More Than Still Standing: Melba Moore Talks About Growing Up in Jazz, the Summer of Love, and Living the Dream Again in GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY

Posted on: Feb 16th, 2013 By:

Melba Moore, 1985. Photo credit: James Mitchell.

Legendary R&B vocalist Melba Moore stars as the bombastic director of a Southern church choir in Lolita Snipes‘ gospel musical GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY, playing Feb. 14-24 at 14th Street Playhouse. A hilarious behind-the-scenes look inside a southern African-American church faced with a vibrant new pastor from New York, the play marks a bit of irony in that Melba is a born-and-bred New Yorker herself.

Because Melba is best known for a string of ’70s and ’80s Billboard hits starting with “I Got Love,” it’s easy to forget that her first big break came on Broadway when she replaced Diane Keaton in HAIR. She went on to win a Tony Award for playing Lultiebelle in PURLIE and appeared with Eartha Kitt in TIMBUKTU. Then her recording career took off, she started touring, and would not return to the theater until after a painful break-up with her husband. She used her remarkable life story as the backdrop for a one-woman play, I’M STILL STANDING, and soon was back on Broadway as Fantine in LES MISERABLES. Since then she has continued her comeback, including appearing with Beyonce and Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS (2003) and recording a new CD entitled FOREVER MOORE on her own label, A’Moore Music.

ATLRetro recently had the pleasure of interviewing Melba, and we couldn’t resist not just asking about her role but also her own Retro experiences growing up in a musical family in New York in one of the most exciting jazz music eras, the summer of love, working with Eartha Kitt, and much more. The conversation turned into a who’s who history lesson of some of the top names in recording which we couldn’t be happier to share.

How did you first get involved with GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY?

Lolita Snipes, the producer and writer of GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY, and her partner and husband, Jerome [Snipes],  got in touch with my manager and myself. We met in New York, and she said she had been watching me for quite a long time and knew I would be prefect for the role. I was a little surprised because though I do have a Tony Award for a comedy performance, I haven’t done a lot of comedy. She said the main reason she wanted me for the role was the music. She wanted the Melba Moore sound. She also wanted to make sure born-again Christians were involved in the play, and she wanted me because I had a reputation of being amenable, in harmony with the person in charge. She wanted to make sure that it was a real Christian play with the real Christian spirit, which is love.

You aren’t from the south but you certainly have a lot of experience with New York City having grown up there. Is there anything particular which resonates to you about this story personally?

It’s great in terms of a family culture because pretty much all of us originated from the south because we came here as slaves. We were farmers and eventually moved to the north, and we still have cultural clashes between north and south. Northerners are often considered educated and uppity by Southerners. These cultural clashes are nice food for comedy.

My mother was a professional singer and away all the time so I was raised in New York by a nanny who never learned to read or write, but came from a family of tobacco growers and sharecroppers. She was trying to get off the farm and get a job that was not so hard even if it was as a domestic or nanny. The thing that set many African-American families free was our music and the music industry, so my family was typical of that combination.

Tell us about your part and did you do anything in particular to prepare for it.

THE FIGHTING TEMPTATIONS. Look at the role that LaTanya Richardson – she’s the wife of Samuel L Jackson – played in that. She was feisty, bossy; she runs everybody. She doesn’t care who you are, she’s the boss. She will bring you down to size all the time. She’s a very selfish, mean-spirited ogre. That’s my part.

But it’s not dark or brutal. This is a Christian musical, so we don’t want to tell the bad news. She is not mean or evil. That’s one of the things that sets apart gospel plays or musicals. You’re not telling a negative story nor sympathizing with the bad guy.

This musical just sounds like a lot of fun. Is there a favorite part that you’d like to share?

It’s going to be so much fun. First of all, gospel comedies are the funniest type of comedy, and maybe one of the reasons they are is they don’t pander to the lowest elements of people. They don’t resort to cursing or really poking fun at people. They don’t have to be deep, but really have to be funny. They have to be joyful, really lift your spirits. That’s the point of it.

You grew up in a musical family. Your mother was a singer, your father a saxophonist and your stepfather a jazz pianist. Can you talk a little bit about growing up with jazz in the golden age of the 1940s and 1950s, maybe share a favorite memory?

