Phil Moore, teenage Seattle jazz-piano prodigy, makes his KXA radio debut on June 7, 1935.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 5/02/2017
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20350

On Friday, June 7, 1935, Seattle's KXA radio station makes history by featuring a young African American musician performing live from its downtown studios, billing what will be a weekly program as Phil Moore Rhythm. The teenage musician's debut comes at a time when Seattle's black and white music scenes are largely separate -- indeed there are two separate musicians' union locals, segregated by race -- and African Americans are largely invisible in the local mainstream print and broadcast media. From such humble beginnings, Phil Moore (1917-1987) will go on to a remarkable career -- or rather six careers: as a player, a composer, an arranger, an orchestra conductor, a record producer, and perhaps most significantly, as America's premier vocal coach.

KXA: "The Musical Station"

Seattle's KXA was an early radio station with a historic pedigree. It was the descendant of station KTCL, which had been founded (as KFQX) in 1924 by Seattle's notorious Prohibition Era "King of the Rumrunners" Roy Olmstead (1886-1966), who sold his shares to Northwest radio pioneer Vincent Kraft two years later. The two-studio station, based in the Bigelow Building at 4th Avenue and Pike Street in downtown Seattle, was marketed as "The Musical Station" -- "one with a little something for everyone. Like ... stations everywhere just then, it broke the day into discrete quarter- and half-hour program periods, each with its own theme song, format, sponsor and musical style" (Richardson, 135).

In 1935 Kraft hired Roland Meggee as station manager (and eventually sold him the operation). That same year some fresh programs were added to the weekly lineup. Among them was a show called Phil Moore Rhythm that aired on Fridays (and was then repeated on Saturdays). The namesake star and host of the show was the proverbial new kid in town: 18-year-old pianist Phil Moore.

The "Jump Town" Scene

On March 7, 1917, George Phillip Moore and his wife Irene, of Portland, Oregon, adopted "Baby LaPluma" who had been born on February 20 at the city's Multnomah County Hospital. The infant was initially given the name Ronald Phillip Moore, which was soon altered to George Phillip Moore Jr. The elder George Moore -- a former orphan himself, from Texas -- was a successful African American prize-fight promoter who managed the world-champion pugilist Henry "Homicide Hank" Armstrong. He also ran the Golden West Athletic Club (as well as an illicit basement gambling operation) in the black-owned Golden West Hotel where his family lived.

At the precocious age of four, the beloved son was treated to his first piano lessons and he soon proved to be a preternaturally gifted musician. While in grammar school he took piano lessons from Portland Symphony conductor Edgar Coursen, and by age 12 he was playing jazzy piano in the raucous African American speakeasies of Portland's storied Prohibition Era "Jump Town" scene centered on Williams Avenue. That Northeast Portland neighborhood was positively humming with a vibrant nightlife, live music, and touring stars, and while a student at President Ulysses S. Grant High School Moore became a member of the Rinky Dink Orchestra, which was billed as "A Red-Hot Negro Orchestra" (Richardson, 110).

The Moore family's good life was wholly disrupted after the stock market crashed on October 29, 1929. When their bank went bust, they lost both their home and life savings. While the rest of the family scrambled up to Seattle, Moore stayed with friends as he finished his first school year at Grant.

The Jackson Street Jazz Scene

In 1930 Moore joined them at the Governor Apartments at 311 6th Ave S in Seattle's International District and passed a high-school entrance exam with flying colors -- he was placed as a senior and graduated at the age of 13. From there he studied music theory at the University of Washington and later at the Cornish College of the Arts at 710 E Roy Street on Capitol Hill. While in town, he joined American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local No. 493 -- the "Negro's Musicians Union" -- and earned tips gigging at Jackson Street jazz nightspots like Russell "Noodles" Smith's legendary Black and Tan at 12th Avenue and Jackson Street.

At night, after his college homework was completed, Moore made money playing various jazz dens -- including one where during the occasional police raid he escaped by sliding out a coal-chute into the dark alley and making his getaway. Moore rose through the ranks of Seattle musicians quickly and was soon playing at the Chinese Gardens at Seventh Avenue S and King Street with Frank Waldron (1890-1955), an AFM Local 493 officer and one of Seattle's leading African American bandleaders.

Legend holds that one night Moore crossed paths with the famous Los Angeles-based bandleader, Les Hite -- possibly between November 1934 and January 1935 when Hite's Cotton Club Revue was in town playing a multi-week gig at the Paramount Theatre and then also at a dance in the Olympic Hotel's Spanish Ballroom. It was typical in those days for touring bands to visit Jackson Street nightclubs and jam with locals after their evening gigs were over. It is quite possible that Hite met Moore this way and, impressed with the young man's skills, invited him to try writing arrangements for his orchestra.

