Friday, October 24, 2008

Dolemite R.I.P.

Rudy Ray Moore, the comedian best known for playing Dolemite (a parody of blaxploitation heroes) passed Sunday. The cause was complications from diabetes. He was 81 years old.

Rudy Ray Moore was born Rudolph Frank Moore on March 17, 1927 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. As a teenager he moved to Cleveland. He initially peeled potatoes and washed dishes for a living. While there he won a talent contest. Moore was draughted in 1950.

After being discharged from the Army, Moore performed both as a dancer and even recorded some records as a singer. Eventually he moved into comedy, releasing a few comedy records in the Sixties. He practised a raunchy brand of comedy not unlike that of Richard Pryor, a situation which prevented him from appearing on television. It was while working at a record store that he listened to a regular named Rico's stories of Dolemite. Moore incorporated Dolemite into his routines. In 1975, towards the end of the blaxploitation cycle, he financed the film Dolemite, playing the title role. The film incorporated such blaxploitation hallmarks as a pimp hero and plenty of martial arts. It was followed by a sequel, The Human Tornado.

The Dolemite movies were the height of Moore's success. He would continue to release comedy records well into the Naughts. And he would appear in a few more films, such as Disco Godfather, B*A*P*S, and Shoeshine Boys.

The raunchiness of much of his material probably kept Rudy Ray Moore from mainstream success. Most of the dialogue in the Dolemite films could not repeated on network television or the average newspaper. But he was one of the funniest comics of his time. And with Dolemite he developed a hilarious parody of blaxploitation films that sent up nearly every cliche of the genre. Ironically, his act would have an impact on rap music, but I hardly think that can be held against him. To this day the man maintains a cult following among fans of good comedy and the character of Dolemite.

Monday, October 20, 2008

One of NBC's Better Seasons?

In his review of Crusoe, the television critic Robert Bianco at USA Today proclaimed this NBC's worst season since the days of Manimal and Mr. Smith. Now if NBC had only produced shows like Kath and Kim and Knight Rider (let me say now that there should be a moratorium on revivals of Glen Larson shows--what's next, Alias Smith and Jones?), I could agree with him. But Bianco included My Own Worst Enemy with these two pieces of trash. And it was clear from his review of Crusoe, he doesn't consider it much better. Now maybe Bianco would be more than happy if the airwaves were filled with garbage like Eli Stone (yet another lawyer show that tries too hrad to be hard to be quirky), Grey's Anatomy (shallow characters, bad writing, bad acting, and an unoriginal premise--Dr. Kildare with sex), and Sex and the City (a half hour dirty joke for women with some of the most shallow characters ever created for television), but some of us have tastes. And some of us just happen to be men who like good action-adventure shows with well developed characters and not shallow automatons.

Indeed, looking at the four networks, I would say CBS has the worst season in years. The Mentalist is a blatant rip off of USA's Psych, albeit done more seriously. Eleventh Hour is an American adaptation of an ITV series, but here it comes off as an odd combination that rips off House, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and The X-Files in equal measure. Worst Week, although funny at times, is basically Meet the Parents: the Series. It seems to me that CBS is continuing its downward spiral.

On the other hand (Kath and Kim and Knight Rider not withstanding), it seems to me that NBC is on the ball. The past few years they have produced two truly great comedies (the American version of The Office and, best of them all, 30 Rock) and one fairly good one (My Name is Earl). As far as action-adventure series, they have produced Heroes (brilliant at best, mediocre at worst) and Chuck (not really that remarkable, but entertaining enough). This season out they have produced two very good action/adventure shows, contrary to what the tasteless Bianco of USA Today might think.

