By Carol Day
December 01, 1997 12:00 PM

WHEN SHE MADE THE JOURNEY across the Hudson River to Manhattan nearly 30 years ago, all Melba Moore knew about the “biz” was that she wanted to sing. Just 22 and fresh out of college, she arrived early for a recording session as a backup singer. She was shocked when this guy showed up with “no shoes, torn jeans and a shirt with mixed-up colors.” Moore was even more put off when he asked, “How’d you like to do hair?” She snapped, “I didn’t get a bachelors degree in musical education to do nobody’s hair!”

As it turns out, the shirt was tie-dyed, the guy was playwright Gerome Ragni, and he wasn’t referring to bouffants and bangs. He was asking her to join the cast of Hair, billed as the “American tribal love-rock musical.” When it premiered at the Joseph Papp Public Theatre in October 1967, then moved in April of ’68 to Broad-way’s Biltmore, it introduced America to the Age of Aquarius and the staid Great White Way to sex, drugs, rock and roll, and a glimpse of frontal nudity. Moore, 52, currently on a 15-city tour with the musical A Swell Party: The Cole Porter Songbook, shook off her self-described “very middle-class” hesitations and joined Hair on Broadway. “She was a bit inexperienced—not hip to the Broadway scene,” says James Rado, Hair’s lyricist. “But her presence on stage and her voice electrified the audience.”

Moore rose through the ranks to the lead female role. “It was a joyful, wild and crazy time,” she recalls. “It was really about being confident and being African-American. That was revolutionary.” It would also prove to be her big break. She would go on to win a Tony for Best Supporting Actress in 1970’s musical Purlie (a love story set on a Georgia plantation), record 14 albums, cohost a TV variety show with Clifton Davis in 1972 and appear in theater productions, including a recent Broadway stint in Les Misérables.

Despite artistic successes, Moore’s lack of business savvy left her at the mercy of bad managers in the mid-1970s, and a split with her husband-business partner in 1991 left her financially and emotionally broken. “My career had been taken from me,” she says. It was not so much her résumé that saved her as her willingness to start from scratch. “I don’t mind proving myself,” she says defiantly.

Born in New York City to Bonnie Hill, a singer, and Ted Hill, a jazz saxophonist, Moore was surrounded with music from day one. When her mother remarried pianist Clement Moorman, who had children of his own, “Everyone would gather around the piano,” Moore recalls. “My mother would have musicians come in, and we’d have parties.” When they moved to Newark, N.J., she attended Arts High School in Newark and Montclair State Teachers College. After graduation she taught music at a Newark elementary school for a year and then worked as a backup singer before landing a role in Hair.

But in the early 1970s her managers abandoned her, and her career faltered. In 1975, Moore, approaching 30 and out of work, thought she had found her savior in promoter Charles Hug-gins. They wed and formed a production company with Moore as their most prized commodity. After giving birth to daughter Charli in 1977, she recorded several albums, acted in the 1984 TV miniseries Ellis Island and, briefly in 1986, had her own sitcom.

In 1991 her fortunes soured again when she found a divorce decree in the mail. The still-continuing battle with Huggins, during which they have fought over their agency and made accusations, in and out of court, of forgery, assault and drug abuse, has cost her millions. She hit bottom in 1993—a Manhattan supermarket even refused her credit. To salvage her career and peace of mind, Moore joined a gospel bus tour of Mama, I’m Sorry. “It was cleansing for me,” she says.

Slowly, Moore has climbed back, putting together her one-woman show in 1996, appearing in Les Mis and the Cole Porter show, and working on a CD, Solitary Journey, due in January. Most important, she has regained the devotion of her daughter Charli, 20, a junior at Nashville’s Fisk University, who had grown estranged from Moore during her battles with Huggins. “She is my prize,” sighs Moore, who talks to her daughter by phone every day. And all these years later, the song she sang nightly to a standing ovation in Purlie still rings true: “I Got Love.”


CYNTHIA WANG in New York City