This New Year’s Eve, Discogs supports The Very Last Ultimate Disco Extravaganza, and a collection of fantastic adventures it will surely be. Collecting some of the most experienced and respected individuals in the world of disco dating back to the early 70’s, New York City will be the lucky holding place of this very special one-off celebration of dance music, DJs, and singers.
Joining the esteemed line up is Melba Moore, who’s career in music and acting is a rich one, winning Tony Awards, releasing hit albums, and breaking significant racial barriers along the way. Moore had her first big break replacing Diane Keaton in the cast of Hair in 1969, and went on to star in other Broadway shows, television programs, and movies. Of course, she also released several albums working alongside disco forefather Van McCoy that would forever solidify her status as one of the biggest names in 70’s entertainment. Moore was kind enough to take a few moments out of her day to explain some of the important groundwork she laid as a young African-American artist, and sheds some light on why modern audiences are clamoring for some of that old classic disco magic!
You come from a very musical background with both parents being musicians. Can you talk about the influence of music in your life as a child?
My mother was a professional singer, and also a single parent when I was born, so part of the dynamic there was my family was broken in the early days. There really was no music in my life because she was gone all the time. My father, Teddy Hill, was a famous musician at the time, however, I never had any influence from him, so the interesting thing was there was no music in my life until my mother married my stepfather. I was already nine years old by then so I was a bit of a late bloomer! My stepfather was a piano player, so he made me take piano lessons and that was a very powerful introduction of music into my life personally. When I became a student of music taking piano lessons, my parents would rehearse at home, so it was like having a live band in your living room! It became a very dynamic scene in our house as I experienced the passion they had for music — it was also a tricky thing because being a musician didn’t pay much, but when I saw the passion they had for music, it just sort of became the centerpiece of our lives. Going back to my father, who was also a piano player, he loved all the jazz musicians that came a generation before that, like Oscar Peterson, and Art Tatum, and others in his own generation, while I was influenced by people like Art Farmer and singers like Ella Fitzgerald who were these strong black icons — this all meant that we were influenced by many generations of music at once. Singers like Nat King Cole was the first black person we saw on TV, so it was exciting to have these influences of all different kinds! And let’s not forget talents like Mahalia Jackson! For me, this is what the expression of America is: multi-cultural voices coming together. We were African Americans coming into our own as citizens as well as artists. This is when I realized I wanted to be involved with music in some kind of way.
Can you explain how the geography of your surroundings influenced the trajectory of your career?
I started off life in Manhattan, then we moved over to Newark, New Jersey where I began to go to a performing arts school where it then became evident to me that I was smitten by music whether I had talent or not — at least I had enough talent to get into school! (laughs) We didn’t have the money for me to go to Juilliard, or Manhattan School of Music, so I went to Montclair and majored in music education, and then taught music in the public schools for a while in NJ. I liked teaching, but I had a fire to at least try to be an artist, so my stepfather took me to meet some of his colleagues in the industry, and one of the first persons I met was Valerie Simpson who was starting out in the industry at the same time. Through just having chats in the outer offices about starting a career, she invited me to do some studio work, which became my first professional experience in music. What made this even more significant for me is one of the recording sessions we were all on at the time was for Galt McDermot, who would go on to write the score for the musical Hair. This led me to go on and audition for Hair, for which I would replace Diane Keaton. It was also quite significant because I would be the first black actress to replace a white actress in a lead role on Broadway. This was a very momentous moment for someone who never even knew that acting would at all be in her future!
Can you recall the feelings you had when you first got word you had the part, and what it meant for you?
I would perhaps describe it as being in college where you’re in a bubble and can experiment with things but you’re safe — I broke all the rules but I didn’t know what the rules were!
Right, there were no limits and it worked in your favor.
Absolutely it did, because there was no race barrier, there was no sexual barrier, no gender barrier, everyone could do anything! When Diane left, a lot of people came in and replaced her, and I’m not going to mention any names, but no one knows who the hell they are. (laughs) It was like, does everyone need to be blonde with blue eyes? Can’t a black girl do the lead? I brought this up with the people I auditioned for, and they all agreed with me and admitted they just hadn’t thought of it! It all happened because I spoke up, and the environment was very open. I remember thinking, my God, someone is going to actually pay me to let me learn to act on the stage? Hell yeah, I’m on! That was exciting itself, but in terms of being the first black actress and breaking that barrier, I was aware of it from just being around at that time of everything being revolutionized, and things like wearing an afro proudly and everyone being shocked, stuff like that. I was in a position where I wasn’t going to get fired from my job for it, but there were people who worked in schools or businesses or banks or whatever where that was a big deal, so I was definitely aware that these were breakthroughs. However, it didn’t make a star out of me or anything because Hair was a tribe, there were no standout stars.
What did your parents think about all of this at the time? Were they concerned you were getting into an unstable career?
Yes, absolutely. They reminded me of the experiences they had, and I was also a single girl, by myself and all those things. With Hair there was the whole hippie movement that was connected as well which brought all the drug connotations, which now I realize they had very good reason to be concerned! (laughs) When they came to see the show and realized there was a nude scene they were absolutely in shock! They thought, how is a good Christian girl going to have a career doing this?? I mean, they were very proud of me, but it was very shocking for them.
