Thomas Moore has dedicated his life and music to getting people together
By ANN DOSS HELMS
The Charlotte Observer
On the last afternoon of 1979, 7-year-old Kati Toney joined Thomas Moore at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte to sing in a new decade.
She’s been back every New Year’s Eve since. On Friday, she and her 3-year-old son, Hunter, will be singing, dancing and tooting noisemakers at Moore’s 20th annual party for children and families.
As New Year’s festivities go, Moore’s event is a popgun amid the fireworks display of the millennium. But there is more going on than meets the ear.
The piano-thumping sing-along is the sound of a man working feverishly to bring his vision of family and community to life.
It starts by getting people of different ages, races and backgrounds together in one room, doing something that makes them all feel good – singing together, clapping, dancing. Then some of them talk afterward, perhaps finding something in common.
And if the magic works, a new kind of family emerges. People with no blood bonds get into each other’s homes, let down their guard, talk honestly about what hurts them and what moves them.
Moore’s self-made family, built over years of performing and singing with children, spans the globe. It’s made up of people like Kati Toney, who was only a bit older than Hunter when she appeared on a Charlotte children’s TV special that Moore hosted. Then she sang in his choir, the only white child in an African American chorus.
When Kati’s dad died, Moore became a surrogate father. When Hunter was born, Moore became “Papa Thomas,” the grandpa with the rich baritone voice.
“I consider him family,” says Toney. “Not to have him, I’d feel like a piece was missing.”
At 49, Moore has piled up honors, been applauded by thousands and built an international career speaking about early childhood. Yet there is an edge of desperation behind the joyful noise, a sense that Moore always fears that whatever he does will not be quite enough.
A 4-year-old once stopped him in his tracks with this question: “Thomas Moore, if your work is play, when do you play?”
The truth, he realized, is that he never plays. He may be singing “Humpty Dumpty Dumpty” to a roomful of tots, but he is doing serious work.
In grief, an awakening
Thomas Moore traces his passion for pleasing people back to birth. He was the second of six children, born just 11 months after an oldest son who seemed to shine at everything.
Tyrone Moore embraced piano lessons and earned applause. Thomas quit when the teacher rapped his hands for making mistakes, and he once set the family piano afire playing with his dad’s cigarette lighter.
He remembers himself as a quiet boy lost in his brother’s shadow. He took to watching others, trying to make them happy, hoping they’d appreciate him for that.
“I was just wanting people to notice that I was there,” he recalls.
He remembers the adults who took the time to really see him. In every audience he performs for, he knows there are people yearning for that connection.
Despite the sibling rivalry, Moore learned lessons from his family that would shape his choices as he came of age in the turbulent ’60s.
“My family is a peaceful family,” he recalls. “I can’t think of the last time I heard any of my brothers use profanity. I’ve never seen them be violent or disrespectful.”
While other African American teens confronted racism with militancy, 16-year-old Thomas joined Sounds of America, a Charlotte-based, mostly white youth group that specialized in upbeat, patriotic music. He ran into insensitivity and bigotry at times, but he also came to know white people as complex human beings, not the perky characters he’d seen on TV.
In June of 1970, tragedy struck. Group member Carla Jean Underwood was abducted and murdered just before Sounds of America left for a tour. Because witnesses had seen two young black men with her car, police questioned Moore as a suspect.
Although he was quickly cleared (her killers were eventually convicted), the suspicion wounded him. But what he talks about almost 30 years later is the awakening brought about by his grief at her death.
“She’s white; why am I feeling so bad?” he remembers asking himself. “I was hurting like she was a relative.”
Sing together, dance together
Moore may have been a piano-lesson dropout, but he never gave up on music. Throughout his childhood there had been music at home, music at church, music that pulled everyone in, regardless of training or talent.
After high school he resumed formal training, first at Johnson C. Smith University, then at Manhattan School of Music, where he earned a degree in music and voice. He sang at Carnegie Hall in 1981.
But formal performances never stirred Moore’s soul. He likes the kind of music where people look into each other’s eyes and lift their voices together.
“I want people to sing to each other because they care about each other,” he says. “I want people to dance together because they care about each other. I want to create another way to think about sharing.”
