Photo: Jose Pagan

Melba Moore Honors Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson and More at New York Show

In her sold-out return to the Metropolitan Room, Melba Moore honored legendary ladies of song.
Melba Moore

A legend celebrating other legends. That was the sentiment of Melba Moore’s sold-out return to the Metropolitan Room. Even before she won the Tony Award in 1970 for Purlie, Ms. Moore thrilled audiences with one of the most stunning voices ever to grace a New York stage. This night was no exception. Over the span of several decades, Ms. Moore’s voice has retained and even expanded its range. Whether singing one of her own signature songs or interpreting a standard, Melba Moore is simply a wonder to behold.

“The last few years have been a comeback trail for me,” she said at the top of the show. “I’m reacquainting my audience with special moments in my career and life. Tonight I’ll reminisce a little bit while at the same time pay tribute to just a few of the legendary ladies that have been my favorites through the years.” Ms. Moore’s galvanizing rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl opened the show. The dynamics of the song foretold the arc of the evening: from dramatic declarations to swinging interludes to triumphant testaments. Upon the song’s conclusion, Ms. Moore told a story about Barbra Streisand visiting her backstage after a performance of Purlie. “Melba, how do you hold those notes like that?,” she remembers the singer saying. “I was absolutely flabbergasted.”

Ms. Moore then honored Sarah Vaughan by singing “Misty”, which Quincy Jones produced for the late jazz singer on Vaughan and Violins in 1959. “I’ve shared the same stage as her,” said Ms. Moore, recalling their appearance at Radio City Music Hall. Though many vocalists have wrapped their voice around the Erroll Garner classic, Ms. Moore caressed the notes with a genuine feel for the lyrics. Music Director Levi Barcourt created a warm and sumptuous ambience with his piano. The timeless quality of Garner’s melody shone in Barcourt’s elegant solo and nuanced accompaniment by drummer Rodney Harrison and upright bass player Marcus McLaurine.

Nancy Wilson was the next artist to receive a loving tribute from Ms. Moore. “She’s a friend of mine,” said the singer. “We’ve performed together and she was a guest on The Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show (1972). Ms. Nancy Wilson has a lot of hit records but this is my very favorite.” She then treated the audience to “Guess Who I Saw Today” from Ms. Wilson’s Something Wonderful (1960) album. Her sassy rendition underscored what an engaging storyteller she is, from the expressive way she gestures with her hands to her control in maximizing the impact of each note for dramatic effect.

While Ms. Moore’s performances were nothing less than stellar, her insights about each artist were just as illuminating. “She should have had a wonderful film career but she came along at a time when you couldn’t be beautiful, talented, and black all at the same time,” the singer noted about Lena Horne. “Lord have mercy, they don’t make divas like that anymore.” Following Barcourt’s blues-infused introduction, she breathed a lifetime’s worth of experiences into “Stormy Weather”. In her interpretation, the song’s famous line — “I don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky” — became a proclamation. She treated why like an elastic band, stretching the notes from one octave to another.

At one point, Ms. Moore just let one particular performance speak for itself. “I’m not gonna say that much about this next lady of song because I’m gonna need some energy to sing it,” she said. In fact, nothing more really could be said when she launched into “Air Mail Special”, which Ella Fitzgerald immortalized at the 1957 Newport Jazz Festival. Her astounding combination of vocalese and scatting left the audience speechless, save for a wildly enthusiastic standing ovation.

The ovations continued as Ms. Moore performed the title song from her Tony Award-winning role as Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins in Purlie. She told the story about how she received the part shortly after replacing Diane Keaton in Hair, becoming the first African American woman to replace a white lead on Broadway. Her performance at the Metropolitan Room underscored why she not only took home the Tony for her role but also won the Theatre World Award, Drama Desk Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award … “every award you could get, I got!”

Parallel to Melba Moore’s ascent in the early-’70s, Clifton Davis was another actor making a name for himself on Broadway. He won a Tony Award nomination for his lead role as Valentine in Two Gentlemen of Verona (1972) and later starred with Ms. Moore in their own network show, The Melba Moore-Clifton Davis Show. More than 40 years later, the two reunited at the Metropolitan Room to sing “Never Can Say Goodbye”, which Davis wrote and the Jackson Five took to #2 on the Hot 100 in 1971. Time has not dimmed the chemistry between the two performers. Davis, who’s currently starring as the Sultan in Aladdin on Broadway, alternated between an appealing, honeyed tone and a ringing baritone that complemented the beguiling purity of Ms. Moore’s voice.

The singer invited another surprise guest to the stage, her father Clem Moorman. She led the audience in wishing him a happy 99th birthday. “I want you to know how proud I am to be here listening to Melba,” said Mr. Moorman, who’s still a working musician, one year shy of 100 years-old. Presiding at the piano, Mr. Moorman serenaded the audience with two songs, “That’s Life” and “I Love a Piano”. He garnished the lyrics with his own kind of wry humor. The crowd’s ardent response showed why Mr. Moorman still commands an audience in his frequent appearances throughout New York and New Jersey.

Ms. Moore returned to the stage for “I Got Love” from Purlie. “I’m paying tribute to myself,” she quipped. She recalled how “Purlie” kept stopping the show, which inspired the musical’s writers, Gary Geld and Peter Udell, to write another song specifically for Lutiebelle. In a sense, “I Got Love” is the “Don’t Rain on My Parade” of Purlie, a moment when the show crescendos and sets sail on the strength of a tour de force vocal performance. In concert, Ms. Moore astonished listeners by not only replicating the song’s electrifying denouement but fueling it to a whole other stratosphere.

The show concluded with Ms. Moore’s dedications to Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross. “I kind of took a few crumbs from the Queen’s table,” she said in her introduction to Joe Cobb and Van McCoy’s “Lean on Me”, a song that Ms. Franklin released in 1971 on the B-side to “Spanish Harlem”. Ms. Moore recorded the song herself on two albums This Is It (1976) and Never Say Never (1983). “I’ve had this song with me my whole career,” she said and proceeded to rouse the audience to their feet with the performance of a lifetime. Hands waved in the air during Ashford & Simpson’s “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)”, the perfect conclusion to an evening where Melba Moore and her incomparable voice reached out and touched the hearts and souls of every last person in the room, as only an icon can.