened with my life and my career is that I’ve had to make a new start and one of the great things is that my old music is being re-released and re-remembered both here (in the States) and in the UK. So it kind of brings everybody up to where I am now and I think it also allows me to show you what I look like, who I am now and what I sound like now. So it gives me an opportunity to do new music which means the challenge for me is to be my age – and be age-appropriate – but also be contemporary and relevant.
I’ve been working with a producer called Terry Silverlight and two other producers and they’ve got good, solid, R&B songs with good stories that are simple and positive but realistic. I like to inspire people so sometimes I might do that with a lot of yelling and screaming and riffing and high notes but you’ve got to have something to scream about so I’m looking for songs that have meanings. I’m a grown-up, I’m an adult, I’m mature now so I can’t sing fluffy things. They don’t have to be grim and serious but they do have to be sensitive.
When’s the album likely to come out?
Definitely before the end of this year. I’m going into the studio with the next bunch of songs on the 23rd of this month (February) and then from there we’re going to set time aside and just stay in the studio until it’s finished. I don’t think it will take me more than two or three months of steady work to finish actually recording it and then, of course, mix it.
Going back right beginning, at what age did you first show an interest in music?
Probably when I was too young to know! I probably knew I had a normal singing voice far as I can tell at about five or six years old. My mother was a single parent. She was a professional singer. She married my stepdad, who is still living. He’s 95, but he’s still a working musician. He made us – all of us, me and my sisters – take piano. I was nine at the time so I really got immersed in music from there on in to elementary school and junior high school. I was very solidly musically inclined because music was the centre of our family because our mother and daddy rehearsed with their live band in the house and we became very acquainted with some of the great artists during that time, like Sarah Vaughan and a lot of people that lived in New Jersey, which is a spawning ground for great musicians still. Then I went to art music high school and majored in vocal music and then I majored in music in college. So I think music really knocked me over the head around the time I got to go to high school because I had to decide what I was really going to focus on and that’s when I decided I would like to – even if I really didn’t have the talent to be a star – be in the arts.
So how did you get into the record industry?
I taught music education in public schools for about a year and a half. I was very good at it but I worked on trying to be a performer. My dad took me around to some of his agents in New York and one of them took me on and I met Valerie Simpson, and she was there in some music publisher’s office trying to get signed for songwriting. But she was also a great jingle singer, a writer and a backup singer. She brought me into the industry. She was just another singer then. That’s how I got into recording music. I started as a backup singer. But my first Broadway show came from that too. My first Broadway show was ‘Hair.’
How did that come about?
It was a recording session. We were invited to do backups on Galt McDermott’s performance of the music from ‘Hair,’ because he wrote the music for it. It primarily featured backup vocals and I was part of a bunch of people that were hired for that and when we finished the date, they invited everybody who was on the recording session to go audition for them for the play that was coming to Broadway. I auditioned for it and got into it. I didn’t know anything about Broadway or theatre.
I read somewhere that you replaced Diane Keaton in ‘Hair’. Is that right?
Yes, she was the original Sheila, but when she left I replaced her. So I wound up with the female lead actually and was the first black actress to replace a white actress in a lead role when Diane left.
You won a Tony award for your role in the musical ‘Purlie.’ How did it feel winning an award so early on in your career?
Kind of numb. I have tapes of the Tony award performance because I don’t really remember it. I was too scared. It was, to say the least, exciting, and I really have no idea what I said. I remember certain parts of it like looking down into the audience and seeing people like Lauren Bacall and Pearl Bailey. I have flashes of those but I can’t remember most of the programme. It was too numbing and I was too excited.
Did your deal with Mercury Records come from your success on stage?
Yes, actually Mercury Records came to me while I was still in ‘Purlie.’
What are your memories of those Mercury days?
I just remember there was so much going on because I rehearsed and recorded the music during the break between the matinee and the evening show. There was so much going on. I don’t know how I did it all. It’s like everything just exploded all at once and you have to say, yes, ‘cos that’s when it happens; I knew that from my parents being in the industry, that when it comes just brace yourself, try to calm down and do as much as you can.
So your parents didn’t mind you being in the music business?
Both of them warned me and my sisters and brothers not to go into the industry and to get a real job although they were in it. I guess they were so concerned about the insecurity of it and the things that could happen to you. So they warned us, but I said, well, if I fail at it, I can always come back and be an educator. So that was my attitude. And they were behind me but then they were really kind of disappointed in the beginning because first of all, I was really shy and it didn’t seem like I had the personality of a person who could stomach the music business. I was very shy. So they said: “oh no, get yourself to the post office or somewhere else: don’t go into that, it’s too difficult.” But when they saw me in ‘Hair’ they were amazed and shocked and then when they saw me in ‘Purlie,’ we were all shocked at that because I never had any experience with theatre or the spoken word. That was just a shock. I think we were all shocked that I had so much courage.
Eventually you joined Buddah Records in 1975. How did that come about?
By that time I had my manager/husband, Charles Huggins, so I had some help, somebody leading and guiding my career. He went out and really got Buddah Records and then handled my going with Epic Records and then later on with Capitol Records. He’s the reason why I had a good recording career.
At Buddah you worked with Van McCoy. What was he like to work with?
My husband found Van McCoy, we stalked him! I loved working with him. First of all, ‘Lean On Me’ was something that I brought to Van – but I discovered it on the Queen’s, Aretha Franklin’s record, before that (it was the non-album flipside to Aretha’s1971 single ‘Spanish Harlem’). Of course, I, like everybody else, was a diehard fan of Aretha’s. I love everything that she has ever done; I don’t care what it is or what it was. And that was one song that I took my heart: I adored it and started to perform it live. My very first live concert was at Lincoln Centre, because it all came out of the Broadway situation. I had my own arrangement of ‘Lean On Me,’ so I had been performing it by the time I had got to Buddah and got with Van. I brought my arrangement of it and of course he added his strings. And he was just an incredible arranger, everybody knows that. But I brought that to him because I just loved the song.
Then you had a hit with a version of the Bee Gees’ ‘You Stepped into My Life.’
I credit that again to my ex-husband Charles Huggins putting me with Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, songwriters and producers at that time. They did the arrangement on it so it was a combination of finding out okay what’s going to be a hit record and you’re a Broadway star so what kind of a music bandwagon can you kind of jump on and make it your own? ‘You Stepped Into My Life’ came from that Bee Gee’s album (‘Children Of The World’) where every single in that record was a smash hit, but that was the only one that I think hadn’t been released. So we could take our pick of anything that was on that album. It probably would have been a hit because they were on such a roll with good, solid, hit music. I’m saying that because sometimes great music is not hit music. The combination of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead – their Philly sound and its masculine funk rhythms – with my little Betty Boop voice, was a good combination.