I've mentioned before how much of a comedy buff my oldest daughter has become. Through my collection of audio and video, she has been fully conversant with the entire Monty Python ouevre before she was out of elementary school; has watched all of the episodes of Police Squad!, Fawlty Towers and The Young Ones multiple times, and is a huge fan of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 reruns. Just a couple of months ago, I took her to see Dave Chappelle's live show here in town. Believe me, I put a lot of thought into whether or not, as a high-school teen, she was old enough to handle Chappelle's language and style of humor (and don't ask me how I managed to sneak all of this past her mother . . .). But my girl has a pretty good head on her shoulders, so in the end I brought her along, we both had a great time - my daughter thought he was hysterical.
To say that Richard Pryor's early life was rough would be a gross understatement. He was born in 1940 in Peoria, IL, a city located midway between Chicago and St. Louis. Despite its northern location, Peoria in the 1940s and '50s was still a heavily segregated town, not de jure but de facto. But that didn't prevent it from being considered at the time one of the most corrupt, sordid, "wide open" cities in America. For decades, gambling (the largest gambling hall in the city was directly across from the police department), drinking (the largest distillery in the world was located there; before income tax was implemented, when the U.S. derived most of its revenue through import fees and commodity taxes, Peoria alone, through the whiskey tax, was responsible for nearly half the federal government's income), and prostitution flourished here, not only in the exclusively white, upper-class bluffs overlooking the city, but especially in the lower-class, industrial valley section hard by the Illinois River, where most of the minorities were congregated.
Richard's grandmother was a celebrated madam in the city's North Washington red-light district, operating a string of brothels in the area. Richard's mother was a brothel worker (i.e., prostitute); his father, the brutal Leroy "Buck" Pryor, was one of the head pimps working for his mother. His parents divorced at the age of five and Buck was awarded custody of his son, so Richard grew up primarily in and around the whorehouses, privy to all that went on in these establishments from an early age, and subject to the heavy and routine physical abuse inflicted on him by both his father and grandmother. In school, he was usually one of the few black kids in his class, and his days will filled with ostracism, taunts and bullying from most of his classmates. This was the atmosphere Pryor grew up in; it must have been miserable.
His only escape was through the movies - in the "Negroes Only" balcony seats of Peoria's downtown theaters, he could lose himself for an hour or two in adventure films and westerns (his favorite was the whip-wielding cowboy star Lash LaRue). Practically the only other bright spot in Pryor's life during his Peoria years occurred when he was fourteen years old, where he participated in a youth theater group at a local community center. The group's adult director, Juliette Whittaker, took Richard under her wing, gave him crash courses in acting, set and costume design, and directing, and provided him some of his first opportunities to shine in front of an audience. If any single person set Richard on the path to fame and stardom, it was Ms. Whittaker.
After being kicked out of school in ninth grade, Richard worked odd jobs in and around the Peoria area until joining the Army in the spring of 1959. His stint in the military lasted a year and a half; stationed in Germany, he was constantly in trouble, serving several periods of restriction and extra duty, culminating in a long stay in the stockade after stabbing a fellow soldier. It was by supreme good fortune that Pryor received an honorable discharge from the Army in August 1960. He returned home to Peoria and recommenced the same cycle as before his departure - working odd, low-paying jobs and hanging out on the streets and interacting with winos, drifters and other neighborhood characters. He soon landed a job as a bartender and occasional comedian at a local black club of questionable legality and ill repute, and worked there until it was closed by the city in the fall of 1962. He then headed to New York to try his luck there as a professional comic.
For example, here's Richard Pryor's television debut in August 1964, on Rudy Vallee's variety show On Broadway Tonight. Vallee introduced him as "a former Army paratrooper" whose father Leroy, "an old vaudeville song and dance man", bequeathed his talent on his son. In Pryor's act, the lies and bullshit kept coming:
Looking back at it now, Richard Pryor's act in the mid-60s was startlingly conventional, and rigidly within the bounds of decency. There was nothing particularly exceptional or ground-breaking in his comedy. But that seemed to suit the tenor of the times. As Scott Saul wrote:
Soon Richard would be recognized as a "lean, literate, quick-witted kook", the man with "the most elastic face in show business." His main persona was the bungler or schlemiel . . . He was Bill Cosby's younger, skinnier brother, the one who blew his cool as much as Cosby kept his.
But despite this plethora of high-profile, highly paid TV work, it all kept Richard's comedy under the same strictures - somewhat corny, mild, inoffensive, acceptable to most of America . . . and by that, I mean white America; his act had yet to resonate with black Americans. For most of that community, Pryor's comedy didn't connect; for them, he was little more than a slightly hipper version of Nipsey Russell. Richard once related a story of how one day in 1966, after a Merv Griffin taping, he and his new friend Redd Foxx went on a visit to Harlem. Foxx, of course, was by then a giant in black comedy, a Chitlin Circuit veteran known for his raunchy underground show recordings - the "King of the Party Records". As they walked through the neighborhood, residents greeted Foxx warmly, shouting his street nickname, "Zorro". Pryor was all but ignored.
