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Richard Pryor, A Comedy Pioneer Who Was 'Always Whittling On Dynamite'

Scott Saul's new book, Becoming Richard Pryor, describes how Pryor went from being raised by a grandmother, who was a bootlegger and madam, to being a transformative figure in entertainment.

43:07

Other segments from the episode on December 11, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 11, 2014: Interview with Scott Saul; Review of three jazz box sets;

Transcript

December 11, 2014

Guest: Scott Saul

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. So many comics today would not be doing the kind of comedy they're doing without Richard Pryor's example. Pryor took the most difficult, troubling aspects of his life and turned it into comedy, including setting himself on fire freebasing. He talked about being black in ways that had never been done before in mainstream entertainment. And he was fearless and hilarious talking about race relations.

The new book "Becoming Richard Pryor" traces how Pryor went from being raised by a grandmother who was a bootlegger and madam in Peoria, Illinois, to being a transformative figure in entertainment. Saul interviewed surviving members of Pryor's family, friends and people he had worked with. He talked with Alan Farley (ph) who was Pryor's housemaid in Berkeley in 1971 and still has tapes Pryor made that year. Saul also drew on family court records and prior school records. Saul is an associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley.

The tricky thing in presenting this interview was finding Richard Pryor recordings that we can play on the radio. So we have a few selections that have a comparatively small number of expletives, and we did some editing and some bleeping as you'll hear. Let's start with a track from Pryor's 1974 album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "THAT N*****'S CRAZY")

RICHARD PRYOR: Cops put a hurting on your [bleep], man, you know? They really degrade you. White folks don't believe cops degrade. Oh, come on. Those beatings - those people are resisting arrest. I'm tired of this harassment of police officers. That's 'cause the police live in your neighborhood, see? And you be knowing them as Officer Timson (ph). Hello, Officer Timson, going bowling tonight?

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: Yes. Nice Pinto you have. Ha ha ha.

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: [Bleep] don't know them like that. See, white folks get a ticket - they pull over - hey, officer, yes, glad to be of help, cheerio. [Bleep] got me talking about, I am reaching into my pocket for my license...

(APPLAUSE)

PRYOR: ...Because I don't want to be no accident.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's from Richard Pryor's 1974 album, "That N-word's Crazy." Scott Saul, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's kind of sad how current that sounds today.

SCOTT SAUL: Indeed. I think that Pryor was so unusual and pioneering in that he really spoke for black, working-class communities across America. And things have not changed so much.

GROSS: Do you think that that's a good example of how Richard Pryor was kind of ahead of his time in talking about social issues and about race?

SAUL: Oh, certainly. And it's not just that he describes, you know, in such vivid detail what goes on. But he dramatizes it in a way that brings out the humor so that people can laugh at this horrific experience, but he also is dramatizing the gap between white and black perceptions of the world. And as he goes through his career, you'll have white and black sitting together in the audience, and he's talking about the gap between how they travel through the world and perceive it. And people are starting to have a conversation through him - it's a very difficult conversation -

about racial injustice and experience it in America. So it's landmark performance and still resonates, still reverberates.

GROSS: How would you describe Richard Pryor's importance in the world of comedy?

SAUL: I think it's hard to overstate it. I would say he's the alpha and omega of American comedy, you know, from the '60s forward. And that's because he did so many things at once. And I know that, you know, a lot of people when they think about Richard Pryor - the headline-grabbing aspect of his style is that, you know, he brought obscenities as never before into mainstream comedy, you know, more than Lenny Bruce, but he does so many things at once.

On the one hand, you have the social criticism the - you know, the way that he's going to analyze America and how it works from top to bottom. On the other hand, you have an incredible character actor. You have a great storyteller. You have a great physical comedian. All these things, he's bringing into his repertoire and mixing them up and changing what comedy can be so that he can both be the most hilarious of comedians and he can be the most troubling of comedians. And so he radically expanded the range of what American comedy could be.

GROSS: As we heard on the track that we just played, Richard Pryor sometimes impersonated white people in his performances. Do you think he was the first African-American comic to come up with an impersonation of white people like that?

