Rudy Ray Moore
at Beat Kitchen, May 11
On that day three decades ago, when a toothless derelict named Rico walked into Dolphin's Record Shop in Los Angeles and offered to recite a dirty poem in exchange for soup money, neither Rudy Ray Moore nor anyone else there realized that they were all about to witness an Important Moment in entertainment history.
Rico was a regular; Moore, a comedian who had a part-time gig deejaying in the window of the shop, had paid for his lunch before. But that particular day, as he watched his buddies bust a gut at Rico's raunchy tale du jour, an idea popped into his head: if a winehead like Rico could crack up a roomful of hipsters with these routines, a professional like himself should be able to make a killing with them.
Moore, who was in his 30s at the time, was ripe for some inspiration. He'd been poking around the entertainment industry since he was a teenager, but he couldn't seem to catch a break. As a kid in Cleveland, he'd billed himself as the Harlem Hillbilly, singing R & B-inflected country ballads. A little later, after some coaching by a local dancer named Billy Nightengale, he moved to Milwaukee and hooked up with a traveling revue, in which he donned a turban to become the gyrating acrobatic stepper Prince Dumarr. As such he barnstormed the midwest and the south until 1950, when he was drafted.
While he was in the army, serving in Korea and Germany, Moore honed his stagecraft in servicemen's clubs. After his discharge in 1953, he resumed the Prince Dumarr shtick and hit the road in another revue that starred tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, who recorded for the King Records subsidiary Federal. McNeely introduced Moore to Ralph Bass, the King producer who would soon discover James Brown. Moore released a handful of 45s on Federal in '55 and '56. One of his originals, "I'm Mad With You," hit the country charts a year later--when proto-rockabilly pianist Moon Mullican covered it.
More road work followed, including a stint as a driver and part-time vocalist with Huey "Piano" Smith & the Clowns, a New Orleans revue fronted by the flamboyant cross-dressing singer Bobby Marchan. By the early 60s Moore had gravitated to southern California, where he created yet another character, Mr. Wiggles, and worked up an act with a woman (Mrs. Wiggles, naturally) in which the pair performed splits and other contortionist antics while standing on their heads in chairs.
He also recorded a few comedy LPs for Dootone, a doo-wop label whose roster also included comedian Redd Foxx. Those early albums were pretty typical for the times, mixing risque jokes with topical satire. One of his bits, "The Beatnik Scene," got some airplay on KGFJ, and Moore parlayed that into the storefront deejay gig at Dolphin's. He developed a reputation as a savvy song plugger--he's taken credit for breaking the Rivingtons' 1962 hit "Papa Oom Mow Mow" in the LA market--but he was increasingly frustrated by his inability to succeed as a performer himself. Then came Rico.
What Rico recited on that fateful day was a profane narrative starring a folk hero called Dolemite--an urban updating of characters like Railroad Bill and Stagger Lee, who'd populated African-American toasts, rhymes, and dozens sessions for generations. Outlaw tricksters who hustled, fought, and fucked their way through life on their own terms, they were descendants of the likes of Brer Rabbit and the cunning slave John, who duped his slow-witted master into giving him his freedom. Many folklorists believe their lineage extends all the way back to African deities like Eshu, the shape-shifting guardian of the crossroads. But unlike Eshu, John, or Brer Rabbit, outlaws like Stagger Lee and Dolemite were as willing to raise hell in their own communities as they were to challenge established authority. Their status in respectable black society was only marginally better than it would have been in white society--had whites any idea they existed.
Only occasionally had the hard-core street culture from which they sprang ever been represented on record, even in the blues tradition. The most notable example was probably Lucille Bogan's "Shave 'em Dry," from 1935: "I got nipples on my titties big as the end o' my thumb / I got somethin' between my legs make a dead man come." Moore, realizing this, lured Rico to his house with "reefer and some wine," taped him telling his stories, and then recorded his own versions. He'd bankrolled several of his own projects in the past and, figuring he had nothing to lose, compiled his recordings into a full-length album called Eat Out More Often. He hand-delivered copies to distributors; he played the LP in person for record store owners.
