Melba Changes Color of Hair
by Robert Berkvist
The New York Times - September 14, 1969

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For nearly 18 months, one of the high spots of the hit musical Hair has been a hilarious, freewheeling take off on the Supremes - a number in which an elaborately wigged trio of black girls (sharing, it turns out, a single, size 60 sequined gown) do a rocking rendition of a song called White Boys.  White boys, they chorus, are so pretty.  And groovy.  And sexy.  The girls just can't get enough.

Now Melba Moore, the petite, hard-driving lead singer in that trio has taken off her Diana Ross wig and moved into the role of Sheila, the leading girl in Hair, who lives with the young rebels around whom the shows tenuous plot evolves, and who shares not only their Village pad but, possibly, their beds.  Not one, but two, white boys.

Until Miss Moore stepped in, Sheila had been played by a succession of long-haired blondes.  What does she think of this new, and interracial, manage a trois? "It's a good thing."  Miss Moore said the other day. Resplendent in a harlequin blouse and lavender pants, she sipped meditatively at a Coke, and mused about herself and the show.  "People are people.  They should be able to do what they want to.  Hair changes people's minds about things - it really does.  It makes them think about what they're uptight about.

"Hair has been educational for me, too.  I wasn't very broadminded about what people do, or what they're supposed to do, and the show has changed me in that respect.  I wanted to be that way before - I mean doing the things I dig - and the show has made it easier."

Miss Moore, 24, grew up in Harlem and Newark - "pick your ghetto" - as one of five children in a mildly show business family.  Her parents, the Clement Moormens, are still in the business as a piano and vocal duo playing lounge dates.  She went to Music and Art High School in Newark, then to Montclair State Teachers College where she majored in music education, studying voice and piano.  By 1964 she was teaching music in Newark's Peshine High School, and by 1965, she had quit.

"I hated it." she recalls.  "I was a night person and teaching just wasn't free enough.  Besides, I wanted to try show business."  Much to her parents dismay - "they wanted me to have a respectable career" - she worked up a singing act - "a regular common act, a class act; I mean dull" - and was booked into the weekend club circuit in the Catskills.  "I was singing nice, safe songs from "Dolly" and things like "Summertime" to show off my legit voice."  On the side, she began doing background singing at other artists' recording sessions - "Doing ooohs and aaahs, you know.  But it was $25 an hour, and paid the bills."

One day she went to a recording date to oooh and aaah and the music turned out to be Hair.  Galt MacDermot, Hair's composer, was working out a recording of the show.  "The Hair people liked us - they were looking for some more blacks for the cast - and asked some of us to audition.  I said 'What's Hair?' I really wasn't involved with such things at that point.  Anyway, I was hired for the Supremes thing and that was it.  But it was a long time before the show made any sense to me."

Hair was such a long way from Miss Moore's initial "respectable" career, how did she react to the show, especially the nudity?  "I didn't think about it one way or the other.  I didn't have to do it.  It was against my principles then, anyway.  But gradually, when people stopped bugging me about it - one of the show staff kept asking me 'What's the matter, you got a hangup?' - I began to see it differently.  Now i do it regularly and it doesn't bother me."

On the other hand, it still bothers Miss Moore's husband and manager, George Brewington, who stopped seeing the show when his wife started taking off her clothes.  He is, he says, "vehemently, totally opposed." but adds "I respect Melba as an artist." At which point Miss Moore's eyes flashed fire.  "It doesn't mean anything" she exploded, "except what you want it to mean.  We put so much value on clothing our bodies, but it doesn't mean a damn thing. It's like so much else people get uptight about. Sure, I was scared the first time.  I thought 'Everybody's looking at me.  I've got no protection.' Now I'm still kind of surprised that I'm standin' there naked, but I'm not embarrassed, the audience is.  And that's what I mean about Hair teaching people.  My doing Sheila will teach something, too.  I wish more blacks came to see the show - one thing, it's too damn expensive.  You know, black people aren't used to having theater speak from their point of view, which I think Hair does because basically it's about a bad system that has to go."

Miss Moore confesses to having become a bit tired after 18 months of Hair, but says this stint as Sheila - she's doing the part for a month as a vacation stand-in for Heather MacRae - has renewed her interest for a while.  Ultimately, she wants to be a top-ranking singer along the lines of her two idols, Barbra Streisand ("Such fantastic technique") and Aretha Franklin ("I think she could sing Traviata if she wanted to. She's beautiful, man!").  She has a new recording contract and plans to take acting lessons, just in case there's more to movies than the bit part she just finished in Ossie Davis's new film Cotton Comes To Harlem.

A final question about Hair.  She obviously feels the show still has a lot to say to blacks and whites alike.  Does she disagree, then, with those who say that the sunshine world of the Hair people - the peace-love-happiness world of the flower children - is dead and gone?  "The flower children dead? I don't believe it.  It's got to be that way finally, or we're all dead."

Copyright The New York Times Company. All right reserved.

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