SAUL: You know, one thing that I was struck in terms of, you know, listening to his recordings is that he impersonated a lot of different kinds of white people, you know? And in some ways, he - just as he gave voice to the variety of black life in America, he also did that with the variety of white life, you know, and certainly one of those white characters was the obtuse white person who doesn't get it. Another one was the white voice of authority that tries to command a respect that maybe it hasn't earned. So I think certainly he might've been a - certainly was a pioneer in the ways that he took liberties with those white voices.

GROSS: You know, the track that we just played is from his album "That N-word's Crazy," and the N-word is a word he used a lot in both in album titles and of course, in his comedy. And I'm wondering if that was a word that was used against him a lot, for instance, when he was growing up and what you learned about his decision to take that word and use it himself and use it, you know, use it on stage in his comedy, use it in his albums and kind of owned it in the way he wanted to.

SAUL: Yeah, I think, you know, growing up black in Peoria, you know - blacks were only 10 percent of Peoria, Illinois, at the time. He was very much picked on, harassed and abused with that word. And so, for example, when he's in seventh grade, you know, he's getting teased mercilessly by his white classmates. He's basically the only black kid in that class. And he comes to his teacher at lunch time, and he's crying. And he says to her, you know - she asked him why he's crying - he says, well, they called me a - and uses the N-word. And then she says back to him, well, that's what you are. You know? Get along now, go back to your seat, finish your lunch and class begin. So he's getting that from all sides when he's growing up, and it continues, you know, through his experience in the Army and so on.

GROSS: How did the record companies - you know, oh, I guess the record company that released the albums with N-word in the title deal with it? Did they have a problem with it? Did they try to talk him out of it?

SAUL: Yes, so it was originally released on Stax Records, and it carried a rated-X label. In addition, radio stations refused to play it largely because it had, you know, such inflammatory language on it. So it was difficult, and then even in advertising, it often said, that N- - and then it had a dash - is crazy. So it was hard to get his language out there into the public.

GROSS: Yeah, and I have to say today - even today, (laughter) we have to...

SAUL: Of course.

GROSS: ...Do either bleeping or excising of language before we can play tracks on the air. Still, a lot of that language I think is on the radio. Yeah.

SAUL: Well, I think that that's part of Pryor's practice as a comedian. He was always whittling on dynamite, and that is a very dangerous practice to use that word that could explode in your face. But that was what he did again and again - a way of getting at the most sensitive spots in our culture.

GROSS: Why did you want to write a biography of Richard Pryor?

SAUL: Well, there's - there are a few answers to that question. The long answer, in terms of going back way into my history, is that I was growing up when I was 10 years old, and I was just fascinated by this figure of Richard Pryor who I was watching through the buddy comedies that he was making with Gene Wilder, things like "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy." And as a white, Jewish kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley - very suburban, you know, I identified frankly with the nebbish that was Gene Wilder. And in those movies, Gene Wilder needs Richard Pryor to cut a window on a new reality, to show him the world as it really is and to jolt him out of his nebbish-hood.

And so from the start, I kind of understood that if I wanted to understand the full world I lived in, somehow Richard Pryor was going to help me do that. And I think that was true for a lot of people who keyed into Pryor, you know, in the '70s and on. They saw him as kind of a window, you know, or a passageway into the broader reality. A more specific answer, in terms of how I started actually researching the writing of the book has to do with the enigma of Richard Pryor's time in Berkeley.

Earlier biographers had said that Pryor landed in Berkeley at some point - it was unclear exactly when - '69, '70, '71 - and that he had had - he came here on some kind of exile and he experimented. And he came to Berkeley still living in the shadow of Bill Cosby and that after he left Berkeley, he was a new kind of comedian. And Pryor said something similar in his memoir. And so the question for me was, well, what really happened in Berkeley?

GROSS: In investigating the Berkeley period of Richard Pryor's life around 1971, you tracked down somebody named Alan Farley who had been Richard Pryor's roommate during that period and who had a radio show on the Pacifica Station in the Bay Area. So what did you get from Alan Farley? He gave you access to some of his tapes?

