This is the fifth and last installment of our collaboration with the "Back to School With The HistoryMakers" event on Friday, Sept. 23, when some 500 renowned African Americans — from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to Common — will speak at schools around the country.
Melba Moore started her performing career in 1967 in the cast of Hair. She found success on Broadway, in films and on records. She's been nominated four times for Grammy Awards, and she won a Tony in 1970 for her role in Purlie.
I always dreamed of being a performer. Not a singer. A performer.
When she was growing up in Pipe Shop, Ala., a small community just outside of Birmingham, my mother started singing, somewhere around the age of 16 or 17. She was born Gertrude Melba Smith, but as a singer she shed that name and became Bonnie Davis. She presented herself as if to say: "I'm Bonnie Davis, and don't you forget it."
It was music that brought my mother and my biological father — Teddy Hill — together. He was a saxophone player among people like Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington. I knew him, but he was never in my life very much.
My mother had a beautiful voice. She was a very passionate singer — consciously, purposely — and so am I. I would often hear her voice throughout our home on 108th Street between Manhattan Avenue and Central Park West in New York City. I'd hear her singing: "Upstairs, upstairs, way, way upstairs. You can get it in the kitchen, but you really get it on upstairs." Sometimes she'd sing Perry Como or Frank Sinatra songs or maybe something from Nat King Cole, like "Route 66."
My mother aspired to glamour. Part of that was "Don't be too Negroid." That means "Straighten your hair." That was part of that era. The fairer you were, the better you were. If you had straight hair, you had good hair. Mama had good hair. My hair was nappy. She would say, "Don't talk colored. Have some class about you."
My mother married a bandleader and piano player named Clement Leroy Morman, and he was the father who was there for me. He and my mother met when he was trying to put together a band or a little piano ensemble. He needed a singer. That was Bonnie Davis.
Once I was in the blended family, I had some struggles with communication because I was raised as an only child by a woman, my nanny, who wasn't articulate and didn't know how to write her own name. I called her Mama Lu. Her name was Lula Hawkins. She was from the Deep South — South Carolina. She came up North, out of the backwoods of chopping tobacco and working in the cotton fields. As my mother traveled, Mama Lu took care of me.
I had an incredible Catholic education from my early years, but landing in the midst of a family who was used to communicating with each other — that was a kind of socialization I did not have. But I was anxious to learn. So the adjustments were very difficult for me.
I was accustomed to being alone, while my [new] brother and sister were accustomed to having someone to deal with. We were brought together. We were encouraged to adjust to each other, and we did that. We love each other to the point where there is no difference.
My siblings and I were all musical; it was always in our Newark, N.J., home — there on Rose Street, across from the cemetery. My stepfather even made me take piano lessons. I wanted to sing, too.
When I was at Cleveland Junior High School, I started to blossom in the arts. I remember this incredible piano player who impressed me. His name was Bernie Durant, and he could play gospel piano. He couldn't read one note in junior high, but if you could sing it for him, he could play it.
I attended Arts High School in Newark, a city just a few miles west of New York that during this era had a progressive, politically charged black populace. During that era, blacks were in the minority, but it's interesting what can happen between people in the arts — there are the differences, but there is a camaraderie that just comes out of music. It's not that you forget racism, but you can surely erase it for a second somehow.
At Arts High School, I also had great mentors, like William Pickett, our vocal cultural teacher. He taught all of the arias. Another teacher was Miss Otobodo. She was a great mentor. I didn't have any black music teachers at Arts High. Mr. Pickett was Italian, but it didn't make a difference — they had to mentor us.
They had to learn to understand our music. They adjusted to our culture and our genius. I played piano with the jazz band, and I was in some performances, but the talent was so great, I don't remember doing many lead solos.
Throughout my years in Arts High, I envisioned myself as a professional. That was my dream. I was around musical geniuses, and I was performing, but I didn't know how I was going to get into music school. We didn't really have the money. I didn't have the confidence. I didn't feel like I could get a scholarship. There were times I thought, "I can't do this."
I was being told by my parents to get a real job — be a schoolteacher, work for the government. They wanted me to pursue a career with some security and stability. They didn't want me to be a struggling artist. My mother always reminded me that she didn't go to college.
When I did my practice teaching at Southside High School in Newark, I met a woman who inspired me that teaching did not have to be mundane. Her name was Dorothy Schneider. She was German, and she was the vocal police. She showed me that teaching didn't have to be something you did because you couldn't do what you really wanted to do; it could be an inspired profession. And so I took on her attitude, and I really became a good teacher.
I got a degree in music, and my goal was to teach children. I wanted to inspire them so I would tell them, "You have to do this because this is important and you're somebody and I'm somebody, and we're going to treat each other with respect." You don't gain respect by screaming and yelling at kids. You have to dress a certain way. You come into the classroom with an agenda, and you have to carry yourself a certain way. You come into the classroom prepared.
My inspiration was to see young people and encourage them to be the best of who they were. I could relate to the students because I understood where many of them had come from. We are a family that is broken. We were disrespected. We didn't respect ourselves, so we didn't know how to respect authority. But I loved music, and I was a fighter. One of the things that I had learned from being in this wonderful family was that you respect yourself.