My stepfather [Clement Moorman] is 97 years old. He still plays the piano and keeps his art. He plays better than ever before. My mother, though, has passed away. I grew up in an environment with a passionate love for music, and in an age when African-American artists had to be 10 times better because of racism. I grew up meeting Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. I thought I was going to be a piano player. I thought I’d be the next Horace Silver. I knew I was not going to be the next Oscar Peterson. My brother and I learned how to play these piano solos because we were so passionately enmeshed in this music. We were equally impassioned by classical music so also Leontyne Price or Marian Anderson. As I look back, it’s not just nostalgia, it just was truly a golden age. I majored in music in high school. I didn’t know if I had enough talent but I knew it was going to be my life’s work. I didn’t know if I would be a musician or singer, but I grew up listening also to Miles Davis and Nancy Wilson. I was totally enmeshed and absorbed in their recording.

Who was your favorite jazz performer in those early days and why? Outside of your family, of course.

They kept changing. Bill Evans and Horace Silver were two of our favorites. We’d sing all the solos. The Adderley Brothers, Nat Adderley, and the sax player Art Farmer. I can’t remember them all. There was just a plethora. I also loved Melba Liston because she had my name. And Ella Fitzgerald. I can sing her solos now, but I couldn’t then.

What was it like spending the summer of love in New York City and ending up cast in HAIR?

It was very unexpected. I was teaching music from kindergarten thru age 12 of high school in northern New Jersey, and I quit because I felt like if I stayed in teaching, I never was going to find out if I had enough talent to be a singing artist. My father took me to New York, where I met Valerie Simpson, who got me involved in overdub singing, At one of the recording sessions, Galt MacDermott, who wrote the music for HAIR, asked us all if we could come and sing for the director, choreographer and producer because they were still looking for strong voices. I was the only one who said yes. It was like I can’t even describe it – moving to another planet.

What was it like working with Eartha Kitt in TIMBUKTU?

She definitely was an icon and an artiste and her own self-person. She was intimidating in a sense. She was so strong and so confident and so good, and my personality was totally opposite. I was just starting to get some confidence now, but I have a gentle body language. We’re both petite women but total opposites. She was a cat and I was a kitty.

You started acting in musical theater in your twenties in HAIR and then winning the Tony for PURLIE, but then concentrated on your music career. How did you end up coming back to Broadway in 1995 to play Fantine in LES MISERABLES?

After TIMBUKTU, I went on tour and had my first hit record. I did 10 to 15 years of recording and touring. Then my marriage to my husband, who had been responsible for my success, disintegrated. During that time, I was trying to stay alive, much less stay in the industry. I did a one-woman play [SWEET SONGS OF THE SOUL, later renamed I’M STILL STANDING], and I began to climb back up the mountain. Richard Jay-Alexander, the casting director for LES MISERABLES on Broadway, saw me in Florida in my own play. He said he came in to see the play., but what he saw different sides of Melba Moore that he had never known. He had only seen me in PURLIE. He didn’t know I had a classical voice, or the other aspects of personality. It was thanks to I’M STILL STANDING that Lolita and Jerome found me, too. It was a wonderful audition piece for me.

You were the first African-American to play Fantine, the role that Anne Hathaway is favored for an Oscar this year. Can you talk a little about that experience?

I was just trying to survive, and then someone takes me and puts me into that role. When I got into it and realized what it was about, I thought, God put me here. How do you go from nothing to a lead role in LES MIZ? It showed me this is my destiny, where my good luck will happen. It was so much more than just playing a role and was a natural one to me.

It seems like certain songs play special roles at different times in one’s life. You have a long repertoire. Is there one song from it that means more now than it ever before, and if yes, why?

There are two songs. One is “I Got Love” from PURLIE, and the other is “Lean on Me,” written by Van McCoy. The longer I sing it, the more that I see that the song is my life. It’s always relevant, and the longer I sing it, because it is about your life going the right way, the more powerful it is again. It doesn’t depend on any age, any gender gap. It’s about people coming together, and the place that unites us is that magic of music which unites us. Some things pass away. With GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY, this play, I am beginning again at a fresh point. All those things that are retro and nostalgic have a fresh life again. That’s what music can be. In pop culture, we try to make things old and passing away, but that’s not what art is. Art lives.