SAUL: Right, so he had about eight hours of tapes. And these embraced all different sorts of recordings. I mean, some of them were shows that he had done at local clubs - Richard Pryor shows at local clubs. Some of them were these very odd experimental - avant-garde experiments, a sound collage done in the wake of the Attica Prison riot. Some of them were scenarios for films. And what they really gave me was a sense of just how experimental Richard Pryor became when he was in Berkeley. And this was not - these were not the tapes that were - that would be of, like, a comedian trying to polish his material. These were the tapes coming from an artist who was really searching for his form and experimenting and trying to do anything that could respond to the insanity of American life in 1971.

GROSS: So let's hear an excerpt of this tape from 1971. And we're going to hear Richard Pryor doing two different takes on the premise you are the only African-American at a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD PRYOR PERFORMANCE)

PRYOR: Could I get a drink? Oh, I don't know. Some - you have any watermelon juice? I'm just playin', man. Well, you seem so aware to me, you know, you come on so - I was playin', man. Man, I was just playing. Oh no, man, I'm not hostile or nothing like that. Don't say that. How are you going to say I'm hostile, man? All I said - I was playing. I was making a joke, man. But you invited me to the party, man, and I was just ordering a drink. I was playin'. I like some scotch on the rocks.

Well, now you're going to get mad. You're looking funny. Why is your wife looking at me in that tone of voice? Well, your wife might be checking me out, man. I ain't got nothing to do with it. I don't like white women. I'm playin', man. Don't you know nothing about playing? How many [bleep] you know? I'm the only one? And you're not sure if I'm a [bleep] or not? Well, allow me to introduce myself. What you mean I can't pull my pants down? Is that 30 seconds? We'll keep going on.

Sure is happy to be at this party. See I was in a party back in 1925 at the first party I'd ever been to with all white folks. See, I know how to handle myself in a crowd of white folks. See, I'm not prejudice. See, that don't worry me. See, I studies peoples. I be at a party with peoples - I know how to act. You don't have to tell me. You don't have to hand me no drink on no tray. I ain't going to spill it. You don't have to bring me a bunch of drinks like that, man. I'll take a drink one at a time. I'm like everybody else. Well, didn't nobody else take two or three drinks, man. Come over here with a tray of drinks dressed in an old funny suit. Don't be playing that with me. That ain't my style. I want the bottle sitting right here. I don't drink out of no glass. I'm sociable.

GROSS: So that's Richard Pryor doing some improv. That happened to be recorded in 1971, and that was a tape that was made by Pryor's roommate at the time, Alan Farley, who was working at Pacifica radio station at the time, KPFA. And my guest, Scott Saul, got access to that tape. Scott Saul is the author of a new biography of Richard Pryor, called "Becoming Richard Pryor." So when I hear that tape that we just heard, I hear Richard Pryor doing two really different takes on the improv that was thrown on him, on the suggestion that was thrown at him - two totally different characters who speak completely differently, who come from different backgrounds. So I hear him trying to, like, embody different characters and be very much in the moment, as improv asks you to do. What do you hear when you listen to back to that?

SAUL: Something very similar. I mean, I think one thing that I think has been less acknowledged is how much Pryor was shaped by improv. You know, he came to New York City, Greenwich Village, at a time when these new ideas about, you know, collective improvisation in comedy are really taking off. And that's where he spends his comic apprenticeship. So he takes that, you know, out of Greenwich Village and into his standup. And instead of having, you know, if you're doing group improv, you're riffing off of other people. He'll do a lot of that himself, and he'll incarnate, you know, character after character.

So we hear there - is, you know, the first time - the first bit, it's somebody who's closer to Pryor himself. You know, and he's kind of playing with - or asking the white people in the room to learn how to play with him, to learn how to accept these kind of teasing jokes that are going to play with the caricatures of blackness that are in circulation. And he's going to teach them about that kind of material that is his own.

In the second part, we're hearing him take on the voice of the character he called The Wino, which is this person who's older, who has a great amount of braggadocio, who has a great fund of experience that is a bit ridiculous but also penetrating - he has a lot of penetrating insights into the world as well. So he had that capacity to fling himself into character again and again, and he loved it. I mean, I think he loved that feeling of losing himself in character.

GROSS: My guest is Scott Saul, author of the book "Becoming Richard Pryor." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Scott Saul, author of the new book "Becoming Richard Pryor."

