Passaic's Clem Moorman dies, but his musical legacy lives on
Kelly NicholaidesUpdated 5:44 p.m. ET July 27, 2017
Clem Moorman, 101, performed at piano bars, lounges, clubs, restaurants and churches since he was 13. Wochit/Kelly Nicholaiides
A 101-year-old pianist whose tireless live jazz, blues and classics performances peppered with foot tapping and crowd chatting died on July 21, but he left a music legacy spanning eight decades.
Clem Moorman charmed crowds with his musical talent, smiling eyes, humor, hearty laugh and raspy voice. His song "Don't Stop Now" with the Bunny Banks Trio made it on the Harlem Hit Parade chart in the 1940s.
"He was an old school performer and gentleman, dressed in a tuxedo, always prim and proper," recalls friend Tom Stabile, who was a patron at Bareli's Restaurant in Secaucus where Moorman played for a decade before Stabile bought the restaurant.
The two forged a close friendship, going to the same salon, Design V in Nutley, where they chatted during haircuts.
Clem Moorman playing in Clifton in 1997. (Photo: NorthJersey.com file photo)
Moorman was a Newark native and Passaic resident who was also an Equity-SAG-AFTRA actor, singer, composer and recording artist. He died peacefully at home surrounded by his family following a brief illness.
Regardless of the music industry's evolution, Moorman stayed true to his piano bar style live performance preferences at venues like Bareli's, Cortina in Paterson and Martha's Vineyard in Clifton.
"I'm outdated," Moorman joked in 2013. "So I do my own thing, have my own taste, and do what I've been doing. My favorite part is talking to people, making jokes in between singing and playing. With session work, you play what you see and there isn't too much freedom."
The youngest of 13, Moorman was born on March 20, 1916 and built success backed by a stern, yet loving mother, Louise, who instilled the value of discipline in daily piano practice, while sister Hazel provided lessons. His professional music career started at age 13 with the Sunday School of Newark’s Thirteenth Avenue Presbyterian Church. At age 22, he was part of Johnny Jackson’s Society Orchestra, playing at the Terrace Ballroom at Newark Symphony Hall.
Through the '40s and '50s, Moorman and his bands recorded for the Savoy, Apollo, Decca and Columbia Record labels. His song “Don’t Stop Now” was No. 1 for five weeks on the Harlem Hit Parade. Moorman performed through the Petrillo Ban, which forced musicians to hide their union status or risk losing work.
As a young musician, Moorman performed with orchestras such as Johnny Jackson's Society Orchestra, and in trios. Early influences were Teddy Wilson and Emory Lucas.
Moorman is pictured performing at Martha's Vineyard in Clifton in 1997. (Photo: Don Smith)
Lucas was a Washington, D.C.-based music teacher who taught Moorman about harmony, scales and arrangements – the technical side of music. Moorman added the heart and soul. Learning from Lucas, Moorman initially wanted to be an arranger, and studied it with correspondence courses. "He taught me harmony,"Moorman says in a DVD on his life. "Melody is only harmony spread out over a bar [of music]."
Numerous bands and orchestras were part of his life. In 1939, he formed the Dictators, a nine-member orchestra. Newark record shop owner Herman Lubinsky recorded them at an audition session, which produced four masters: Lubinsky released them in 1942, under the name "Savoy Dictators" on his Savoy label, after the group disbanded.
Moorman went incognito when the Petrillo Ban in 1942 forced union musicians to hide their union status or risk losing work.
At the Picadilly Club in Newark, The Piccadilly Pipers trio included Moorman, bassist Henry "Pat" Padgett, and guitarist Ernie Ransome. The group had two female singers, including Melba Smith, and played at Herman Lubinsky's record store, where Lubinsky got the group into the studio in 1942. Lubinsky dreamed up the name "Bunny Banks Trio" and bootlegged and recorded the union act under the new name.
Savoy seemed to be stockpiling masters. The Piccadilly Pipers recorded 14 songs, in five sessions, including "Don't Stop Now" with the Bunny Banks Trio in 1943. Savoy released their two debut tunes featuring "Don't Stop Now" and "Paratroop Boogie" (a Moorman piano solo, which credits "Bunny Banks at the piano"). "Don't Stop Now" became their only hit. Lubinsky paid the band $75 for the song that put Savoy Records on the map.
Clem Moorman plays Kansas City
His widow, Kris, says Moorman's legacy is one of constant learning and interacting with people through music.
"Live music performances were his thing, especially when piano bars were big all over. He was an entertainer," Kris said. "He didn't realize the extent of his impact. He enjoyed life and had so much humility, was never boastful."
The entertainer was a quintessential crowd pleaser. "He told old vaudeville style jokes and took requests. People kept coming to see Clem, and he knew the songs they wanted to hear individually and would start playing them when they walked in. He had a way with people, a connection," Kris said.
Even though he was set in his formula as an entertainer, Moorman was not afraid to try new ways of earning a living. He carried tunes as a saloon singer and took the role of music director for the national tour of Broadway Musical “Blues in the Night” with Della Reese and later Eartha Kitt. He was also conductor and pianist in “Ain’t Misbehavin” at the Pioneer Theater in Salt Lake City. In Maine and Texas, Moorman and Paula Newsome costarred in the two-person play "Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill" about the last days in the life of Billie Holiday.
Radio and TV appearances were plentiful, as Moorman appeared on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, the David Frost show, America’s Most Wanted, Chris Rock’s HBO show, Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts, and the Robert Q. Lewis and Gary Moore variety series. He made several cabaret and TV appearances with his stepdaughter Melba Moore. Moorman appeared in commercials for Budweiser, Benson & Hedges, Oppenheimer, and Jackson Hewitt, and his distinctive voice could be heard in many voice-overs.
Film appearances included “Down to Earth” starring Rock, “Bringing out the Dead,” directed by Martin Scorsese, “Loose Cannons” starring Gene Hackman, “Legal Eagles” starring Robert Redford and “Trading Places” starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd.
Clem Moorman (Photo: Special to NorthJersey.com)
Whether he was in a church setting to feed his deep spirituality or in a restaurant or bar lounge, Moorman was equally at ease. He was pianist in residence at six upscale New Jersey restaurants and was organist and choir director at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Montclair. He composed, arranged music, performed vocal and instrumental duets, and worked with the Sunday School and adult choirs at First Presbyterian Church of Rutherford until after his 101st birthday.
For Moorman, there was no "the end," but rather "the next thing."
Moorman is survived by his wife of 45 years Kristin B. Moorman and his children and stepchildren: Clementine Bettis, Melba Moore, Elliott Moorman, Gerard Moorman, Kathy Romano (Gary), Randy Bigness (Kate Ulichny), and Kerry Martin (Paul). He is predeceased by his son Dennis. Moorman is also loved by a large family of grandchildren and great grandchildren.
A celebration of Moorman's life will be held at the First Presbyterian Church of Rutherford, 1 East Passaic Ave., on Saturday at 1 p.m. Donations in his memory may be made to the music fund of the Rutherford church.