Put Your Weight On It
By Mike Emery
MAY 3, 1999: Self-confidence is a powerful thing. It lifts the spirit, enhances positive energy, and bolsters credibility. It can also strengthen your show biz career when options are limited.
Lord knows it has helped Rudy Ray Moore's. Since his 1970 debut comedy record, Eat Out More Often (its cover featuring a naked Moore and an equally bare woman), the blaxploitation star's confidence has been at full throttle.
These days, if you ask him to describe his films or his provocative stand-up routine, he'll respond with three adjectives: "sensational, daring, and different." Question him on today's hip-hop scene, and he'll call himself the "Godfather of Rap." Get his take on adult comedy, and he'll say, "I'm the first comedian on the face of this earth to use four-letter words."
Bold statements for sure, but it's this kind of attitude that's kept the 62-year-old actor/comedian afloat for nearly 30 years (despite some rough times). It's also created some debate as to whether he's as relevant as he says he is.
For Moore, the important thing is that he believes his hype. As long as he does, he'll be able to play the role of an uncredited trailblazer for his current crop of fans, many of whom were just toddlers when the man was making a name for himself.
Many, particularly white, Beastie Boy-lovin' Gen-Xers, have discovered the poetic grace of Moore's African-American toasts, his lewd humor, and the manic energy of his most popular screen character, Dolemite. This, after his stage act was once relegated to chitlin' circuit nightclubs and his movies were shown only in black theatres.
Moore's not complaining. He's elated at the renaissance and is quite pleased with the new demographic.
"The last time I was in Austin, I could tell the people loved me," he says of a video store appearance a few years ago. "There were 300 people waiting for me to sign autographs. They had banners and signs, saying 'Welcome Dolemite!' And it wasn't a black crowd at all. It was around this time I found that whites were suddenly into me. That thrilled me. That day, I think there were only 10 blacks there and a couple hundred young white people."
His current status among younger film fans obviously stems from the sudden hipness of Seventies blaxploitation films. Although Moore abhors the term ("Why don't they call mob films 'Italian-exploitation'?" he counters), he's appreciative of the genre's revival.
Others are also reaping rewards from the resurgence -- most notably Pam Grier and Isaac Hayes -- but unlike other black actors of the era, Moore's appeal is a little more limited. So much so, he wasn't even asked to participate in the 1996 ol' school reunion picture, Original Gangstas, which featured blaxploitation's most seminal stars, including Grier, Fred Williamson, Jim Brown, Ron O'Neal, and Richard Roundtree.
The exclusion was somewhat justifiable. Although 1975's pimp adventure Dolemite and its sequel, The Human Tornado, have a rabid following, both are far cries from straight-up cop films like Superfly or Shaft.
Tornado is an especially odd treat. Surreal, funny, and quite violent, the film has elements akin to early John Waters material. One scene features superstud Dolemite (Moore) making love to a woman so vehemently that the entire bedroom collapses. Another shows our hero diving off a terrace totally nude and rolling down a grassy hill (then rewinding the scene, so the audience can marvel at it again). And in its darkest sequence, Dolemite unleashes bloodthirsty rats on a helpless villain's genitalia.
"That was a harsh scene," Moore comments. "It was something we, the filmmakers, were doing to be daring. That's what I'm about. I always try to put a message in my films, but I didn't want people to feel they were sitting in church. People come to the theatre to be entertained, so my philosophy is give them something to talk about when they hit the street."
Since he was a boy growing up in Fort Smith, Ark., Rudyard Raymond Moore had dreams of being a top performer. Jazz great Count Basie was his biggest idol, and a young Moore longed to sing alongside his famed orchestra. So much so, he even wrote fan letters to the legendary pianist. Much later, the two would meet and eventually share a bill at the Hyatt Regency in Los Angeles.
At 15, Moore headed to Cleveland with his godmother. Using his skills in African adagio dancing, Moore joined a dance troupe which toured the nightclub circuit. On the club scene, he would encounter his greatest comedic influence.
"When I got to Cleveland, there was a lady called Estella Caldoña," he remembers. "Her real name was Stella Young, and she had this wild comedy act. I would sit and watch it every night and eventually learned it. Two or three years later, I was drafted into the Army and put on the shows at the service clubs. Once, an act wasn't ready, so I got onstage, did Caldoña's act, and never looked back. I've praised her ever since. In fact, The Human Tornado was named after her. That was her nickname."
By the early 1960s, Moore's stage presence led him to Dooto Records, once home to Redd Foxx. There, he released three "straight" albums that subsequently flopped. Soon thereafter, he wound up working in the L.A. record store Dolphin's of Hollywood. Before he knew it, artistic inspiration came walking through the front door in the form of a toothless wino named Rico.
