Richard Pryor: Nothing but the Truth

Richard Pryor told "the jokes black people tell on themselves," and became a speaker of something approaching the Truth.

| November 2013

  • Richard Pryor told raw tall tales, mother rhymes, boasts, and lies—and provided a look at African-American culture that was not "scrubbed clean of earthier elements."
    Photo By Fotolia/Andrew Bayda
  • From brothers David and Joe Henry, "Furious Cool" offers readers a sense of the strange, violent, and colorful landscape from which Pryor emerged.
    Cover Courtesy Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Outrageously human, fearlessly black, openly angry, and profanely outspoken, Richard Pryor was a man who did not just tell stories about winos and deadbeats and druggies. As Furious Cool (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013) shows, when he was onstage, Pryor was those characters. In this new biography, authors David and Joe Henry take a groundbreaking look at the comedian's life and the many influences that shaped him. In this excerpt from the introduction, the two authors recount staying up to record Pryor's late night television appearances, and of his unasked-for role as a true speaker of the Truth.

Voice of African-American Culture

We tried not to laugh.

It was a Friday night, August 17, 1973. We had read in the Akron Beacon-Journal TV listing that Richard Pryor would be hosting NBC’s The Midnight Special. As the local affiliate’s late news ended, we placed both microphones of our new reel-to-reel stereo tape deck (ordered from the Sears catalogue and paid for by tag-team summer lawn mowing, assisted by our pal, Jamie Worrell) up next to the single speaker of our family’s color console TV (still a big deal at the time) and eased our way back to the couch, careful not to make a sound. We didn’t want to spoil the recording. We would laugh later, listening to the playback in our bedroom upstairs.

As a couple of 12- and 15-year-old white kids—sons of the South and sons of an automotive engineer (himself born of Tennessee dirt farmers who migrated to the Carolina textile mills), living in a semi-rural township outside of Akron, Ohio, in the early 1970s—Richard’s blunt rants on race ought to have tightened our jaws, left us bristling with indignation. Instead, he did just the opposite. Suburban Ohio alienated us. Richard was a beacon that said, Take heart. Stay human. You are not alone.

For us, Richard was a gateway artist, opening the door to worlds of music, storytelling, and poetry that had been thriving just out of sight, humming beneath our radar. Suddenly we were awake to how African-American culture had shaped everything we knew and loved. We heard it first in the music: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it became clear, desperately coveted the strange fruits of the black man’s Delta. Bob Dylan seized upon those same fruits as a juggler might, keeping them deftly aloft while both blurring and affirming the through-line from blues to beat poetry. Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and Jimmy Page viewed them in awe, faces pressed to the glass of some imaginary museum of natural history. Johnny Winter, John Fogerty, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, Janis Joplin, and Captain Beefheart borrowed it as freely as a neighbor would a cup of sugar.

Richard Pryor’s genius first blossomed in the steamy whorehouse atmosphere brought north when his grandmother’s generation migrated from Louisiana and took root in that most unlikely emblem of middle America, Peoria, Illinois, then a wide-open river town peopled by street-corner storytellers, hustlers, pimps, prostitutes, vaudeville had-beens, high-minded church folk, politicians on the take, itinerant show people, and riverboat tradesmen who all passed through his grandmother’s brothel, his grandfather’s candy store, or his father’s poolhall. By embodying such characters onstage, Richard gave voice to a raucous and jubilant side of life as authentically American as Mark Twain’s but one kept hidden away from the majority of white America.

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