Famous recording artist and Broadway star Melba Moore, 70, stopped by the Austin Satellite Senior Center, 5071 W. Congress Pkwy., last month to reconnect with old fans like Barbara McGowan, a member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board of Commissioners.
“She and I are from the same generation and that’s music you can listen to,” McGowan said after Moore’s June 24 visit. “You can understand what she’s saying and you’re not jumping all over the room.”
The famous singer was in Chicago to promote to her new Gospel album “Still Standing” and to share aspects of her dramatic personal highs and lows with fans.
Moore, the daughter of noted saxophonist Teddy Hill and R&B singer Bonnie Davis, was born in New York City. After a stint teaching music, she got her big break when she cast as Dionne in the Broadway musical “Hair” alongside Ronnie Dyson and Diane Keaton, who she would eventually replace in the principal role of Sheila Franklin.
The role would be the catalyst to other leading Broadway parts. In 1970, Moore won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Lutiebelle in the musical “Purlie.”
Moore’s first big hit as a singer was the 1976 Billboard Hot 100 single “This Is It.” That hit was followed by a string of popular and award-winning songs throughout the 1970s, such as “Lean on Me,” “Spanish Harlem,” and “You Stepped Into My Life.”
Years of abuse from her former husband, Charles Huggins, would eventually culminate in the loss of her daughter and, through desperation, a trip to the welfare office. Her fall from grace was chronicled by the TV One documentary series “Unsung” several years ago.
Now, however, Moore is back on her feet. During an interview after last month’s Austin performance, Moore was preparing for a tour of the UK and in the middle of a 10-city U.S. tour to promote her one woman show. She said her ambition is to build her own theater company from the ground up.
“I want it to be a place for other people to work and in all areas of the business,” said Moore, who also commented on the current digital landscape that has made her rebirth possible.
“You can reach millions of people with the push of a button,” she said. “That’s an amazing thing available to us that wasn’t before.”
When asked whether the new digital technology would somewhat alienate her fans who are from an era dominated by much older technologies, Moore said that she encounters many people her age who are nonetheless connected to social media and the wide internet with the assistance of younger relatives and friends.
“They can have people help them,” she said. “So there’s still a connection. People of whatever culture or lifestyle or position can participate in this [new digital landscape].”
On the state of community-based arts, Moore was optimistic, adding that there’s concrete progress that African Americans and local performers can build on.
“I think we’re doing fine in terms of developing new pieces and new works,” she said. “We’re writing our own stuff. When I was growing up, blacks couldn’t get backing. We didn’t know the business part of it or the process. Now, we know.”
But the business aspect of theater, Moore insisted, is almost an aside compared to its essence.
“Theater, like music, has to start from family, from the culture, from the ‘hood,'” she said. “It has to have an identity. Each community should have its own style and feel and identity. Those are elements the community should nurture.
“The arts are in need of nurturing and support, though. We need people like myself and others who have experience in a variety of areas to focus on the arts and bring it back into the community more. It’s very important to nurture that spirit of community.”