Rudy Ray Moore’s Dolemite Shuffle, by Michael H. Price
Something of a preamble, here, so sit tight and now dig this: The comics-censorship ruckus of the post-WWII years had begun to peter out, if only just, as the phobic 1950s gave way to the larger struggles – expression vs. repression, in the long wake of the Depression – of the presumably more free-wheeling 1960s. All were rooted in a popular urge to embrace the freedoms that the close of World War II was supposed to have heralded; a contrary urge to confine such freedoms to a privileged few was as intense, if not necessarily as popularly widespread.
Everybody wants freedom, but not everybody wants freedom for everybody: Hence the entrenchment of Oligarchy within Democracy, like that essential flaw in Green Lantern’s otherwise limitless Power Ring.
(Some handy background: Van Jensen’s ComicMix commentary, “Was Frederic Wertham a Villain?”)
The comic-book flap was an element of a larger insurgency-and-putdown cycle that pitted, for example, Cavalier Hollywood against a Roundhead Congress in the purges of the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Within the microcosm of Hollywood itself, struggles erupted over whether individual films – such as Dore Schary’s production of a pacifist fable called The Boy with Green Hair (1948) at hawkish Howard Hughes’ RKO-Radio Pictures – should convey instead a war-preparedness message in those days when much of America was still looking for another Axis to whip.
Might as well seek that next Axis within the mottled cultural fabric of America: And hence the right-minded War on Comics, and the Congressional siege upon liberal-by-convenience but economically conservative Hollywood, and the censors-gone-wild bans upon such free-expression poets and novelists as Allen Ginsberg (1956’s “Howl”) and William S. Burroughs (1959’s Naked Lunch). The uprisings were as inevitable as the thought-police actions.
Humor, a favored mechanism of challenge and rebellion, is of course irrepressible. And furthermore hence the survival of Mad magazine at a safe distance from the “Hey! Kids!” comic-book racks. Lenny Bruce, once the most forthright of rebellious comedians, plied his trade straight into a run of early-1960s obscenity investigations and busts, leading with his jaw to such an extent that he became punch-drunk – and forgot how to be funny as a consequence.
Slightly later, in 1969, a similarly emphatic comedian named Rudy Ray Moore emerged as a comparable voice of ribald candor and caustic hilarity. Moore hedged his bets against Bruce-like obscenity busts by avoiding politics and religion, and by confining his appearances to his own black community. The dominant-culture authorities in those segregationalist days preferred to leave the African-American sector to its own devices – provided that the influence did not impinge upon the cultural mainstream. A significant exception was a sustained outcry of the mid-century, driven by Big Religion and Big Politics, against rock ’n’ roll music.
Moore’s recordings, however, knew no ethnic dividing-lines – and neither did an appreciative niche-audience of white youngsters who knew where to find the record stores that dealt in such under-the-counter products. (As the social critic Robert Warshow pointed out during the 1950s, in an influential essay about the comics-censorship commotion, kids need a secret cultural life outside the range of parental sanctions as part of the gradual process of coming to terms with grown-up responsibilities. The odd gratification of shock and bewilderment – how much can you stand? – is part of the ritual.)
Shock and bewilderment aren’t what they used to be, of course. One can only wonder whether the free-speech movement of the last century might have expended its energies merely so that some shopping-mall kiosk can peddle rude-slogan T-shirts without fear of getting busted. And what new impact can the pioneering underground diatribes of a Lenny Bruce or a Rudy Ray Moore exert upon a society that has accepted the neurotic-bourgeois sanitized quasi-pornography of Sex and the City and Two and a Half Men as family-hour teevee fare? For my part, I suspect a puritanical conspiracy to devalue the coinage through overfamiliarity.
Rudy Ray Resurgent
Twenty years have passed since two art-broker and show-business friends, brothers Thomas and Peter Rainone, and I began taking steps to bring Rudy Ray Moore, long since retired by 1988, back to a semblance of prominence. The restoration has lasted. Rudy’s 1960s tactic of ranting in rhymed couplets, like a foulmouthed Edna St. Vincent Millay, represented a 19th-century black-tradition idiom known as “toasting” but also foreshadowed the emergence of rap and/or hip-hop narrative. A sobriquet bestowed during the 1990s by Arsenio Hall hails Moore as “the godfather of rap,” and don’t go thinking Moore hasn’t capitalized upon the recognition.
If Moore, the Human Tornado his Ownself, was born in 1937 – as he, and the Internet Movie Data Base, have declared in times more recent – then he’d be about nine years old in the accompanying photograph, here, which Moore himself has dated at A.D. 1946. Mighty mannish-looking for a nine-year-old kid. Or might he be that precocious homewrecking juvenile philanderer of whom the bluesman Elmore James once sang with such taboo-tempting indignation?
