By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
By Gina Tron
By Jon Solomon
Trying to reconcile the gleefully blasphemous voice of vintage Rudy Ray -- an influence on successors ranging from Richard Pryor to Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew -- with the one that crawls out of the telephone in a recent interview isn't easy. Throughout the conversation, Moore, 65, sounds tired: He yawns frequently, speaks in a barely audible croak and puts comparatively little juice behind the self-promotional patter at which he's always excelled. The Return of Dolemite 2002, his latest movie, is in the can, and he says it's filled with the bare-knuckles martial-arts action that marks micro-budget epics such as 1975's Dolemite, 1976's The Human Tornado and 1978's truly bizarre Petey Wheatstraw, aka The Devil's Son-in-Law. To the question of whether he kicks as high in Return as he does in his cinematic benchmarks, he replies, "I might as well be -- because I've got somebody else doing it for me."
Fortunately, Moore is capable of whipping up his old hysteria when required. On 21st Century Dolemite, his newly recorded CD for the Right Stuff imprint, he cuts loose on bawdy tunes such as "Hot Nuts" ("My nuts is good and big and round/And almost draggin' to the ground") and comic outbursts like "Deaf & Dumb," in which he tells an audience member that he can't find "any pussy" in town because "you done ate it all up."
This old-school approach to lewdness is definitely an acquired taste: During a Moore performance earlier this year at the 15th Street Tavern, a conspicuous percentage of the crowd was reportedly left slack-jawed and unamused by his relentless scatology. Moore didn't notice anything untoward. "I came to the conclusion that everyone was well into me," he says. But even if only a few observers were put off, their discomfort is something of a testament to his enduring power. In the immortal words of Dolemite, a rude, crude superhero whose most powerful weapon can be found between his legs, Moore remains more than capable of "fuckin' up muthafuckas."
A native of Fort Smith, Arkansas, Moore moved north as a teenager and eventually wound up in Milwaukee, where he got a job as a dancer at a couple of colorfully named venues, the Flame Show Bar and the Moonglow Night Club. Shortly thereafter, he made the transition to music, dubbing himself "Prince Dumarr, the Turban-Headed Prince of the Blues" and, as a sop to the rock crowd, "the Harlem Hillbilly."
"I was doing rock in that period," he notes. "I even incorporated a rockabilly sound in some of my arrangements."
Mostly, though, Moore preferred to linger on the spot where blues, jump blues and R&B intersected. Hully Gully Fever, a compilation of his assorted singles that was released in 2000 by the Norton imprint, received mostly positive reviews from critics, who heard echoes of Big Joe Turner, Little Richard and plenty of others in boisterous excursions such as "Robbie Dobbie," "Scotch Fever" and "Ring-A-Ling Dong." Moore performs some of this material in Live at Wetlands, a DVD put out by Xenon Entertainment Group that's part of a new boxed set of his flicks. "I was scared to death," Moore says of his performance at the New York City club in Live's title. "But to be in front of a sellout crowd singing songs I'd sung forty years before was sensational."
Back in the day, however, Moore was never able to reach the musical bigtime -- a failure that continues to mystify him. "When I look back today and listen to that Norton record, I just can't understand why I didn't hit. I chalk it up to not being able to get on the airwaves. Back in the 1950s, my stuff was so strong, and that's what kept me from getting on with Pat Boone and Ricky Nelson and the boys that came along in that era who controlled the radio. Me, I didn't have a chance."
When the musical door closed on him, Moore opened another, reinventing himself as a standup comic, albeit one whose patter bore little relation to the vigorous vulgarity in which he later trafficked. "I touched on beatniks," he says. "That was the big subject, then; you know, 'A beatnik done this, a beatnik done that' -- and that was my primary nightclub act. And it was clean, so you could play it on the radio."
These bits were good enough to attract the notice of Dooto Records, best known for putting out platters by Redd Foxx, who made risqué recordings prior to becoming the cuddly curmudgeon on TV's Sanford and Son. But Moore's three Dooto discs (Below the Belt and Let's All Come Together, from 1961, and 1962's The Beatnik Scene) didn't set the world on fire or even raise its temperature, so he was stranded in relative obscurity once again. He struggled to find a new angle throughout the 1960s and finally came up with one, thanks to the unlikeliest of saviors: a "wino" he identifies as Rico.
"See, people would sit out in front of liquor stores, and when they were passing around bottles of wine, they'd tell all this folklore, in a structure of ghetto expressions," he says. "Just passing the bottle and telling these lies -- and they didn't do it professionally, but they'd have so much fun, and people would laugh. When I heard it, being a professional, I felt like I could do it and make it work for me. So I got this one wino, Rico, to sit down with my tape recorder and put this stuff on tape, and in the next two or three days, I recorded it and had music set to it. And I took it to a truck stop and let the truck drivers hear it, and they were like, 'My God, I've got to have one of these!' They wanted me to get them one right away -- so I got some of them copied off, and then I went to a record-pressing plant that I was in touch with when I was making my singing records. I had them press up 3,000 records, and I started selling them out of the trunk of my car."
