Singer and actress Melba Moore says her pain is gone and now she’s on top of the world.
When Melba Moore recorded her 2013 single, “What Can I Do to Survive,” the iconic singer and actress couldn’t help but think that it could serve as a theme song for her own life, with the physical and emotional challenges she’s overcome.
With her scale-defying voice and incredible stage presence, few of Melba Moore’s fans realized that, for years as she was performing on Broadway and recording chart-topping songs, she was also battling intense arthritis pain in her left knee and right hip.
“I became an expert at putting up a good front when I was on stage performing,” she says.
Melba established herself as a triple threat in the 1960s and ’70s, and she’s still commanding stages and drawing fans with her singing, dancing and acting. Her first big break came in 1967 when she joined the cast of Hair on Broadway, and was later asked to take the lead role vacated by Diane Keaton. Melba went on to star in the 1970 musical Purlie, which led to her Tony award.
The following year, Melba’s debut album, I Got Love, earned her a Grammy nomination as best new artist. A versatile performer, she drew a worldwide following with her gospel, pop, R&B and disco numbers, including the hits “This is It” and “You Stepped Into My Life.”
She briefly disappeared from the limelight after a highly-publicized divorce in the early 1990s, but in 1995, she returned to Broadway, starring in Les Miserables, and launched her one-woman show, Still Standing: The Melba Moore Story. It proved to be aptly-named.
Pushing Through the Pain
During the run of Still Standing, Melba began to experience knee pain. It got increasingly worse over several years, but she was determined not to let it sideline her hard-won career.
“There were some performances where my knee pain would flare up and I would leave the stage hobbling,” Melba says. By 2005, she had so much pain and stiffness in the morning that she resorted to crawling until she could take a hot shower and stretch.
Anti-inflammatories and chiropractic manipulations gave her some relief, and she exercised to build her knee strength. Yet the pain persisted and she couldn’t walk without limping, so she made an appointment with an orthopaedic surgeon. An MRI and X-rays showed Melba had osteoarthritis (OA) in her knee, possibly exacerbated by her high-octane stage performances, her doctor said.
“If I was dancing and I experienced pain, I would modify my routine, but I never stopped,” she says.
Two New Joints
When medications and exercise no longer helped, she decided to have a knee replacement.
“[My doctor] said I had bone-on-bone arthritis in my knee and that knee-replacement surgery would offer me the opportunity to be pain-free and continue performing,” Melba says. “I have always led an active life and I wanted to continue doing so.”
Melba has always kept her weight in check and she enjoys exercise, both factors that helped in her recovery. After her surgery, she replaced running with a low-impact exercise routine including yoga, stretching and walking, and she remained pain-free for a year. Then in 2007, pain in her hip became so severe that it kept her awake at night. X-rays confirmed OA.
“The cartilage in my right hip was almost completely gone,” Melba says. “[My doctor] said hip-replacement surgery was my best option if I wanted to continue with my career.”
In April of 2007, she underwent minimally-invasive total hip-replacement surgery, and when she woke from surgery, the pain “was 20,000 times better,” she says.
“I’m glad I didn’t need the surgery 10 or 20 years earlier, when techniques weren’t as advanced,” Melba says. “I had a relatively fast recovery because I kept myself in good shape prior to the operation.”
Still Standing Strong
Melba has regained full range of motion and is pain-free. She takes care of herself through gentle exercise and walking. From her home in New Jersey, she takes a train into Manhattan, where she walks a quarter of a mile every day to church. She also watches her diet.
“I found that the foods that cause inflammation – dairy, sugar, fried dishes and carbonated drinks – also give me laryngitis,” she says. “I haven’t had alcohol in 20 years, and I eat a lot of salads, fruits, fish and lean cuts of steak and lamb rather than processed foods.”
The result, Melba says, is that she’s strong and better than ever. Looking years younger than 69, Melba smiles and tells her audiences that “some things old are indeed good.”
Her new CD, Forever Moore, comes out this spring, and she is touring in Still Standing. She recently finished filming a movie, Tobacco Valley, with Cicely Tyson and Hill Harper, set for a 2016 release, and she shows no signs of resting on her laurels.
“Over the years, I’ve reinvented myself through music,” Melba says. “I feel great and I’m on top of the world.” —LINDA CHILDERS