So, one of the things that you did for your biography of Richard Pryor is that you were able to talk with surviving members of his family. Who were the people that you were able to speak with?

SAUL: Well, from the older generation I spoke to his - one of his great-uncles and I spoke to two of his half-sisters, who grew up in Peoria, as well as his oldest child, his son Richard Jr., who also grew up in Peoria. And they were extremely helpful about the Peoria side of his upbringing.

GROSS: Give us an example of one of the things that a family member told you about his childhood that you hadn't already known from previous books, or from what Richard Pryor wrote himself in his autobiography.

SAUL: Well, I think the great-uncle gave me insight into just how violent the relationship between Richard Pryor's parents was. He would be visiting the family and he would see Richard's father and mother fighting - or I should say, Richard's father beating his mother - and he saw that repeatedly. This was not kept behind closed doors. This was - it wasn't kept in intimate space of the bedroom, it was something that was there for the family to see. And that struck me. And you get that in the court papers of their divorce, the fact that the family members saw it is quite vivid. And of course, this is a theme that continues throughout the story I tell, domestic violence. You know, another one of his family members who spoke with me is his half-sister Barbara. And she lived with him when he was about 20 years old, after he had been bounced from the Army. And I just got a sense of how difficult life was in that household. You know, he's living with a father who doesn't believe in him. They can barely exchange words at that time. Very little talk at the dinner table. Meanwhile, he's trying to be a comedian and he's trying to release the kind of gift of the gab he has. But at home he's silenced, right? And it also gave me a portrait of what it was like to grow up in a place where the person who's your mother figure - in this case it's his stepmother Ann - is actually, you know, working as a prostitute and taking the Johns into the house. So this is a family that's growing up in a situation of extreme need. It's a very difficult life and that's something that I really got a visceral sense of, talking with Barbara.

GROSS: Richard Pryor's grandmother raised him for part of his life. She was a bootlegger and a madam. What are some of the things he was exposed to as a child that probably most parents would not want their children to see?

SAUL: Well, I think that he grew up in a world where violence was a constant threat, if not a constant presence. You know, I know that Marie, his grandmother - the woman who raised him, whom he called mama - you know, she always carried some kind of weapon on her person whether it was kind of a straight razor that she kept in her bra. Later, you know, it's a gun that is strapped to her leg. And she was the enforcer, you know. His father Buck also was an enforcer in the brothels that the family ran. There's always a sense that things had to be kept in line so the business could operate. And sounds of violence could explode at any time, and one of his most vivid memories is of waking up in the middle the night and hearing screams and not knowing - what do those screams mean? Where are they coming from? Who's screaming? What does it mean?

And to me, that's just a very intense indication of the kind of childhood he led.

GROSS: Scott Saul will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Becoming Richard Pryor."

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Scott Saul, author of the new book, "Becoming Richard Pryor." It traces Pryor's life from his childhood in Peoria, Illinois, raised by a grandmother who was a madam and bootlegger, to 1978 when, Saul says, it was clear that Pryor had risen to the level of comic genius.

You know, you had referred to the fact that Richard Pryor, when he was growing up, witnessed a lot of violence, the adults in his family fighting with each other. He was also the victim of violence. He was beaten by his father, beaten by his grandmother. Can you talk a little bit about that and how you think it affected his life and his comedy?

SAUL: You know, I think that the two kinds of beatings he got from his father, as opposed grandmother, were quite different. And this kind of does leave a great imprint in his mind. With his father, there's a sense of the randomness of violence, you know? That he felt like he could barely breathe sometimes in his father's presence because he didn't know when he would set off a tripwire, and, suddenly, his father would be beating him in some way.

With his grandmother, you know, she's remembered more as this figure of righteous anger in his mind, somebody who kept him in line and gave him a sense of himself, in part by sort of walloping him with her wisdom. And so those are sort of two different authority figures. But they make him live with a deep sense of fear. And at one point, he says to an interviewer, you know, anything you want to know about fear, just come to me.

GROSS: Let's hear another Richard Pryor track. And this is from his 1978 album, "Wanted." And this is about getting disciplined or beaten by his grandmother and his father, so we're going to hear two excerpts of this track.