But no, the Arkansas-born singer-turned-comedian looks to be somewhere around twenty in this publicity photo for his early-day rhythm-and-blues revue. That aspect would peg Moore’s nativity at something more like 1927, the year that Moore had mentioned to me in 1988 during a backstage conversation on the occasion of a small-scale comeback from an enforced obscurity.
Now, the concept of backstage at The HOP, in Fort Worth, Texas, was a relative consideration – The HOP’s stage, such as it was, was more of a glorified platform, wide but shallow and affording its performers no exit except straight into the ringside-seating area. So Moore and my wife and I settled for a back-booth as a refuge between sets, as far back as we could get without barging in on the grease-pit kitchen.
Moore had come there from Los Angeles, to this whitebread-collegian venue as an unlikely showcase for his resolutely black artistry, at the behest of a small coalition including Tom and Pete Rainone, second-generation fine-art dealers and film-and-music talents from nearby Arlington, Texas, and Yrs. Trly.
The Rainone brothers and I had met a few years earlier at movie-industry event, and we had found sufficient interests in common to stay in touch.
Among these interests was an abiding curiosity as to whatever had become of Rudy Ray Moore, whose forbidden party-record albums I had discovered as a college kid in Amarillo, Texas. My hometown’s Go-Low Records ran a lucrative sideline in such fare – peddling as many of the things to taboo-busting white pseudo-hipsters as to the black customers who provided Moore (and such kindred souls as a newly ambitious Redd Foxx and a fading Mantan Moreland) with a built-in audience.
Moore long had been a chronic diehard failure at showmanship – not a failure in the sense of giving up, but rather in the fact of his being a relentlessly hopeful and striving entertainer whose every next breakthrough had proved illusory since around 1950. This condition persisted until he dropped the pretensions of mass-market compatibility and began exploiting a Lower Common Denominator as leverage to commercial acceptance. Moore is hardly the first to have tried such a route, but he is patently the first to have made a career of committing explicitly bawdy material to commercially issued phonograph records. Although Moore would undermine such material with a self-mocking smirk, a self-caricatured presence, and the tacit cordial assurance that he meant no harm greater than a barrage of momentary jolts, still he served to encourage imitators whose entire point became that of talking dirty with no sense of irony. A distinction is Moore’s understanding of the practical dividers between Art and Life, along with an instinctive sense of where those lines blur.
“Ol’ Rudy just dropped out of sight after that Disco Godfather thing he did,” Tom Rainone had said, referring to Moore’s swan-song starring movie of 1979.
“Good provocation to drop out of sight,” I had returned. “That movie wasn’t a patch on Dolemite or The Human Tornbado.” The visit took place at Rainone Gallery, with its wall-to-wall backdrop of Old World and American Modernist canvases. Hardly the place to be discussing the oeuvre of Rudy Ray Moore. But to continue:
“No, really. I mean, the man was some kind of a genius – in his way,” said Tom.
“Yeah, well, raunch requires a certain genius, I reckon. That is, if you want to walk that fine line between comedy and shock value. So how do you rate him by comparison with Lenny Bruce?”
“About equal, what little I’ve heard of Lenny Bruce’s stuff,” said Tom. “But didn’t Lenny lose touch with the humor, there, toward the end?”
“Yeah, well, that period hardly counts, except as natural melodrama,” I said. “So how does King Rudolph the First, Second & Third stack up against Redd Foxx?”
“More in the same class,” said Tom. “I mean, in terms of comedy aimed at a black audience.”
“Okay, and so how does that apply to white guys? Like us?”
“Well, I happen to think that the black comedians’ material is funnier than white-folks comedy – edgier.”
“Edgier than Lenny Bruce? In his prime, I mean.”
“Not satirical-edgy,” said Tom. “I mean, that kind of raw edginess that makes you cringe and laugh both at the same time.”
“How about the comparatively newer crop? Richard Pryor? Eddie Murphy?”
“Pryor built on Moore’s foundation, okay. On Lenny Bruce’s, too. Odd combination of influences. And Murphy’s not fit to shine Rudy Ray Moore’s boots.
“And as for Redd Foxx,” Tom added, “he hasn’t made anybody cringe in years. Not since he went mainstream with Sanford and Son. Sold out, that’s what Foxx did. He’s a regular teddy bear, now.”
“Better to sell out than drop out, maybe. Wonder what ol’ Rudy Ray’s doing these days?”
“How’s about we find out?” asked Tom in reply.
Whereupon we set out to do so, drawing upon my newspaper-editor interests, Tom’s connections with the independent-film underground, and a certain enthusiasm that had more to do with outlaw nostalgia than with any particular cultural imperative. The only recent outcropping of Rudy Ray Moore had been a digital-audio sampling of his material (without authorization or compensation) in 1986 by the raunch-rap act 2 Live Crew.