"Wait a minute," he thought to himself. "I'm in the wrong place, I'm in the wrong town. I want to be here. I want people to talk to me like they talk to Redd."His klutzy, zany, goofball TV persona was in marked contrast to his continuing stand-up work at counter-cultural comedy clubs like the Troubadour, the Improv and the Cafe Au Go-Go, where his language and subject matter were considerably less PC. But at that point in time, there was no acceptable outlet for Pryor to bring this side of his humor to the public at large. He was making it, but yet not "making" it, if you understand my meaning.
By 1967, Pryor seriously began to chafe against these strictures, with the result being that he started to lose it, both personally and professionally. The early part of that year was fraught with turmoil, including a breakup from his longtime girlfriend, jail time for drug possession and court hearings after his arrest for assaulting a hotel clerk. His oft-mythologized "breakdown" on stage at the Aladdin in Las Vegas occurred later that year, but the legend behind this incident - in mid-set at the venue, suddenly asking himself and the audience out loud "What the fuck am I doing here?" and walking offstage, thus beginning his long blackballing by the entertainment industry - belies the actual facts. Pryor continued to be welcome in Vegas and on TV for the remainder of the year and into 1968. But he, and his act, were changing.
In the months to come, things continued to fall apart in Pryor's life. Both of his parents died, and he began seriously abusing drugs, leading to a series of missed performances, breakups with managers and lovers, and estrangement from the industry (including cancellation of his two-album deal). By the end of the decade, Pryor was pretty much off the nightclub/talk show circuit; there were only four clubs TOTAL "in the world" whose doors were open to him: The Cellar Door in DC, Maverick's Flat in L.A., Basin Street West in San Francisco and Mandrake's in Berkeley, CA. Richard had burnt his bridges nearly everywhere else. Even his old friend and patron Redd Foxx refused to book him at his club, considering him unreliable. Richard tried to concentrate on his TV and movie acting career during this period. But even that had stalled. By mid-1970, Pryor was in bad shape and in serious trouble - no manager, little income, and debts to some fairly heavy and sinister drug dealers had begun to mount.
At this low point, Richard turned for help to Louis and David
The first album he delivered was Craps (After Hours). Showing some leniency to his friend and protege, Foxx allowed him to record the album at the Redd Foxx Club in Los Angeles. What made it on to the recording was almost a complete departure from the work Richard was known for before.
Craps differed in many ways from Pryor's first Reprise album. Most obvious was the number of tracks - thirty-two (as opposed to just seven on Richard Pryor), with some tracks lasting no longer than a few seconds. There was no clear underlying theme in the comedy here; Pryor covered sex ("Gettin' Some", "Big Tits"), drugs ("Gettin' High"), politics ("President Nixon"), race relations and all sorts of controversial, risque topics in dark, absurd terms. He also got very personal - for the first time, Pryor openly discussed, in detail, the turmoil, craziness and violence in his family life. Also for the first time here, he brought the images (winos, junkies and preachers) and vocal rhythms of lower-class black life into his act. On Craps, Richard moves from thought to thought, theme to theme, in rapid-fire sequence, so the album at first listen seems scattershot and not totally coherent from start to finish. But despite (or due to) its low concept approach, it feels more intimate, more "real", than Pryor's first album. It's also funny as hell.
Due to the limited retail reach of Laff, Craps (After Hours) wasn't a Billboard 200 hit (it was fortunate to have been released on the cusp of major social changes in America; the album probably would have been banned if it had been put out just a couple of years earlier). But it soon became an underground/cult classic - future comedians like Eddie Murphy and Chappelle have spoken about hearing this album at a young age and how much it influenced their ambition and later work. This was the first record that allowed Pryor to be Pryor, to break free of showbiz bounds and express himself the way that he wished to be heard.
All in all, Craps was a revelation, and the date of its release can be considered the starting point of the true comedic genius of Richard Pryor. Richard's later comedic development and ascent to superstardom began with the launch of this disc. Its release date can also be thought of as a Year Zero for stand-up comedy in this country. The influence of the openness of subject matter and language in Richard Pryor's work, and on this album in particular, can be seen and heard in the later work of Murphy, Damon Wayans, Sarah Silverman and Margaret Cho, among many, many others. Comics from across the spectrum and every generation fully acknowledge the impact of Pryor to U.S. humor; Jerry Seinfeld called him "the Picasso of our profession"; Bob Newhart named him as "the single most seminal comedic influence in the past fifty years." Comedian Paul Rodriguez said it best: "There are two periods in comedy in America: before Richard Pryor and after Richard Pryor." Craps was the transition point.
So here, on the tenth anniversary of the death of the man universally acknowledged as the greatest stand-up comedian of all time, I proudly present to you Richard Pryor's Craps (After Hours), released by Laff Records in late 1971 and rereleased on CD on November 15th, 1994. This is hard as hell to find for download online, so here it is, burnt off of my personal copy. Laugh, enjoy, and remember this great talent.
And as always . . . well, you know.
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