The name Moore slapped on this 1970 opus -- Eat Out More Often -- was designed to offend puritanical sensibilities; so was the cover photo of a nude Rudy Ray with an equally unclothed female. As such, record stores had to stock them under the counter. But that didn't prevent Eat, which features the first appearance of Dolemite, from becoming an underground phenomenon. Too bad it didn't much benefit poor Rico.
"I saw him many, many, many times after the record came out," Moore says. "But he was so down he didn't even know about it. I'd give him money for wine -- $15 here, $20 there. But he got hit by a bus, and nobody saw him anymore. It was 25 years ago, and we ain't seen him since."
To make sure he didn't vanish, Moore started cranking out followups in the Eat Out More Often mode, including This Pussy Belongs to Me, on which he offered "Signifying Monkey," a well-traveled routine about a monkey outwitting a lion that he infused with an extra helping of naughtiness ("She got down so low she sucked an earthworm's dick"). But within a few years, he recognized that in order to advance himself, he needed to broaden his scope -- and he saw movies as a way to do so. He filmed Dolemite over a span of thirteen months, using his own home as the main set and taking regular breaks for standup tours to finance the next reels of celluloid.
By Hollywood standards, the finished picture hardly looks finished at all; it's amateurish on pretty much every level. "I got made fun of," Moore remembers. "They talked about how my movie would never get shown in a theater. But the movie was so hard-hitting and so rough, and got so much notoriety, that it drew lines in big cities like Chicago, standing up against million-dollar productions and sometimes even outdrawing them."
Predictably, Dolemite was dubbed blaxploitation, a term Moore dislikes. "There were a few groups in that time that were not in favor of what we were doing with our movies for our people, and they're the ones that came up with that title. But that word comes with an edge, and I was always disgusted with it. When I was a boy and went to the movies, I watched Roy Rogers and Tim Holt and those singing cowboys killing Indians, but they never called those movies 'Indian exploitation' -- and I never heard The Godfather called 'Eye-talian exploitation.' So I was never in favor of it."
Such a politically correct view may seem odd given how politically incorrect Moore's film work is: For instance, the protagonist of Petey Wheatstraw, another figure drawn from folklore, is born as either the twin or the afterbirth of a watermelon, depending upon your point of view. Moore explains that shocking audiences was the only way an outsider like him could get attention. "I was shooting on a shoestring, so naturally I had to put everything into it that would be controversial, daring and different. This is what I was trying to put across on the screen -- that I was different from what you'd seen otherwise."
As such, he learned just how far he could push the envelope. "You could not do any male nudity from the front or you'd get an X rating, but I did it with females, because the beaver can be shown from six feet and you get an R rating -- so we made sure the cameras were six feet away. And the ratings board didn't usually bother us about the language, because they didn't know what I was saying. One of the people on the board asked this distributor I had, 'What are these words?' But then he said, 'I don't know what it means, so I'll give it an R.'"
This approach didn't work forever: When 1979's Disco Godfather tanked, Moore's viability as a filmmaker went with it. But he was kept aloft during the '80s and '90s by the kindness of rap stars, who recognized Rudy Ray as a kindred spirit.
"I have become their idol," says Moore, rousing himself to immodesty. "Like, Busta Rhymes has called me twice to come to rap with him, and Big Daddy Kane and Eric B and Rakim, I made a trip to do things with them. Snoop Dogg has had me to Hollywood to rap with him on his records, and the 2 Live Crew brought me to Miami and wined and dined me to make a record with them. And Eazy E, I did a record with him, and I was sampled by N.W.A. I've been sampled at least 71 times. Me, James Brown and George Clinton, we're the ones who've been sampled the most."
Still, Moore hasn't gotten rich from hip-hop. For instance, a snippet of Dolemite 4 President can be heard on Dr. Dre's mega-selling album The Chronic, but Moore was paid a lump sum of $8,000 for the rights. "After I took the money, I was told I should have gotten more," he says. "But it was for a record that was dead at that time, and the thought that I made that much money on it -- I thought it was right. I didn't know."
The recent revival of interest in Moore -- the CDs, the DVDs, and so on -- gave rise to The Return of Dolemite, which he says should debut at theaters in New Orleans next month. There's even a chance of a big-budget remake of the original Dolemite, to star LL Cool J. "That was something that was in the air, oh, eight or ten months ago," Moore says. "The company, from what I can understand, backed out after that, but a couple weeks ago they put it back on the drawing board, and they asked me about helping them do it. But right now, it looks sort of shady."
No matter what happens on this front, Moore remains proud of his legacy -- although he's a bit worried that the masses don't recognize exactly what he's accomplished.
"I want people to see how positive I am and see the greatness of the performances," he says wearily. "I don't just do a bunch of X-rated words just to be doing them. My structure has an art-form flow, and I do what I do as a form of art. I'm a ghetto expressionist, not a dirty old man."