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.

 

Category: Features | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kool Kat of the Week #2: The Better Half Will Reach You: Jazz Singer Yolanda Rabun Is Keeping It So Real at the Atlanta Jazz Festival

Posted on: May 23rd, 2012 By:

Photo courtesy of Yolanda Rabun.

The Atlanta Jazz Festival brings a national and international who’s who of the art form to Piedmont Park for an amazing free concert every Memorial Day Weekend. With so many incredible artists, we decided we couldn’t pick just one, so this week, look out for two Kool Kats.

Kool Kat #2 is Yolanda Rabun, one real lady of jazz who’ll be singing both her own originals and classic pieces on Memorial Day Monday, May 28 at 3 p.m. The former Atlantan now lives in North Carolina but is excited to be returning home in support her debut CD SO REAL, and we can’t wait to hear her, whether she’s channeling classic chanteuse Billie Holliday or showing us with her voice how the true meaning of love embodies peace and harmony and even when true love means it’s time to leave. She has sung with Isaac Hayes for President Ronald Reagan, performed with Clay Aiken, been the lead vocalist of the Stanley Baird Group opening for Jennifer Holliday and traveled the world. All at the same time as serving as corporate counsel for a Top 5 Forbes company. We caught up with her to find out more about her eclectic background, what her mother taught her about music and life, and what it means to be So Real…

How did you discover jazz?

My mom introduced me to Nancy Wilson and Nina Simone when I was younger. Billie Holliday was a really big hero of mine. And Diane Reeves. My background is musical theater. I always think of musical theater as a story being told to music and that’s what jazz does too. As I got older I was called by jazz bands asking me to come play with them, and I began stepping out. In fact, throughout school I would sing with different jazz bands. I’d do things here and there, but I really got into my jazz vocal career five to six years ago when I became the official lead jazz singer for a band in North Carolina.

Who are some of your favorite classic jazz singers and why?

Billie Holliday, her music changed during the course of her career and that was very impressionable on me because it gave me meaning behind what jazz what can be. When I think of jazz, I think of improvisation—feeling through music based on what’s going on around you, being more straightforward with tones, more purposeful with meaning. As Billie got older and had been through more, her music became slower, energy more focused either in the emotion of anger or the emotion of sorrow. That was amazing for me. This woman could take music and deliver a message basically through the emotion going on in her life and the song. That’s a skill that I’ve worked on through my years studying music.

Sara Vaughn and Dinah Washington also made an impression on me, and Nancy Wilson is one of my biggest influences.

Trumpeter Al Strong and Yolanda Rabun at Raleigh's Artsplosure Festival 2012. Photo credit: Frank Myers.

Do you consider your style to be traditional jazz or contemporary jazz?

I don’t even think I want to be labeled. I like to be considered both so I’m not put in one corner or other. There’s a photo of me with a flower in my hair on my album, and that’s part of my brand. When you see it, you probably think Billie Holliday. I almost want to you, I sing traditional jazz in live shows. But listen to all of my music and you’ll find out it’s a mix. I want to send the message that whether I am singing contemporary or classic jazz as it was back in the day, whether soulful jazz or gospelly jazz, in the end it is jazz. And jazz is delivering emotion through the actual sound you hear in the music.

There must be a great story about how you came to sing and do a recording with Isaac Hayes and sing for President Reagan?

I was a junior at Northside School of the Arts and President Reagan was visiting. There was a big production and they wanted a song. They said Isaac Hayes was producing it and my face lit up. When I met him, he said he was so glad I was singing it. He was amazing. He was very caring about what needed to happen but also very stern and concerned that I was at my best. When I did it, it was on CNN and all the news stations. As soon as the song was over, I got so excited that I turned around and shook President Reagan’s hand. The Secret Service didn’t expect that. But he grabbed me and hugged me. It was a great experience all around, meeting the President and working with Isaac Hayes.

You often quote the statement: “Half of what I say is meaningless but I only say it so that the other half may reach you.” Where did you get that from?

It was something my mother said to me. I always wondered what she was saying. But I know now it means to pay attention to everything that is said since the portion that you need the most comes when you are ready to receive it.  The story about Isaac Hayes and being able to meet the president—what does that all mean? Mr. Hayes said a lot to me in the course of our working, I remember him reiterating that I would be a singing lawyer and that I am! In the end, it’s about having been blessed and continually being blessed to be able to work with really great people in my career. I’m based in NorthCarolina now, have traveled all around the world and I get to come back home to Atlanta for the Atlanta Jazz Festival. Did you know I used to sing the theme song for Atlanta and now I am coming back toAtlantato sing my music. I’m really, really excited.

Can you take a little about your debut CD SO REAL?

SO REAL is smooth and soul jazz. I started writing the song “So Real” for my husband. It was exciting for me, doing a demo and getting back into the field of music. As a corporate lawyer,  I’d gone full surge into that career but I wanted to get back to music. I wrote the song “So Real” as part of a demo and then set it aside.  Finally, the hard start of stepping out on my own and starting on my own album began in 2010. Because everything became  “so real,” that’s the music I wanted to sing and make my own. I took the single and created a full HD video, and then it toured to Portugal, Spain, Turkey and Jordan. I sang for it for the US troops because what they are doing for us was so real. Then I finished the album and took it back to Diego Garcia, and the  response  was amazing. The “So Real” song and album did well on the charts for the independent labels in the UK. I can’t even tell you how overwhelmed and excited I am.

Can you give us a taste of what you’ll be performing at the Atlanta Jazz Festival?

Hi, I’m Yolanda Rabun here and this is my new contemporary jazz album “So Real.” That’s a big deal. I’ve been the lead singer for a jazz group and now I’m stepping out and here I am. You will see a mixture of a lot of musical influences, Nancy Wilson,  Billie Holliday and others that will surprise a few. I will do some songs from my SO REAL album, and a song by one of the biggest influences in my life out of all my influences, Gladys Knight! My songs involve a journey of love, a journey of freedom, a journey of harmony and peace. My show is centered around the idea of real love and what that is, whether it’s blossoming, wonderful and happy or searching and unclear. In the end it’s about harmony and peace.

I’m from Florida but grew up in Atlanta. I went to Warren T Jackson Elementary, SuttonMiddle School and Northside School of the Performing Arts. I met my husband, Rick, in Atlanta, I was married in Atlanta (formerly known as Yolanda Williams) , one of my children was christened in Atlanta at my home church (Cascade United Methodist), my mom, (Kappitola) is in Atlanta where I was raised as her only child.  Atlanta is my home. I’m coming full circle. I started in Atlanta with my music, went off and became a lawyer, and now I’m coming back with my music.

Category: Kool Kat of the Week | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

© 2020 ATLRetro. All Rights Reserved. This blog is powered by Wordpress