Phil Moore: Hollywood’s Black Pioneer, and Marilyn’s Musical Mentor

Phil Moore (shown above with Marilyn in 1951) was the first salaried black musician to work at a major Hollywood studio. He became Marilyn’s vocal coach in 1948, and photographer J.R. Eyerman first captured his work with the then little-known starlet that November, in a series uncovered by the LIFE archive in 2011. Alongside Fred Karger and Hal Schaefer, Moore was one of Marilyn’s key musical mentors.

He coached her for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), and commented, “She always sounds as if she’s just waking up. You’d be surprised what kind of effect that has on male listeners.” Phil also saw Marilyn socially when she was a neighbour of his then-girlfriend, the actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge, on Hilldale Avenue, West Hollywood in 1952. (Marilyn and Dorothy first met at the Actors Lab in 1947.)

Over at JSTOR Daily, Ashawnta Jackson looks back on Phil Moore’s remarkable career.

“Having a hand in the careers of entertainers like Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Frank Sinatra, and Marilyn Monroe, the composer, arranger, and musician Phil Moore was also a huge part of crafting the sound of Hollywood. ‘I don’t manufacture talent,’ he told Ebony magazine. ‘I merely help it along and encourage it to express itself.’

Moore did much of his work behind the scenes, so his name isn’t as well known as some of the work he left behind. But as ethnomusicologist Ronda L. Sewald writes, ‘it was ultimately his wide-ranging skill set that allowed him to succeed musically and overcome the color barriers faced by Black musicians attempting to break into mainstream Hollywood at that time.’

Moore got his first film job working on the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races (1937.) MGM hired him as a rehearsal pianist in 1941—making him the first salaried Black musician to ever be hired by a major studio. He moved on to arranging and composing, though his influence wasn’t always acknowledged.

Much of Moore’s work was, as he put it, as ‘an official ghost, meaning one who did a hell of a lot of music sketching and arranging, but very rarely getting any credit.’ Though his career seemed to be moving forward, he felt stuck. ‘For about three years,’ Moore said, ‘they would not let me orchestrate any scores that needed violins and strings—just jazzy big band production numbers where we had to sound hot. The thing was, I presume, how would a colored person know anything about strings and all that legit stuff?’

He left MGM for New York to become the first Black talent director at CBS Radio and began working as a highly in-demand vocal coach in the 1960s. His coaching talents transformed the careers of a who’s-who of Hollywood. Of his talent, Moore told Ebony, ‘I think I have a knack of making people develop confidence in themselves by realizing what they have.'”