Six months later, in June 1935, Moore scored a regular radio gig -- billed as Phil Moore Rhythm -- playing from 5 until 7 every Friday evening on KXA. Moore's show, which debuted on June 7, must have stood out, sandwiched as it was between all the expected Hawaiian, cowboy, sacred, and orchestral music programs that aired weekly. Historically, the show was an early example of an African American talent getting airtime in the Northwest, coming a decade and a half before Seattle's KRSC radio show hosted by the Maxin Trio, with pianist/singer Ray Charles (1930-2004), in 1948 and 1949, and then Merceedees Walton's Music with Merceedees show on KING-TV in the early 1950s.

Hollywood and the Central Avenue Scene

Before long Moore split for Los Angeles, where he fell into the Central Avenue jazz scene, soon crossed paths with a couple of big-time bandleaders -- former Les Hite sideman Lionel Hampton and Jimmie Lunceford -- and was hired to write arrangements for their orchestras. In 1937 -- the same year he married Mary Neva Peoples (with whom he would have a son, George Phillip Moore III, in 1939) -- he was hired by the Million Dollar Productions firm to work on a musical film, The Duke Is Tops, where he met singer Lena Horne and was soon serving as her vocal coach. Then in 1938, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) hired him as a writer/arranger of film-soundtrack music, including one of the first big-budget black-oriented films, MGM's Cabin in the Sky, which featured Horne, Ethel Waters, and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

On September 10, 1939, Moore was among the band-members who backed a Hollywood recording session with Charlie Barnet's dance band that produced "The Duke's Idea" on Bluebird Records. By 1941 he was arranging songs for Bob Crosby (1913-1993), the band-leading brother of Spokane singing star Bing Crosby (1903-1977). Moore also worked the nightclubs, playing piano behind a newcomer, singer Dorothy Dandridge, and with several jazzmen who had deep backgrounds on Seattle's Jackson Street scene -- including two more former Les Hite sidemen, Gerald Wilson and Gerald Wiggins.

Moore persisted and established himself as one of the first African Americans to arrange scores for Hollywood movies. He even appeared onscreen in the role of a bandleader in at least a couple films: the B-grade short Stars on Parade and The Joint Is Jumpin', an all-black 1941 musical featuring Fats Waller. While in Hollywood, Moore arranged and/or composed music for dozens of films for MGM and other studios including Columbia, Paramount, and RKO Pictures. But, as Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather later noted, he "met the fate of most black musicians and composers of that time and was forced into ghost writing for white composers while holding the job title of 'rehearsal pianist'" ("Phil Moore, Composer ..."). Indeed, Moore's contributions to such movies as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Dumbo (1941), This Gun for Hire (1942), and Kismet (1944) were not credited on release.

Meanwhile, Moore's songwriting talents were having a significant impact on popular music. Among his eventual 400 compositions was 1943's "Shoo Shoo Baby," a huge hit for the Andrews Sisters and a tune so popular that it was also recorded by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, the Ink Spots, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, and Dinah Washington. Lena Horne, Nat King Cole, and Sarah Vaughan each opted to cut his "I Feel So Smoochie," while Louis Jordan recorded many of Moore's other proto-R&B compositions, including "Ain't That Just Like a Woman," "Buzz Me," "Caledonia Boogie," "Let the Good Times Roll," and "Reconversion Blues."

The 52nd Street Scene, New York City

Frustrated by the racist Hollywood system, Moore naturally felt the lure of the music world of New York City and the opportunities it might provide. The Big Apple beckoned and Moore relocated to serve as the giant CBS radio network's talent director and then as NBC's chief arranger. It was in 1944 that he became the radio producer of The Mildred Bailey Show while the jazz-singing star from Spokane was gigging in Manhattan at the swank Café Society supper club. In addition, Moore began writing arrangements for the Tommy Dorsey and Harry James orchestras, and also recorded with Duke Ellington's orchestra, not to mention Spokane's very own Broadway and opera star, Patrice Munsel (1925-2016).

While in New York, Moore was naturally drawn to the fabled jazz scene along 52nd Avenue, and in January 1945 he formed his own bebop jazz combo, the Phil Moore Four. The quartet settled into a house residency at Café Society while also gigging at other top rooms, including Club Downbeat and the Copacabana, and touring widely. It remains unknown if the group ever performed at Hank Armstrong's Harlem club, the Melody Room. During his New York years, Moore published songs including "125th Street Prophet" and "Misty Moon" in 1949 -- the same year he helped cut three records by Frank Sinatra for Columbia Records. Then in 1953 Moore cut a bebop disc that has become his most collectible of all: "Chinchy Old Scrooge"/"Blink Before Christmas" (RCA Victor No. 47-5538). Issued during the rise of the "beat" movement, the tunes feature slinky R&B/jazz backing hipster-lingo holiday-season story-telling -- "It was Saint Nick Time in Harlem and up and down the street nothin' was shakin'" -- in a form that was a direct stylistic precursor to modern-day hip-hop rapping.