SAUL: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "WANTED")

PRYOR: You know, my grandmother would discipline me. I mean, remember them switches you used to have to go get yourself? And you had them leaves on there, go (imitating leaves blowing).

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: My grandma said, boy, go get something to beat your [bleep] with, and that would be the longest walk in the world. You'd be going...

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: And you knew you couldn't come back with no little one, either because if you come back with a little one, she's going out there and get the tree, right?

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: You'd be going in the house - that vine make such a weird sound in your ear, you be doing (imitating vine whipping). It make you start crying before you get in the house, right?

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: (Imitating crying) Mama, I won't do it no more, mama. Mama, please, I won't do it no more, mama.

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: Put your - don't you run from me. Don't you ever run from me. As long as you black, don't you run from me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "WANTED")

(LAUGHTER)

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: Because I hated it from my father. He was scary to talk to, right? I would say, hey, dad, I'm going to the movies. You know what he said? Say [bleep], you want to take that bass out your voice when you talk to me? (Imitating high-pitched voice) I'm going to the movie, if you let me, dad.

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: Please, I hope it's OK.

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: See, you know, I had a fight with them in the front yard. Well, it wasn't exactly a fight. I did the best I could. I said, man, I'm tired of taking this [bleep], and that's it. What're you, a man now mother-[bleep]?

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: Yeah, OK. And he hit me in the chest so hard that my chest just caved in and wrapped around his fist...

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: ...And held it there. I wasn't letting that fist go. I didn't - my chest had that fist. Everywhere he moved his arm, I was hanging on.

(LAUGHTER)

PRYOR: And I didn't know he wasn't going to kill me, you know? He grabbed me by my throat. My eyes was getting big. And he bust my head against the cement, and some blood came out. And when you see your own blood, you freak. I said, dad, I'm your son, I'm your son, I'm your son. He said, no, but you was a man a minute ago.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's Richard Pryor from his 1978 album, "Wanted," and my guest, Scott Saul, is the other of the new book, "Becoming Richard Pryor." So, I mean, obviously, in what we heard, he is playing things for comedic effect, and I'm sure there's some exaggeration. But does the gist of it sound pretty true to you - that his grandmother beat him with a switch, and then his father could be really brutal and that his father didn't want Richard Pryor to be a man, that somehow, his father was, like, threatened by that and that Richard Pryor couldn't be himself and couldn't be a man around his father without getting punished for it?

SAUL: Yeah, I think those sketches managed to both be, you know, hilarious, but also quite profound in terms of how they capture that kind of emotional center of his life in those years. You know, on the one hand, you have the relationship with his grandmother. And in the sketch, he's going to be three different people at once. You know, he's going to be the child who is kind of frozen in fear. He's going to be the grandmother who's the force of vengeance. And then he's going to be the adult looking back with a kind of bemusement and, almost, skepticism over what he's lived through. And when he plays a grandmother, he kind of relishes her strength and understands that in some ways she's grounded him, even as she's beating him. You know, and, so at the end of that episode, you know, she's going to try to fix him up and try to heal the wounds that she has, herself, inflicted. And that makes her - in as much as he has a figure of strength and love in his life, she's it.

On the other hand, you have the father, Buck. And I think it is true that, you know, unlike many fathers who kind of lead their children to learn how to become men, you know, Richard felt like he could never grow up in his father's presence. He never learned how to do that.

GROSS: We've been talking about what a difficult childhood Richard Pryor had, but he seemed to know, even as a child, that he wanted to be a comedian. And you recount this, like, great story that - a teacher when he was in grade school and he was showing up late for school the time - she made this deal with him. Do want to explain the deal?

SAUL: Yeah, so, you know, he would show up late for school, and she said, Richard, you know, I'll make this deal where, if you come to school on time, I'll give you 10 minutes every Friday to do your little pantomimes and your little things, because she noticed that he had been doing these kind of sketches to make his friends laugh in the schoolyard at recess. So she kind of, basically, gave him his first stage. And after that, you know, apparently he was never late again.

