Saturday, 3 January 2009

Silent George(s)

Rudy Ray Moore, who just passed away last October, is best known for his starring role in the “Dolemite” blaxploitation films of the mid 1970s, but he first achieved media notoriety as the creator of a series of party records that featured recitations such as “The Great Titanic” and “The Signifying Monkey.” Some of Moore’s records were re-makes of earlier under the counter “blue discs” or “party records”. Consider Moore and his collaborator Lady Reed’s version of a blue disc entitled “Silent George.” The source text of Moore and Reed’s adaptation was released anonymously on a 78 rpm record circa the 1930s, and begins with a man’s half-whispered voice.

“Silent George” stands out among pre-1950s blue discs because of its female narrator and breathless performance of passion. But equally notable is the record’s subsequent appearance in African American culture. Swing bandleader Lucky Millinder released a musical version in 1950, and Rudy Ray Moore’s version of “Silent George” was released on the album “The Rudy Ray Moore House Party Album, The Dirty Dozens, Vol. 1” (Cherry Red Records). Moore and Reed stick closely to the earlier version of “Silent George,” but Moore’s remake does more than duplicate the blue disc. Note that it is Moore in the role of Clotia, narrating the sexual action in an exaggerated falsetto voice: both an instance of female impersonation and vocal whiteface that “signifies” on white performance. Meanwhile, Lady Reed complicates the listener’s engagement with the interaction between George and Clotia by making sardonic comments as she secretly watches the amorous couple.

By simultaneously presenting a recording of a past era and Reed’s sly commentary on it, Moore’s “Silent George” feels a bit like an audio version of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” But more than nostalgia or cynical irony, Moore and Reed’s performances send up mainstream white erotica, and by extension certain white sexual preoccupations. For example, blue discs typically only provide verbal descriptions of female bodies. Recall the introductory framing material on the blue disc version of “Silent George,” in which a male speaker colludes with the audience and asks that we visualize “a beautiful young girl.” Lady Reed’s commentary on “Silent George” displays an open and unabashed appreciation of the male body: it is Lady Reed who colludes with listeners and encourages us to visualize George. Where the blue disc of “Silent George” ends with Mary Jones’ calls for her “Daddy,” Moore and Reed’s record returns to the introductory narrative frame, as the two friends leave the lovemaking couple to walk back to the party. This framing narrative depicts a platonic male – female friendship that contrasts with the ridiculously empurpled George and Clotia, and so broadens the scope of the routine beyond the heterosexual couple. To put it another way, Moore and Reed’s revisions make us hear blue discs such as “Silent George” in a considerably whiter shade of blue – that is, they make us hear the white, middle-class origins of much “blue” material.