Moore's Legacy

It can be noted that Phil Moore's path southward to Hollywood and the "Big Time" was a trailblazing one that would be followed later by other African American musicians from the Seattle scene. Among them: pianist, singer, and eventual "Father of Soul," Ray Charles; bandleader, songwriter, record producer, and discoverer of Little Richard and Sam Cooke, Robert "Bumps" Blackwell (1918-1985); and musician, composer, arranger, and superstar record producer Quincy Jones (b. 1933).

Moore's positive reputation as a teacher of singing and performance stagecraft led to ever-more opportunities to help groom, coach -- and compose for or record -- many aspiring musicians, singers, and actors (along with a few veteran entertainers) including former Les Hite sideman Louis Armstrong, Pearl Bailey, LaVern Baker, Shirley Bassey, Diahann Carroll, Perry Como, Billy Daniels, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Joni James, Johnny Mathis, Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell, Bobby Short, and Julie Wilson -- and later Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, Tom Jones, and Motown's Supremes.

In addition Moore founded the Singers Workshop vocal school and, in conjunction with Vee Jay Records, produced For Singers Only, a four-volume series of box-set instructional LPs: Ballads, Blue Mood, Cool Jazz 'n' Rhythm, and Swingin' Easy. As the years went by Phil Moore produced countless sessions for numerous labels including Black & White, Clef, Discovery, MGM, Mercury, Musicraft, Standard, and Strand Records. He also made appearances in various films including A Song Is Born (1948), Double Dynamite (1951), and In Harm's Way (1965).

Moore's far-reaching music career impacted many realms of the entertainment business -- he can be considered a pioneer of R&B music and his "block chord" piano technique influenced other players in a historically notable way -- but it was his winning personal demeanor that really helped make him a star. Moore's suave nature and good looks led to him being showcased on the cover of Ebony magazine and hired to endorse numerous products including RC Cola soda pop. And he was even featured (circa 1960-1961) as a comic-strip character -- "Dr. Philmore," a talent coach in Leonard Starr's nationally distributed hit newspaper comic Mary Perkins: On Stage.

 

Along the way, the once-divorced Moore remarried and he and his new wife Jeanne George had a daughter, Joanna Moore, and eventually a couple of grandchildren. Meanwhile, Moore's namesake son carved out his own music career -- as Phil Moore Jr., playing piano with the likes of the Gerald Wilson Orchestra in 1965 and recording his own solo LP for Atlantic Records in 1969. Though he remained professionally active throughout his life, Phil Moore suffered from heart problems in his final years, and he passed away from a heart attack at Los Angeles's Cedars Sinai Medical Center on May 13, 1987. Moore's memorial service was held on May 25th at the AFM Local No. 47 union hall on Vine Street in Hollywood.


Sources:

Phil Moore, liner notes, For Singers Only, Vol. II Blue Mood (Vee Jay Records No. 1202, 1960); "Changes of Names and Adoptions" in General Laws and Joint Resolutions and Memorials Adopted by the Thirteenth Regular Session of the Legislative Assembly (Salem: State Printing Dept., 1919), 895; "The Golden West Hotel," Central City Concern website accessed on March 29, 2017 (http://www.centralcityconcern.org/goldenwest/); Lester Bromberg, "Elderly Hollywood Negro Counseling Henry so that He'll Be Set for Life When He Steps Down This Time," The Pittsburg Press, June 10, 1943, p 23; "Blues Singer," The Seattle Times, January 4, 1935, p. 13; David Richardson, Puget Sounds: A Nostalgic Review of Radio and TV in the Great Northwest (Seattle: Superior Publishers, 1981), 33, 34, 104; Paul de Barros, Jackson Street After Hours: The Roots of Jazz in Seattle (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1993), 30; Robert Dietsche, Jump Town: The Golden Years of Portland Jazz (1942-1957) (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2005) 109-110, "Gerald Wilson, Jazz Big Band Leader, Dies at 96," CBS News, September 9, 2014 (http://www.cbsnews.com/news/gerald-wilson-jazz-big-band-leader-dies-at-96/); "Phil Moore, Composer, Vocal Coach for Entertainers, Dies," Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1987 (http://articles.latimes.com/1987-05-15/news/mn-5075_1_phil-moore-four); Peter Blecha discussion with Leslie Meyer, MLIS (genealogy research consultant), March 29, 2017, notes in possession of Peter Blecha, Seattle; Ronda L. Sewald, "Phil Moore Collection" (finding aid), Indiana University website accessed May 10, 2017 (http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?doc.view=entire_text&docId=VAD8293).


Related Topics:   Black Americans | Media | Music & Musicians

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