Purchase tickets for GOOD GOD A’MIGHTY here or at the Woodruff Arts Center Box Office.

 

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Kool Kat of the Week: A Jazz Interlude With Kayla Taylor: Why She Loves ‘30s/’40s Classics, the Unsurprising Success of Her New CD and the Pleasures of Playing the Vintage Artmore Hotel This Friday

Posted on: Nov 16th, 2011 By:

Atlantans who love classic jazz won’t be surprised to hear that Kayla Taylor’s new and sixth CD YOU”D BE SURPRISED hit #23 on the CMJ Jazz charts this week and is receiving airplay across the nation and throughout Europe. Instead, we’re liable to say it’s delovely and just one of those things that had to happen. But then local audiences have had the treat of listening to this Atlanta native and chanteuse extraordinaire resurrect top tunes from the ‘30s,  ‘40s and ’50s  live for a decade or more with musical partner/guitarist Steve Moore. And because this Friday night, Kayla will be performing at one of Atlanta’s coolest vintage venues, the courtyard of the Artmore Hotel in Midtown whose building dates back to 1924, we thought the timing couldn’t be more perfect to make her Kool Kat of the Week.

One of those rare actual Atlanta natives, Kayla literally grew up singing, in her school chorus, church choir and in the shower, but winning two awards in a 7th grade talent show cemented her ambition to make music a career. Along the way, she has performed country music, gospel, R&B and classic and original rock ‘n’ roll until she finally found her heart resided in the golden era of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin—all of whom are represented on YOU’D BE SURPRISED’s playlist. ATLRetro caught up with Kayla to find out more about why she decided to embrace one of our favorite musical eras, what she has planned for this Friday night at the Artmore, her new CD, what’s next and where you might catch her singing while shopping…

ATLRetro: According to your bio, you always sang even as a little girl, and through the years, in addition to jazz, you’ve performed country, gospel, R&B and rock n roll, too. How did you come to embrace vintage jazz?

Kayla Taylor: I have always loved vintage jazz. The charm and romance of the ‘30s and ‘40s was something that always attracted me. I love how clever the lyrics are. When I was a kid, I watched a lot of old movies that were filmed and set during that time period and found all of it to be a natural embrace. Then in the mid-‘80s, Linda Ronstadt—one of my rock heroes—came out with her Big Band albums with The Nelson Riddle Orchestra and the romance started all over again.

Photo credit: John Lee Matney.

I understand that your earliest award was for singing Irene Cara’s “Out Here on My Own” from FAME? What’s the story and how big an early influence on you was the movie, FAME?

I wouldn’t say that FAME had a big influence on me, but the music and Irene Cara’s voice definitely did. I loved the pure emotion that was in her voice when she sang “Out Here On My Own.” The school talent show was coming up, and so I decided that I’d sing that song. I practiced for weeks in my room with the door closed. I must have played that record hundreds of times. My parents had no idea. I wasn’t trying to win—I just wanted to sing in front of all those people. I was also in a girls’ trio that performed “Sincerely”— a tune from the ‘50s. Well, the trio took 1st place, and I took 2nd place. I was so thrilled and excited. My parents had always been supportive of whatever I wanted to try, but at that point, they jumped completely onboard with my singing adventures.

Who are some of your favorite classic jazz composers and performers, and why do you think their music remains so timeless and relevant today?

Cole Porter, The Gershwins, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer . . . there are so many amazing composers from that era that I adore, but these are just a few of my top picks. As far as performers, Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Etta James, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. I think the music is so well-crafted that it can’t help but remain timeless and relevant. Most of the songs are about love or the loss of love—that will always be timeless and relevant.

How did you meet Steve Moore and end up working together?