At Johnson C. Smith, music professor Jackie Hairston had taken him into day-care centers, showing him how to mix music with community service. Moore dedicated himself to that path, writing and recording children’s songs, singing for children, hosting a children’s TV show called E-Z Street. He launched the New Year’s Eve parties to get children, parents and grandparents celebrating together.
His work with children earned recognition – first in North Carolina, then in countries such as Nigeria and China, where he traveled to study and talk about children and music. Along the way he was always meeting new people, forming friendships that ran deeper, in many cases, than biological bonds.
He did not, however, meet the one special soul mate he had dreamed of. As the years passed, he came to see that as a decision, rather than a disappointment. Lacking one exclusive relationship, he created his own network of family. Having no children of his own, he devoted his life to other people’s.
Coming back to Charlotte
At 35, though, Moore was ready to own a home. He applied for a loan – and was rejected. His work couldn’t guarantee a steady income, he was told.
It felt like a gut punch. He’d done so much volunteer work with Charlotte’s movers and shakers, earned honors from groups such as the Jaycees and the Chamber of Commerce. Was the acceptance all on the surface? Did these people not even consider him worthy of his own home?
It was time to move on, he decided.
In 1985, Moore was accepted into Indiana State University’s graduate program in early childhood education. Hundreds of admirers came to Ovens Auditorium to celebrate his contributions to Charlotte. The morning and afternoon newspapers both wrote laudatory farewell editorials, voicing hopes that Moore would return.
Moore spent nine years away, earning two advanced degrees, teaching at universities and working for the Division of Child Development in Raleigh. But the holiday season always found him back in Charlotte with friends.
And while he was here, the New Year’s show always seemed like a good chance to get everyone together and have fun. After 10 years, the Children’s Theatre’s 300 seats were filling up. Moore added a second show.
Five years ago, Moore moved back to Charlotte, determined to build his own business, on his own terms. If forced to write his occupation on one small line, he calls himself an early childhood consultant. But he is also an entertainer, a recording artist – and yes, someone who can get a home mortgage now. Above all, though, he sees himself as a community builder.
Know enough to be honest
As Moore sees it, creating a community that isn’t divided by race, wealth or religion means spending a lot of time with people who are different. A quick business talk or a pleasant social connection won’t do. To talk about things that matter, people have to know each other well enough to be honest.
He points to his relationship with Linda Howard, choir director at Northwest High School for Performing Arts. Like most of his friendships, it came about through series of connections between mutual friends. One of them had asked Moore to think about ways to improve life for African American students. When he was introduced to Howard, the two began a series of passionate – often heated – conversations about race.
Howard, a Canadian who quips that her culture’s idea of diversity is Ukrainians and Germans in the same room, respected Moore’s work and point of view. She thought maybe he could help her figure out how to get more African American students involved in her upper-level music classes.
Two years ago, he started volunteering in her classes – watching auditions, acting as a guest conductor, talking with Howard about techniques. He immediately saw things that troubled him, but instead of jumping in with a critique, he worked through demonstration and suggestion.
Both agree their partnership is a work in progress, one that still involves plenty of disagreement. But they’re proud to say that working together, they’ve increased minority participation. “If we hadn’t been friends first,” says Howard, “I probably wouldn’t have listened.”
For every person who listens, though, there’s another who talks about diversity while recoiling from the real thing. Real relationships mean feeling uncomfortable, getting feelings hurt and coming back anyway.
After all, that’s what families do. Moore sometimes asks teachers who are struggling with cross-cultural communication whether their own spouse really understands them. He’s almost always greeted with knowing chuckles and shaking heads. “It’s much harder to deal with a spouse or a teen-ager,” Moore says, “than someone who is racially different.”
Want to go?
Thomas Moore’s 20th annual New Year’s Eve Celebration for Children and Families is 11 a.m. to noon and 1 to 2p.m. Friday at Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, 1017 E. Morehead St. Guests include students from the Clara Jones piano studio and Fran Sullivan dance studio; the Dancing Dads; Manuel Herrera, named America’s Teen Male Dancer in 1998; and Cory Hunter, former soloist for the Harlem Boys Choir. Tickets are $6 for children and $7 for adults; advance sales are at Black Forest Books and Toys, 115 Cherokee Road, (704) 332-4838. To reach Moore, call (704) 371-4077.