Eventually the Kent label picked it up, and the album climbed to number 24 on Billboard's soul chart. Moore took to the road again, performing his new act at clubs, jukes, and roadhouses--whenever and wherever he could. Within a few years he'd issued more LPs--This Pussy Belongs to Me, The Cockpit, I Can't Believe I Ate the Whole Thing, Dolemite for President--and was something of a sensation on the black nightclub circuit.
Not even Foxx had dared to do the sort of routines Moore was now putting to wax: "I'm the player, the pussy surveyor," Moore crows in one of his early Dolemite bits:
I'm the slider, the glider,
Never fucked a woman 'less I satisfied 'er!
I'm the bed-shaker, the slat-breaker, the baby-maker!
Imp the Stimp, the woman's pimp,
Hula-Dula the whore-house ruler...
If anybody asks you what's my name,
Tell 'em it's Dolemite--
The baaadest pimpin' hustlin' motherfucker
That ever played the game!
Moore was well aware that he was carrying on a tradition, even if it was a crass one. He revitalized the venerable tale of the Signifying Monkey, a jungle trickster who gets too smart for his own good and eventually gets his ass whupped by the lion he's conned into fighting an elephant. From Saint Louis bluesman William Bunch, who had died in 1941, he appropriated and updated the character Peetie (which he changed to "Petey") Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-in-Law and the High Sheriff of Hell. His "Stack-a-Lee" was recognizably based on earlier versions recorded by R & B artists like Lloyd Price and Wilson Pickett, but Moore allowed the venerable criminal to speak for himself in his own language: "I'm the bad motherfucker that drove the devil outta hell!" he bellowed. "I walked from New York to the deepest south / Just to punch a sonofabitch in his motherfuckin' mouth!"
Whores and hustlers like Hurricane Annie ("She went from city to city / Fuckin' the mayors, the senators, the presidents, and the whole government lot"), Pimpin' Sam ("Like the king of the bees, I'm gonna drop you a load o' honey"), and Dangerous Dan ("I'm Dangerous Dan, better known as the good fuckin' man") came to life on Moore's records. Also included were scathing commentaries on racial politics: "Put me in the White House!" he crowed on Dolemite for President. "I'm gonna get me 2,000 painters to paint the motherfucking White House black. If I get to be the president and we take over, I'm not gonna kill all the whites. You know why? We will need workers!"
Record stores wouldn't advertise this stuff. Stores that carried Moore's records usually kept them hidden under the counter, to be brought out only by special request--which of course only enhanced their allure to those in the know. In 1975 an emboldened Moore produced and starred in his own movie, Dolemite, the first in what would be a series of action movies. Onscreen he improvised martial-arts scenes, pimped women, spewed expletives, knocked the shit out of adversaries both white and black, and in general raised as much unholy hell as he had on record. Production values were low to nonexistent (in some of his films the sound track is out of sync with the characters' lip movements); critics, when they took notice at all, were appalled. In an article in Living Blues, Moore remembers with relish the reception Dolemite received in Chicago:
"My very dear friend Earl Calloway, I got to give him a lot of credit. Earl Calloway did so much for my career. He wrote in the Chicago Defender--I still got the article--'Dolemite is not fit for a blind dog to see. It's coarse, bold, crude, and rude.' And, of course, this made people say, 'We're going to see how crude and rude this Dolemite is!'"
Even as a cult icon, Moore says, he made enough money to sustain a relatively comfortable lifestyle. In the 80s and 90s, though, his career got a boost when rappers began to create routines and stage personas inspired by his material. The list of those who've name checked, sampled, or otherwise paid homage includes Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, Busta Rhymes, Ice-T, Eazy-E, Big Daddy Kane, Eric B. & Rakim, Ol' Dirty Bastard, the Beastie Boys, and Master P. In the early 90s Moore made his network TV debut on The Arensio Hall Show, where he delivered a PG-rated Dolemite routine and declared himself the Godfather of Rap.
