When Melba Moore launched into “Purlie,” the title song from the Broadway musical, on the opening night of her new show at the Café Carlyle (April 26-May 7, 2011), it brought back a stream of nostalgia. She isn’t likely to remember the occasion after so many years, but I found in my files a copy of the interview I did with her for an article in the Asbury Park Press of May 15, 1970, headlined “Melba Moore Conquers Broadway.” It was all about the young schoolteacher from Newark getting her big show biz break and wowing audiences.
She talked about the strange things she could do with her voice and said, “I’ve been taught to rest while I work, and to project correctly instead of screaming, I save the high notes until they count. I don’t like to think in terms of range. But I suppose you could say my normal range is a G below middle C to, on a real good day, a high C.” Accompanying the article was a picture of Moore, then a 25-year-old, with pigtails at each side, a broad smile, all of which meshed with her image as the “Purlie” country girl Lutiebelle.
Now, here she was making her debut at the Carlyle, after all the hit records, once again singing “Purlie,” and she reprised the same spirit that made her a hit with audiences and netted her a Tony award. Moore still conveys the impression that she has a good time singing. She ranged over a variety of numbers, including another from “Purlie”-- “I Got Love.”
She sang as a tribute to her late mother, who also had been a singer known as Bonnie Davis, “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”, “Stormy Weather,” and “I Concentrate on You.” And talk about the high notes, as in the latter. Moore attacks them with a vengeance, reaching the top, drawing them out and showing she can still take the risk, even this far away from when she started her razzle-dazzle.
Moore spent excessive time pointing out family and friends in the audience, but the good side of that was when she introduced her 95-year-old stepfather, Clement Moorman, who went to the piano, showed he still was comfortable at the ivories and did an amusing impression of Fats Waller tossing out asides in the middle of the lyrics. It was a pleasing bit of show-stealing. (Moorman and his wife had played club lounges as Bonnie and Clem.)
A medley yielded numbers that included “My Guy” and “Too Many Fish in the Sea.” Moore sang “Love Is,” and as she went along with other songs in the program the tendency was to intensify her sound level, something more in tune with contemporary pop than with songs for which the lyrics could be sung with more clarity. Obviously, Moore is trying to show that she is still with it. In terms of looking good and connecting with her audience, she does retain the charisma to ignite a fire for her fans. Her musicians include Levi Barcourt, pianist and musical director; Rodney Harrison, drums; David Brown, guitar, and Leon Dorsey, bass. At the Café Carlyle, the Carlyle Hotel, 35 East 76th Street (at Madison Avenue). Phone: 212-744-1600.