Fast-forwarding a bit into the 70’s, what did you think of disco at the time? Did you quickly embrace it?
Oh yeah, we were all going to the clubs, dancing and having a fabulous time. At that time I already had a few albums out, and I had met my then manager and husband, and we were looking to figure out how to have a hit record. We realized we had to be a part of whatever is popular, and that was definitely disco. By then, Van McCoy had come out with “The Hustle”, Donna Summer was popular, so we had some great examples to follow. My then-manager took their leads and went right out and hired Van McCoy!
Do you pay much attention to new dance music?
Oh yes, I’m always listening and trying to figure out where I fit in, or even if I do fit in — am I still relevant?? (laughs)
Hey, you’re playing at the New Year’s Party, so I would say you certainly are!
The great thing that Nicky (Siano) is doing, and a lot of people are, is reminding people of the classic disco music instead of where things are now. He’s reminding people that beyond being just music, there’s also a huge culture behind this music, and we do not want to just throw that away.
That’s a great point, and it makes me wonder what the biggest difference is between those audiences you performed to back in the 70’s compared to now.
Oh, there is a huge difference because what happens as a result of the internet is that we’re able to diversify and key into your generation’s market. Before then, the record companies became fewer and fewer, and also there were just less and less venues that had live music — not only were the venues expensive to keep around, but the music was changing so fast that people seemed to lose interest, and it wasn’t a good idea financially to have so many musicians on the stage. That essentially meant we had to go back to working to track, and fortunately, clubs have always done track! So disco really developed in this way in that it was underground, and DJs developed in a way where they were more in the foreground, becoming the stars. It’s music you don’t necessarily hear on the radio, so you have to make an effort to go out and hear it, and there are so many genres out there now, whether it’s house music, two-step, or whatever, there are so many genres out there now that have come out of club orientated music! The funny thing is, you can bring all kinds of musicians to the stage and perform those tracks live, but the people who come out and want to hear those songs want to hear them exactly as they are on the record! That’s definitely a cultural development, too, in that in the old days, people were very reticent to use backing tracks on stage because they came to see a live band and a truly live experience. So as a performer and singer, I always try to find ways to come up with an experience that can only be shared between myself and the audience, whether I’m performing to track or live.
You’re known to have a four octave vocal range — as you continue to make that connection with your live audience more unique, does it take a lot of work and practice to keep your vocals in shape?
Well, as I continue to get older and to thank God I’m not dead yet (laughs), I’ve just learned how different the body functions as a whole. Personally, I’ve learned what I should and shouldn’t eat, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t eat any fatty foods, and my vocals chords have continued to stay healthy over the years. Instead of deteriorating, they’ve actually grown — I’m not sure what my range is now, but the lower and higher ends continue to grow for me, and recently I started taking some vocal coach lessons. I’m learning things that are helping me strengthen these areas, and while I try to stay in denial of getting older, I shake that all off because I find if you put too much emphasis on getting older you ignore other areas of strength of your person and being. Some things get better with age!
It’s great to hear your voice is strengthening with age!
I’ve got this high high high note that has come out in just the last seven or eight years, and whenever I sing “Lean On Me” and it comes out, I think, my God, I’m calling that my Jesus note! (laughs)
How did it feel to win a Tony Award?
Oh my, I was just speechless. I know I said something, but if I really want to know what I said I need to watch the tape! I still keep one of the newspaper clippings up on my wall now just to remind myself that it was really something special and awesome that profoundly affected the rest of my life. The picture is of me holding the Tony Award, and to my right side is Lauren Bacall, and to my left side is Helen Hayes. Then there’s me with my fancy little pigtails! I don’t even remember having that picture taken, but whatever was in that moment I want to have it forever captured and preserved. I like to be reminded of that time and I’m not even sure how to explain the moment — it must have been a dream or a hunger, and just a passion for the industry and the arts. I’m not sure you can ever really know! I think if someone has a gift…or not even a gift, just a passion, you just are that thing, and if you have any modicum of passion for it you’ll figure out a way to take care of it.
What can we look forward to at the New Year’s party?
One of the songs that Nicky requested, that I actually had to learn again, is “Brand New” from my “This Is It” album with Van McCoy, and also “Lean On Me” which McCoy wrote. That song came out in 1976 and I haven’t sung it since then, so I’ll need to learn that, too! I’ll be doing plenty of other dance songs like “Standing Right Here” as well. I’m just so pleased that a new generation of people want to hear what I did back then.
Any advice for up and coming singers or actors that you can impart?
Follow your dream. There are no roadmaps, but if you have a love and joy for it, things will fall into place. And ignore anyone who claims you have no talent — there are so many hugely successful people in entertainment that don’t have one ounce of talent! Keep on that road and good things will happen.
Tickets for The Last New Year’s Eve Disco Extravaganza are available via Nicky Siano’s website and are $75 when ordered in advance. But… you and three of your friends have a chance to win a spot on the guest list for the New Year’s Eve of a lifetime! Just leave a message below and let us know what your favorite Disco release is! From all entries below and on our social media channels one winner will randomly be selected. The winner will be announced on December 23rd and will get free entry for four to the event!