Great Story! Steve Moore was in a rock band called A Fine Line—an original rock project. They ran an ad in the Creative Loafing looking for a female vocalist. (That’s what you did 19 years ago—you ran an ad in a printed publication if you were looking for a musician.) I called about the position. They sent me a demo of some of their tunes, and I thought they were really cool, so I learned them and showed up at the audition. Later that night, Steve Moore was the one who called me to tell me I had gotten the job. That was the beginning of an amazing relationship as friends, co-writers and business partners. We went through several original rock projects together (A Fine Line, OneWithout) and even an acoustic duo (The Adventures of Kayla & Steve). One day we were talking about all these great jazz standards that we both loved and how much we would both love to play that music one day and to have our own jazz combo. Five minutes later we had made a decision to start working towards that direction. That was over 10 years ago, and we’ve been at it ever since.

Kayla Taylor and Steve Moore. Photo credit: John Lee Matney.

Can you tell us a bit about YOU’D BE SURPRISED came together, and what it means to you that it’s doing so well?

To say we are excited is an understatement. OVER THE MOON with excitement might scratch the surface. All of this came about because we hired an expert to handle it for us. We’re indy artists—SmartyKat Records—that’s our own label. We don’t have the connections personally to make this kind of airplay and exposure happen, so we hired Kari Gaffney and Jeff Williams of Kari-On Productions to handle all of it for us. Kari has over 21 years experience promoting and marketing CDs to radio and print media. I have never seen anyone work as hard as she has been working. I don’t know when she even has time to sleep. She’s done a fabulous job for us.

What’s your favorite song on the CD to perform and why?

WOW. To pick one tune—that’s tough because I love every song that’s on the CD. It’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. If I have to pick one, though, I’d have to say the title track—“You’d Be Suprised.” What I love about that song are the great lyrics. They are so clever!!! I love the Marilyn Monroe version.

The Jazz in the Courtyard series at the Artmore, where the building dates back to 1924, promises an urban escape with “sultry music, sexy vibes and sinful drinks.” And the signature cocktail is “The Prohibition.” Can we surmise that the goal is to create a speakeasy atmosphere, and will you be tossing some Roaring ‘20s tunes into the mix?

Artmore is a great hotel, and the courtyard is a beautiful venue. We have a great time playing there and love that they have embraced our music. We’ll still be hanging out in the ‘30s and ‘40s era but love that they have created a speakeasy feel—with a modern twist. All concerts take place in the courtyard, and there is a fabulous firepit and heaters to keep everything warm. If it should rain or turn freezing cold—we’ll move the show into their basement speakeasy lounge. I think we might be good to have this final concert of the season out in the courtyard, though.

Anything else you’d like to share about Friday’s gig at the Artmore?

Reservations are not required, but if you want to reserve a seat, you can email them at sales@artmorehotel.com. Come prepared to have a great time. I have a retro-styled microphone that is wireless so I can move all over the courtyard, and I love to come by and sing to anyone who seems like they might be receptive. Trust me, though—if it’s clear you’re there with a date and you just want to make eyes at each other—I’ll stay out of your way.

Where else will you be playing in Atlanta soon, and any plans for a tour to promote YOU’D BE SURPRISED?

Our next big show will be at Feast in Decatur on Saturday, December 3. This will be a great show because it’s the beginning of the holiday & Christmas season, and we’ll have some of the great jazzy Christmas tunes from the era to throw into the mix. This show generally sells out, so it’s a really good idea to call them to make a reservation. We play from 7:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. with the five-piece combo. The food at Feast is fantastic and we always have a great time. [Call] 404.370.2000 – for reservations.  As far as a tour to promote YOU’D BE SURPRISED—definitely something we are thinking long and hard about we just have to make the numbers work out.

Do you really burst into song at the grocery store? If yes, where do you shop?

Not every time I’m in the grocery store, but yes, I have been known to burst into song in the middle of a shopping excursion. My sweet husband, Scott, has been so good about dealing with those moments and I know they have been embarrassing—but sometimes a song just wells up inside and I have to blurt it out. For the record, my favorite place to shop locally is Publix—the stores are smaller and easier to navigate and everyone is super-friendly. If I’m going to travel away from my neighborhood to shop, you’ll find me at Whole Foods.

Finally, we’ve got to ask. What would we be most surprised to know about you?

Two things: first, I am an avid gardener. I love digging holes and putting plants in them and then nurturing them and watching them grow. It fascinates me! The next thing . . . I actually suffer from stage fright on occasion. It’s true.

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