Indeed, if its pilot was any indication, My Own Worst Enemy could be one of the best spy shows in years. It has a starkly original concept. To create the perfect covers for its agents, a top secret government agency has intentionally created split personalities in its agents. While on the job these agents are spies deadly efficient at their jobs. While not on the job they are just average guys, not at all aware of their double lives. All of this works fine until their best spy, Edward (played by Christian Slater) begins to go haywire. At the worst times possible, he will wake up as his alter ego Henry, a mild mannered efficiency expert with no knowledge of the spy game. Worse yet, Henry will suddenly wake up as Edward at inopportune times as well. Unable to fix the problem, the agency must accept that their best agent will have to deal with this difficulty in his own way.

What makes My Own Worst Enemy a great show is primarily the performance of Christian Slater. Many movie actors performing on series television often phone in their performances, making no real commitment to their characters. This is not the case with Christian Slater. He is surprisingly earnest as both Edward and Henry, two characters who are nothing like he has ever played before. There are none of the usual Slater mannerisms to be seen, none of the sarcasm Slater borrowed from Jack Nicholson to be heard. Beyond Christian Slater, however, the show is very well written and well thought out. In fact, it reminds me of some of my favourite spy shows and thriller shows from the past--The Prisoner, La Femme Nikita, and Nowhere Man. If the rest of the series is as good as the pilot, I suspect it will go down in history as one of the better spy dramas. As to action, well, there is no shortage of it. If you love spy dramas with plenty of twists and turns, gun play, intrigue, and explosions, this is definitely the show for you. And, quite frankly, you have to give credit to a show who tip their hat to the great Robert Louis Stevenson (Edward and Henry take their first names from his Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

As original as My Own Worst Enemy is, Crusoe is even more so. In fact, it is something American network television has not seen since The Buccaneers left the air in 1957 and The Adventures of Robin Hood left network television in 1958--a good, old fashioned swashbuckler. Like the Daniel Dafoe novel upon which it is based, the series centres around Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked on a desert island. If viewers are expecting some loyalty to the source material, however, I will say they will be sorely disappointed. Creator Justin Bodle has made Crusoe its own animal. Robinson Crusoe is a tormented hero, living with the agony of a man separated from the woman he loves (his wife in England). He is also a skilled inventor who has not only created a treehouse that makes the one built by the Swiss Family Robinson look like a flophouse, but has an array of period gadgets and mantraps scattered about the island. As to Friday, he is not Crusoe's servant, but his own man--Crusoe's friend and equal. Friday also happens to be one of the deadliest heroes ever seen on television. Put a bow and sword in his hand and you had better not get on his bad side. And neither character is a cardboard cutout made to go through action scenes. Crusoe and Friday (wonderfully played by Philip Winchester and Tongayi Chirisa) are erudite men who not only skilled in combat and tactics, but who can engage in some very thoughtful discussion.

As to the show itself, it is the sort of series that little boys and the little boys that still reside in most men (except maybe Robert Bianco and a few other TV critics) will love. Although the plot of the pilot was somewhat thin, it was filled with twists and turns, not to mention the sort of nonstop swashbuckling action that little boys and not so little boys crave. In the end Crusoe succeeds in what it has set out to be--an adventure series whose primary focus is swashbuckling action and nonstop adventure, spruced up with some very good character moments. Because of this it is starkly different from anything else on network television right now. And the sort of thing a lot of men have probably been waiting to see for a very long time.

To sum everything up, forget what Robert Bianco and his ilk have to say. I gave up on television critics long ago (let's face it, they ripped both The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island to shreds--those critics are forgotten, but those two shows are still on the air...). If it's good action and adventure you crave, it looks like NBC is the place to be this season.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Levi Stubbs of The Four Tops Passes On

Levi Stubbs, the powerful baritone for The Four Tops, passed on Friday at the age of 72. Although a cause has yet to be determined, Stubbs had suffered a stroke and a bout with cancer in the past.