"That's how I got Dolemite," Moore explains. "[Rico] came in the store and said, 'Rudy, I need me a bowl of soup.' I said, 'If you recite some of that poetry you're always doing and I'll buy you some soup.' He did 'Dolemite' for everybody who was in there buying records. They went crazy, and this guy wasn't even a performer."
Capitalizing on the downtrodden Rico's schtick, Moore soon took "Dolemite" into a studio and recorded it "toast" style. This led to the release of Eat Out More Often.
With its raunchy jokes and rhyming toasts, the LP became a hit and even charted (despite distribution difficulties). The record also helped revitalize the toasts, folklore, and narrative traditions that had dominated African-American street culture as early as the 1900s.
"I don't call this dirty comedy," he says. "I call it ghetto expressions in a form of art. It stemmed from beer-joint wisemen. A bunch of dudes sitting in front of the liquor store, drinking and shooting the shit, telling one toast after another."
Before he knew it, Moore was an underground sensation. His albums helped define the term "party records" (he's even deemed himself "king" of the genre). Following his own success, Moore tried his hand at producing other blue comics like Lady Reed and Dallas drag queens Jerry Walker and Billie McAllister.
Soon after, the surge of early Seventies black filmmakers provided him with the idea of transfering his stage characters onto celluloid. With the aid of friends and professional associates, he put together 1975's raw yet surprisingly cohesive Dolemite. Like Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space, Dolemite retains a twisted charm that stems primarily from its lackluster production values. Fortunately, the beefy Moore rises above the film's numerous technical errors (boom microphones bobbing in and out of scenes) with a venomous performance that ranges from wooden to electric.
"When I was making Dolemite, people were saying I was crazy," he says. "They told me it would never make it to the theatre. Well, I am here to tell you that when I opened the film in Atlanta, it was a smash, and when it opened in Chicago, it broke an opening-day record set by an old James Bond film."
As the rapping hustler Dolemite, Moore kung-fus his way (with the aid of noticeable stunt doubles) through crooked cops and his evil nemesis Willie Green, played by the late D'Urville Martin. Of course, Dolemite finds plenty of time for misogyny, sex, and a few snippets of Moore's own stage act, including a version of the classic toast "Signifyin' Monkey."
Moore financed the film himself, and it nearly broke him. He says much of it was filmed in his own house, prompting him and his buddy/set designer Jimmy Lynch to redecorate every room in between shots.
The fact that it made a profit baffled skeptics, but in its prerelease, the ratings board was also somewhat puzzled. Outside of the standard profanity, Moore's character would unleash verbal tirades that had rarely been heard in a film. Not that they were caustic, but just plain weird. Things like, "You born insecure, rat soup eatin', pigeon-toed, bowlegged, etc."
"When they got ready to rate the picture, they couldn't understand what I was saying," he says. "They kept listening over and over and couldn't figure out what to do, so they just gave it an R rating."
These days, Rudy Ray Moore is living in Las Vegas, but the bulk of his performance schedule is in comedy clubs around the country. He's still as crude as ever, providing abrasive and graphic insights into sex, scatological functions, and bodily fluids. Such material obviously doesn't sit well with the new "family" image Vegas is marketing, nor is it fitting for the city's senior crowd. Moore is miffed by the lack of opportunity within his own backyard as well as the lack of interest from other vehicles.
He sees himself as a forgotten comic warrior, and one who paved the way for such success stories as Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor. Obviously, such claims will inspire debate from critics and perhaps even from those two funnymen. Still, his backers and well-wishers strongly endorse him as an influential black comedian. Young comics such as Eddie Griffin (whose movie Foolish opens here this week) and Paul Mooney sing his praises, as does legendary comedienne LaWanda Page, who played Aunt Esther on TV's Sanford and Son.
"Some popular comedians have come along, used my structure, done so well with it, and never offer me work," he says. "Eddie Murphy once said he wanted to do a film and have me in some barbershop scenes, but that was nine years ago."
It's easy to detect some bitterness within Moore's deep, resonant voice, but he takes frustration in stride. Currently, he's trying to resurrect Dolemite in a film tentatively titled Millennium: The Return of Dolemite. He says it's still in preproduction and will reunite several members of the original cast. He's also embarking on his regular "Dolemite for President" campaign, a gimmick not unlike Mad's Alfred E. Neuman's usual bid for office.
Whether the 21st century is ready for a pimp-avenger is uncertain, but Moore is ready for a second coming. Professional survival is his main goal for the future, and as long as he can still make a living from his old movies and perform onstage, maybe he'll receive the attention he feels he deserves.
"If I can hang on for a few more years, I should get my rightful credit," he says sternly. "Here in Vegas, comedians in my bracket don't get a break. Redd Foxx was probably the only one who could work year after year in frontline hotels. Maybe, when a venue like the Riviera comes along, I'll get the recognition that's passed me by. Until then, I can only look out at all those young fans who come to see me and want to talk about Dolemite. It's then that I feel significantly rewarded for the years of work I've put into this business."
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