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."