But in an interview before his show at the Beat Kitchen last Saturday, he insisted that he's ambivalent about claiming the hip-hop generation as the spawn of Dolemite.
"I've got to approve of it," he hedged, "because they took me and used me. They took pieces out of my comedy records and embedded it in their performance. And I have to endorse their efforts to be rap stars, but I don't endorse some of the subject matter that they use. I don't feel like doing four-letter words over and over and over--motherfucker this, motherfucker there--just to be doing it. I will do it in a fashion as to where it tells a story. When I picked mine up out of the streets I took it, and in takin' it I used it in a manner where it has been worthwhile, not just to get it and do nothing with it.
"In other words, it is a satire, a form of art. This is my formula. But some of them throws it in, they think that is the hip side of it but in my opinion it isn't and I doesn't endorse it.
"I do not perform my show for people under age. Like these rap shows, they got them kids in there, some of 'em 12, 13 years old, hearin' all of the motherfuckers and so forth--I don't do that. I refuse to do it. I appeared at a show with Harold Melvin & the Bluenotes some years ago, doing my comedy and rap, and a man brought his two sons down, one 11 and one 10, something like that. And I refused to perform the show. I said, 'It's a damn shame, you bringing these youngsters in here, and me not be able to do what people paid to come here and hear me do.' He carried his boys outside and put them in the car, and I proceeded to do my show."
Two years ago Moore agreed to let Norton Records reissue his old R & B 45s. The compilation, Hully Gully Fever, also includes some unissued masters and some recently unearthed sound checks from his days in the window at Dolphin's. Its success inspired Moore to begin including some songs in his stage act, and this year he released his first musical recording in 35 years on his own Generation International label. Included are remakes of some of his old material--"Don't Go No Farther," a Willie Dixon song he first recorded on Ball in 1957, the New Orleans-style "Hurts Me to My Heart," which originally appeared in '57 on Cash--as well as covers of standards like "I Can't Stop Loving You" and Curtis Mayfield's "Need to Belong." Modestly titled The Genius of Rudy Ray Moore, aka Dolemite, the Soul Singer of the 21st Century, it includes a spoken prelude in which Moore proclaims, "If I can't reach you, you're unreachable" and promises a set of "soul ballads and inspirational music."
Moore's voice isn't exactly the seductive instrument he claims it to be, although on ballads he affects a tender-sounding, sandpapery murmur before ascending into his usual leather-lunged roar, which he punctuates with teary falsetto breaks and constricted screams. Lyrically he keeps it surprisingly clean, although it's debatable whether women will find his amorous vision as romantic as he seems to hope: on "Feeling Good," patterned after the gospel standard "Amen," he proclaims that "She makes love to me deep / And makes me fall off and go to sleep."
His live act, though, remains largely unchanged. At the Beat Kitchen last Saturday, he kept a packed house waiting for almost 45 minutes as he sold and signed merchandise at a table set up near the door. Then, as a deejay played a backing track from his 2000 CD Scratch My Back (reissued in March by Capitol's Right Stuff imprint as 21st Century Dolemite), a mostly live comedy CD that includes some musical numbers, and the Sol Reys, a local quartet recruited to back him, laid down a tepid funk groove, he ambled through the crowd to the stage, where he passed out plastic roses with flashing electric lights in their petals. Finally he took the microphone and ripped into character.
"Yeeeaass--my name is Dolemite! I ain't never craved nothin' but a good fuck and a bite! I know how to roll and I know how to rock, and I know to knock the linin' from the average bitch's cock! I got a great big dick and it's mighty, mighty long; when I get in a bitch's ass I make it sing a song.... Bitch had the nerve to tell me to get on my knees and nibble her pussy like a rat eat cheese....Your drawers may be cleaned and trimmed in lace, but you gon' have to suck on these nuts while I sit on your face. I fucked an ape in a cape and a goat in a coat and a cat in a hat and a pig in a wig....I even fucked Siamese twins, they were joined at they's spine; I stuck it in one of 'em's pussy and it came out the other'n's behind!...With this big long dick that I used in Africa for a walkin' stick."
