'Dolemite' Star Dies at 81
Comedian and filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore was the self-proclaimed 'Godfather of Rap'
FOR THE RECORD: The obituary of comedian Rudy Ray Moore that appeared in Tuesday's California section stated he died in a nursing home in Toledo, Ohio. In fact he died in a nursing home in Akron, Ohio.
Moore, whose low-budget films were panned by critics in the 1970s but became cult classics decades later, died Sunday night in Toledo, Ohio, of complications from diabetes, his brother Gerald told the Associated Press.
Though he was little known to mainstream audiences, Moore had a significant effect on comedians and hip-hop artists.
"People think of black comedy and think of Eddie Murphy," rap artist Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew told the Miami Herald in 1997. "They don't realize [Moore] was the first, the biggest underground comedian of them all. I listened to him and patterned myself after him."
And in the liner notes to the 2006 release of the soundtrack to Moore's 1975 motion picture "Dolemite," hip-hop artist Snoop Dogg said:
"Without Rudy Ray Moore, there would be no Snoop Dogg, and that's for real."
When it came to his own sense of his accomplishments, Moore was never burdened by immodesty.
"These guys Steve Harvey and Cedric the Entertainer and Bernie Mac claim they're the Kings of Comedy," Moore told the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 2003. "They may be funny, but they ain't no kings. That title is reserved for Rudy Ray Moore and Redd Foxx."
The heyday of his fame was in the 1970s, with the release of "Dolemite" followed by "The Human Tornado," "Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil's Son-in-Law" and "Money Hustler."
The way Moore told it, his introduction to Dolemite came from an old wino named Rico, who frequented a record shop Moore managed in Los Angeles. Rico told foul-mouthed stories about Dolemite, a tough-talking, super-bad brother, whose exploits had customers at the record shop falling down with laughter.
One day Moore recorded Rico telling his stories. Later Moore assumed the role of Dolemite, a character who became the cornerstone of his decades-long career as a raunchy comedian, filmmaker and blues singer.
"What you call dirty words," he often said, "I call ghetto expression."
But long before "Dolemite" debuted on theater screens, Moore had found fame -- and fans -- through stand-up routines and a series of sexually explicit comedy albums.
Not only were the album contents raunchy, the album covers featured women and Moore nude and were too racy for display. So store clerks kept the albums under the counter. Without airplay or big-studio promotion, the so-called party records were underground hits.
"I put records in my car and traveled and walked across the U.S. I walked to the ghetto communities and told people to take the record home and let their friends hear it. And before I left the city, my record would be a hit. This is how it started for me," he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch in 2001.
Although contemporaries such as Foxx and Richard Pryor found success with a broader audience, Moore's stardom was bounded by the geography of race and class: He was a hit largely in economically disadvantaged African American communities.
According to his website, Moore was born in Fort Smith, Ark., on March 17, 1927.
In his youth Moore worked as a dancer and fortune teller and he entertained while serving in the U.S. Army. But his big break came with the recording of his Dolemite routine:
Dolemite is my name
And rappin and tappin
that's my game
I'm young and free
And just as bad as I wanna
By the time Dolemite appeared on film, he was the ultimate ghetto hero: a bad dude, profane, skilled at kung-fu, dressed to kill and hell-bent on protecting the community from evil menaces. He was a pimp with a kung-fu-fighting clique of prostitutes and he was known for his sexual prowess.
For all the stereotypical images, Moore bristled at the term blaxploitation.
"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 'I-talian exploitation,' " he told a reporter for the Cleveland Scene in 2002.
Late in life, Moore saw his work win fans far beyond his African American audience. There is a "Dolemite" website and chat room that boasts a cross-cultural collection of young fans. Such interest won him mainstream work in an advertisement for Altoid Mints and a commercial for Levi's jeans.
Though Moore built a career on talking dirty, he was very religious. He took pride in taking his mother to the National Baptist Convention each year and often spoke in church at various functions. He rationalized his role as a performer.
"I wasn't saying dirty words just to say them," he told the Miami Herald in 1997. "It was a form of art, sketches in which I developed ghetto characters who cursed. I don't want to be referred to as a dirty old man, rather a ghetto expressionist."
Stewart is a former Times staff writer.