So Tom Rainone and blues-band drummer Pete Rainone and I called in some favors from friends in Los Angeles. We touched base with a few old-time exploitation filmmakers who would have kept in touch with the pandering schlockmeisters who had helped, with strings attached, to underwrite Moore’s brief run of motion pictures of the 1970s. At length, Tom and I came up with a telephone number known to few souls this side of Ma Bell. Rudy Ray Moore answered the call without so much of a buffer as an agent or a secretary.
He wasn’t working much nowadays, he explained. Just some church-group comedy, he explained, emphasizing that not all his routines rely on scrofulous material. A video-reissue deal seemed poised to materialize. Moore had taken a Pasadena on the moviemaking business after Disco Godfather (1979), he said, dropping a broad hint that that snakebit production had left him in debt to some investors with criminal-underworld leanings. Anyhow, Moore would be visiting Texas soon to administer his general-audience scriptural humor at a church-folks convention in Dallas. He wondered aloud whether any commercial venues in North Texas might have an interest in his Old School black-on-black comedy routines.
“I used to play the old Guys & Dolls [nightclub] in Fort Worth for weeks at a stretch, back in the ’60s and ’70s,” Moore said. “That place is prob’ly long gone, by now. [And so it was.] But there’s got to be somebody out there besides you boys and that Eddie Murphy guy that’ll remember who Dolemite even was.”
Dolemite is Moore’s stock-in-trade fictional character, a badder-than-bad antiheroic sort who, in his prime, could have out-shafted John Shaft, out-flown Superfly, and staked Blacula clean through his blacker-than-black heart. Stagger Lee incarnate. Say no more: If Rudy Ray Moore was coming to town for one narrow and vaguely evangelical purpose, then we would broaden the agenda and guarantee him a payday or two in the process.
Many come-lately enthusiasts trace the resurgence of Rudy Ray Moore to such mass-market touchstones as an appearance of the early 1990s on television’s Arsenio Hall Show, to a CD-album duet of dueling insults between Moore and the suave rapper known as Big Daddy Kane (Antonio Hardy), and to a running gag about the Dolemite movies in a hip-hopper movie called House Party (1990).
The beginnings of a larger popular rediscovery, to Moore’s direct benefit, date from Sept. 2, 1988, and the comedian’s arrival at a Rainone-family birthday party in Arlington, midway between Dallas and Fort Worth. Here, between outbursts of comedy-routine warm-ups, Moore told us his life story with all its promises and disappointments and false starts at cracking any bigger leagues of Show Business. The next night would mark probably the first time in its several years’ existence that Fort Worth’s HOP had seen more than one or two black patrons in a single evening. Moore strolled into the place, gray-haired and leaning on a shiny black walking-stick, then ducked into the Gents’ Room and emerged, without the cane, wearing a dense black modified-Afro wig: Mr. Dolemite, the Human Tornado, reborn. The following weekend, Moore appeared at Dallas’ predominantly black Blues Alley club.
The American popular culture is predisposed to Tribal Amnesia in its blind headlong rush toward the latest fleeting trend, but the genuine enthusiasts never forget. Most of The HOP’s turnout on that occasion consisted of middle-class, middle-aged black couples who remembered Moore from the heyday of the Guys & Dolls Club. He recognized many of them, in turn, and these patrons he treated to customized insults and pre-emptive counter-heckling as a condition of dispensing a familiar brand of entertainment. Moore did a great deal of a cappella singing that night – a reminder of a rhythm-and-blues record-making career that had prefaced his more lasting foray into comedy. Pete Rainone provided drum-kit accompaniment, timing the rolls and crashes to Moore’s spiel.
Backstage – in the back-booth, that is – between the acts, Moore turned to my wife, Christina, and spoke in a soothing, grandfatherly voice quite unlike the assertive rasp of Dolemite: “If anything in my performance might have offended you, please feel free to inform me of any objections you might have.”
Christina considered a moment and replied that, no, she had expected precisely what he had delivered and found it all perfectly amusing.
“You think hard, now,” Moore pressed. “Because if anything, anything at all, that I might have said has offended your sensibilities in any way at all, then I want you to tell me frankly” – a studied pause, here, then a roughening of the voice – “so that I can get out there for the next set and see if I can be TWICE as raunchy!”
… And more about Moore in next week’s column.
A discussion of Rudy Ray Moore’s film Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son-in-Law appears in Michael H. Price & John Wooley’s Fangoria magazine column, issue No. 230, March 2004. Co-author of the Prowlerand Fishhead projects at ComicMix, Price also is associate editor of The Business Press of Fort Worth, Texas, and critic-at-large of The Times Leader of Wilkes–Barre, Pa.