When the Black Film Center/Archive received Mary Perry Smith’s 2014 gift of records and memorabilia from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, we uncovered a unique collection nested within it documenting the life and work of Phil Moore (1917-1987).  Moore was himself among the earliest inductees into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame and remained a committed volunteer and supporter of the non-profit throughout his last years.

Phil Moore photo triptych, seen here during BFC/A archivist Ronda Sewald’s initial processing of the collection at the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility in 2014.

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.  A man of many talents, Moore worked as a composer, arranger, conductor, and vocal coach.  After moving on 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 ’40s-’60s.

Phil Moore portrait 2.jpg
Phil Moore portrait [detail], circa 1960s [COL 6 PA 230]. Phil Moore Collection. Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University.  Photographer unknown.  In the background are albums and photographs of his various clients including Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Marilyn Monroe, Bobby Short, Frank Sinatra, and many others.
Born an orphan, Moore was adopted by George Philip and Iris Irene Moore on March 7th, 1917, in Portland, Oregon. His 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 thirteen, 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 to accept this and other similarly diminished titles even while he performed uncredited work composing and arranging for leading white musical directors from his start with the studio.

A Rhythm Hymn, Score II. Glen Gray, 1941 February 4 [COL 6 OSL 1.1]. Phil Moore Collection. Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University.  CC BY-NC.
Moore went on to work on numerous films at MGM, including Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Cabin in the Sky (1943), and Kismet (1944). Moore also freelanced for studios such as 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 and talent school with his wife Jeanne until his passing in 1987.


Pages from the 1986 draft of Moore’s unpublished autobiography.  It discusses his work scoring for The Duke Is Tops (Million Dollar Productions, 1938), his appearance with the Dandridge Sisters and the Cats and the Fiddle in “The Harlem Yodel” from Snow Gets in Your Eyes (MGM, 1938), and his uncredited role in arranging “When I See an Elephant Fly” for Dumbo (Disney, 1941).  Things I Forgot to Tell You: Moore Stuff typed manuscript, c1986 [COL 6 PM 1.28]. Phil Moore Collection. Black Film Center/Archive, Indiana University. CC BY-NC.
Moore’s legacy is traceable from his first performances with Frank Waldron’s band at Seattle’s Chinese Garden nightclub during the Great Depression, through his arrival in Hollywood, and extending through the posthumous release of the album, Guess Who’s in Town, his final co-production with Bobby Short. Thirty years after his passing, many of Moore’s prominent students continue to declare his influence on their careers as one of their first vocal coaches.  His plethora of musical talents that allowed him to work in film cannot be understated, as it was before the advent of musical technologies that we have today. The proliferation and affordability of musical technologies – via Moore’s Law – has given modern black musicians (e.g. Pharrell Williams, DJ Spooky) the ability to interact with film as arrangers, composers, producers, and conductors simultaneously. This statement is not to deny the talent of modern artists, but to highlight the mastery possessed by Moore to fulfill these roles nearly 70 years ago.


On Saturday, November 4, the spirit of Phil Moore will ring through Renée Baker’s original score for the 1927 film, The Scar of Shame, commissioned by the IU Cinema, where it will have its world premiere at 7pm. Baker notes specifically that motifs in her score have been inspired by the work of Phil Moore, most prominently his 1939 composition, Suite for Strings.

~Elijah Pouges


An exhibit of materials from the Phil Moore collection at the Black Film Center/Archive, curated by writer, musician, and IU journalism student Elijah Pouges, is on view through December 14, 2017, in the IU Cinema lower lobby.


5 thoughts on “Remembering Phil Moore (1917-1987)

  1. This was a joy to read. A great talent and influence that has not received its due acclaim. I know I’m biased as I speak as Stephanie PHILLIPA, his extremely proud god daughter.

  2. I so enjoyed this information and biography about Phil. I met him at the “National Band Camp” at Michigan State University in 1962 where he took an interest in me and invited me to New York with a big chance at stardom as a singer. What a wonderful experience!!

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