Levi Stubbs was born in Detroit on June 6, 1936. While still in high school, in 1954, Stubbs and his friends Abdul "Duke" Fakir, Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Lawrence Payton were invited to sing at a birthday party in 1953. The four then decided to stay together as a singing group, naming themselves The Four Aims. By 1956 they would be signed to Chess Records, at which time The Four Aims became The Four Tops. Unfortunately, they met with little success. Over the next several years they switched labels several times, having contracts with Red Top, Riverside Records and Columbia Records. Despite producing no hits, The Four Tops toured incessantly. Eventually their touring paid off and The Four Tops appeared on The Jack Paar Tonight Show in 1962, singing their rendition of "In the Still of the Night." Berry Gordy Jr. caught their performance and persuaded them to sign to Motown Records.

Initially, The Four Tops performed classic jazz songs for the label's Workshop imprint and provided back up for The Supremes and other Motown artists. It was in 1964 that the legendary song writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote "Baby, I Need Your Loving" specifically for The Four Tops. The song proved to be a hit, going to #11 on Billboard's pop charts. With a hit pop record under their belt, The Four Tops stopped singing jazz standards and starting singing pop songs. While their next single, "Without the One You Love (Life's Not Worth While)" did not chart and "Ask the Lonely" only made the Top 30 on Billboard's pop chart, The Four Tops would soon find themselves one of Motown's biggest vocal groups. In 1965 the group released "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)." The song became a number one hist on the Billboard Hot 100, perhaps largely because of Levi Stubbs' powerful lead vocals.

Over the next several years The Four Tops would produce a string of hit records, in the end producing more than 40 hits on the Billboard pop charts. Among their most successful songs were "Reach Out I'll Be There (which went to #1 on the Billboard charts in 1966)," "Standing in the Shadows of Love (which went to #6 in the same year)," "Bernadette (which went to #4 in 1967)," "Keeper of the Castle," "Ain't No Woman (Like the One I've Got)," and "When She Was My Girl." In all they released over thirty albums in a recording career that lasted into the Eighties. Unlike other Motown groups, the membership of The Four Tops remained largely consistent over the years. The first change of membership came as a result of Lawrence Payton's death from liver cancer in 1997.

The Four Tops would change labels over the years. With newer acts beginning to overshadow the original Motown line up in the early Seventies, the group signed with ABC-Dunhill. Sadly, their success would fade with the rise of disco in the late Seventies and for a short time The Four Tops produced no hits. Fortunately, in 1980 they signed with Casablanca Records, which give them their first hit in some time, "When She Was My Girl," in 1981. Ultimately, The Four Tops would record only two albums for Casablanca before returning to Motown in 1983, where they recorded their last few albums. Although they ceased recording regularly in 1988, The Four Tops would appear on many TV specials over the years, many of them on PBS. Among the highlights of their television career was the special Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever, in which they engaged in a vocal duel with The Temptations (personally, I think The Four Tops won...). The group's songs would appear in many movies over the years, including Shaft in Africa, John Carpenter's version of The Thing, Blood Simple, Alien Nation, Forrest Gump, and Auto Focus. The group themselves appeared in the film Grease 2.

Levi Stubbs' strong baritone provided the voice of Audrey II in the musical film version of Little Shop of Horrors. He was also the voice of archvillain Mother Brain on the Saturday morning cartoon Captain N: The Game Master.

It was in 1995 that Stubbs was diagnosed with cancer. He later suffered a stroke. By 2000 his health had failed to the point where he had to cease touring with The Four Tops, although he joined them briefly on stage for their 50th anniversary concert in 2004, which was shown on PBS.

There can be no argument that Levi Stubbs was among the greatest pop and rock vocalists of all time. Even though most of their songs were written for tenor lead vocals, the range and power of Stubbs' voice would lend them an urgency rarely heard in rock or rhythm 'n' blues records before or since. With a natural talent for singing, Stubbs could give emotion to the songs he sang more powerful than the vast majority of performers. There can be no better example of this than in The Four Tops' greatest hits, such as as "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" and "Bernadette." Arguably the most powerful voice to emerge out of Motown, Levi Stubbs will never be forgotten.