Composer, Arranger, & Conductor Never Received Full Due
Research from and text by the Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University/Bloomington
A musical dynamo, Phil Moore became the first African-American salaried by a major Hollywood studio when, in 1941; he was hired by the MGM music department. By the time of his departure in 1945, he had worked on over 40 films for the studio.
Moore worked as a composer, arranger, conductor, and vocal coach. After moving to New York, Moore became the first black talent director for CBS. Throughout his career, Moore worked with popular artists such as Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe, to name a few. Though known today mostly among jazz aficionados, his influence can be seen throughout American pop music culture from the ’40-'60s.
Born on orphan, Moore was adopted by George Philip (an orphan himself) and Irene Moore in Portland, Oregon, in 1917.
George Moore built his fortune running boxing fights and gambling rings; he would later serve as a manager to a number of African-American boxers, including former World Champion Henry Armstrong.
George Moore’s income and his and his wife’s light coloring allowed them to purchase a home in a white, middle-class neighborhood. Their neighbors appeared to have been unaware that they were African American until they adopted Phil, who had a darker complexion. Although the family did receive threats from the local KKK, including a burning cross and graffiti tarred across the side of their home, George Moore’s underground connections provided them with the protection necessary for them remain in the neighborhood.
Phil Moore’s studies of music began early – in one of his autobiographical recordings Moore recalled that his second piano teacher, prominent Portland organist Edgar Coursen, taught him, at “somewhere between seven and eight, how to take a piano apart, and tune it and fix it.”
By age 13, Moore had moved to Seattle, graduated high school, and accumulated enough performance experience to be labeled an “accomplished pianist.” He attended the University of Washington and the Cornish School of Music, where he studied music theory and arrangement.
In the late ‘30s, Moore ventured out to Los Angeles where he would soon land his first MGM job as a “rehearsal pianist.” The racial climate of the time forced Moore, like other black composers of the era, to accept this and other similarly diminished titles even while he performed uncredited work composing and arranging for leading white musical directors.
Moore went on to work on numerous films at MGM; he also worked as a freelancer for Colombia and Universal. Due to feelings of marginalization and countless instances of being under-credited, Moore departed from MGM in 1945. Moore took to New York where he became a talent director for CBS radio, as well as an arranger for NBC.
In 1949, Moore took on Marilyn Monroe as a vocal student; a year later Moore took on Dorothy Dandridge and served as her manager until 1952. While Moore’s career was relatively quiet from the early ‘60s on, he continued to write music for television commercials and programs, coach musical groups such as The Supremes, and operate a singing talent school with his wife Jeanne until his passing in 1987.
The collection held at the Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University/Bloomington contains Moore’s personal papers and artifacts, business and financial records, photographs, audiovisual recordings, and musical manuscripts.
For info about the collection, hit up Indiana University Black Film Center/Archive, 1320 East Tenth Street, Herman B Wells Library, Room 044, Bloomington, IN 47405, (812) 855-6041, www.Libraries.IUB.edu/~bfca