Which pretty much set the tone for the evening. When he wasn't bragging about his own exploits, he was counseling both men and women on the less-fine points of lovemaking: "Learn how to fuck!" he barked at the men. "Stand up in that pussy! Whup that pussy, make a left-hand signal! Whup that pussy, make a right-hand curve!
"Ladies! When yo' pussy begin to pop, put that motherfucker in a supershock! Gettin down' is no playin' thing--yo' pussy should be hot enough to make his motherfuckin' asshole sing!"
He reprised his old presidential campaign speech, although he omitted the more aggressive racial signifying, instead promising to transform the country into a players' paradise if he gets elected. People in the audience who knew the routine set him up with questions, which he dutifully answered:
"Where do you stand on unemployment?"
"At the end of the line! I'm gon' legalize stealing--fuck a job!"
"Where do you stand on prostitution?"
"I don't stand on prostitution--I lay on it!"
A few people, looking as if the blood had drained from their faces, left early. But most of the crowd--male and female, but almost entirely white--remained, shouting their affirmation of Dolemite's badness. In fact, Moore told me before the show, white audiences these days often respond more favorably to his act than black ones.
"Some of the hip white crowds," he said, "this type of a club, Portland and Seattle, up around there, I was doing shows for white audiences...now, since they have gotten so hip, and they have a hip groove, they are into my style."
He also insists that he feels no condescension or patronization from his new fans. "I can tell phonies," he says, "and people that are for real. There's just something about 'em that just don't project." His white fans, he says, "show love that's natural."
As for the black listeners who sustained his career for decades: "If they don't come, they don't have to come. I wish 'em severe chest pains if they don't show up."
With his nuanced performance, Moore made it clear that imparting culture shock is a craft. A lifetime of signifying and shouting in raucous nightclubs seemed not to have diminished his voice: it was bull-like when he bellowed, piercing when he broke into a falsetto shriek, theatrically lugubrious when he sobbed and moaned. Moore recited his verses in cadences so effortless they sounded conversational, playing with phonetics the way a jazzman riffs on notes and tones, setting up a phrase with a flurry of front-loaded words that end in vowels or soft consonants, then ramming it home with a short-vowel-hard-consonant capper: dick! stick! rock! cock!
The musical segments were less effective. Moore seemed either unable or unwilling to modulate from his usual stentorian bellow into anything approximating a croon. The masterful phrasing that characterized most of his spoken-word material seemed to desert him; he broke time quite often, even on the basic 12-bar "Don't Go No Farther." On "Hip Shakin' Papa," his update of New Orleans singer Chubby Newsom's 1949 hit "Hip Shakin' Mama," he strayed so far ahead of the prerecorded backing track that he finished the entire song long before it was over; the deejay dutifully turned it down and let the Sol Reys carry him out.
Fortunately, Moore doesn't intend to retire Dolemite: in fact, the world premiere of The Return of Dolemite 2002 is scheduled for May 17 in New Orleans. In the movie our hero, who has been living in Africa for 25 years, is called back to the States to clean up the streets and restore order. Moore promises plenty of martial arts and special effects. Once again, it's an independent production--but last year Dimension Films, which distributes the original Dolemite, bought the rights to a remake; reportedly LL Cool J will star and Moore will consult.
Nonetheless Moore insists that the future is brightest for him as a vocalist. "I'm not conceited, I'm convinced," he told me. "I have a great voice. The voice is smooth. And I sing soul ballads with feeling. And doing that has gained me a good reputation as a singer. I'm the soul singer of the 21st century--the man with the cashmere voice. I sing them with extreme feeling. In other words, I bears down on 'em. That is my style."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.