He, at that moment, was the same moment when he was really seeing Jerry Lewis for first time, you know, in the theater. And he had heard his father, who you know is this kind of, you know, brutal figure in other routines - but he had heard his father laugh these, you know, deep, deep belly laughs seeing Jerry Lewis. And after that, he decided he was going to pick up some of that wacky physicality and perform it for his classmates, and then his teacher allowed him to do it as - not just in recess, but as a kind of performance in itself.

GROSS: My guest is Scott Saul, author of the book "Becoming Richard Pryor." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is the Scott Saul, author of the new book "Becoming Richard Pryor."

The impression I get through your book is that as Richard Pryor is developing a better sense of himself as a comic and as a person, that his personal life is often on the verge of really falling apart. You know, divorces, incidents where he beats the woman in his life. Talk a little bit about that side of his life, about the difficulties that he had.

SAUL: I think he had a very chaotic inner life. You know, he was somebody who really struggled to ever be at peace. And I don't know that he really had an integrated sense of self, in the sense that I think he might've, you know, been one of the most conflicted people, you know, to ever live (laughter). You know, just - he wanted so many things and he had just so many ambivalences swirling through him. And so he was always bursting out, you know, in all kinds of forms of violence in terms of the people who got too close. You know, he said once that you know, it's easier for him to talk about his life in front of 2,000 people than it is to do it one-on-one. He said, you know, I'm a really, really defensive person because if you were sensitive in my neighborhood, you were something to eat.

So on the one hand, when he goes on stage he can be vulnerable, he can reveal so many things about himself. But then when he pulls into these intimate relationships, he becomes even more barbed. And the people - especially the women - who get to know him really up-close in some ways see the worst of him.

GROSS: Did you interview those women, any of those women?

SAUL: I did. You know, one who left a really strong impression on me was Patricia Heitman, who was his companion from his time in Berkeley in 1971 through 1975, so kind of was with him in these really crucial years where he, you know, forms that new act that, you know, gets him to kind of revolutionize American comedy. And when he's also, you know, becoming a real Hollywood draw.

GROSS: And what'd she tell you?

SAUL: Well, I mean she's an incredibly self-possessed and impressive woman in the kind of - the intelligence with which she remembers her life and the specifics of what she experienced with Richard. And part of what she remembers is just so vividly their life - and actually, when I met her on the grounds of Yamashiro, which is a Japanese restaurant - and they lived in the cottage, so we kind of were stepping through the life that she lived with Richard. And she even took me on a little tour of that cottage. And I could see, for example, the door that Richard Pryor had attacked with a hatchet when he was trying to get her so he could, you know, beat her. She showed me these kinds of things.

GROSS: Richard Pryor had a Hollywood career. You got interested in him through his movies with Gene Wilder. His first big film was "Lady Sings The Blues," where he played Piano Man, Billie Holiday's accompanist. Billie Holiday was played of course by Diana Ross.

What I didn't know was that he was a writer on Mel Brooks' Western spoof, "Blazing Saddles," and that he was supposed to play the part - or at least he thought he was supposed to play the part of Black Bart, the part that was played by Cleavon Little. And he plays the part of a man who's about to be hung, but he's saved from hanging and he's made the sheriff for very cynical reasons (laughter). But anyways, tell us a little bit about Richard Pryor's role on writing "Blazing Saddles."

SAUL: Well, I think, you know, that Mel Brooks brought him in because he wanted to have a black writer. He wanted to have somebody who would give the other writers a certain kind of courage, a certain kind of nerviness and another writer, Norman Steinberg, felt like this is the man for the job. And so they brought him in. And I spoke to two of the writers on "Blazing Saddles" and both of them, you know, just were so grateful for Richard's presence in the room because he liberated them to say whatever they wanted, and he brought a great sense of kind of the racial masquerade in American life, the racial skin game. But it wasn't just - you know, Richard Pryor wasn't just writing the kind of racial jokes on "Blazing Saddles." You know, Mel Brooks said that, you know, he loved writing for the Mongo character. You know, things like, Mongo only pawn in game of life - that came out of Richard Pryor's mind. You know, one thing I would say too is that Richard Pryor loved the Western as a genre. You know, even when he was a kid in the late '40s, you know one of his favorite actors is Lash LaRue, who is - and you could see this is as kind of prefiguring the Black Bart character - Lash LaRue was a B-Western star who dressed all in black and had tons of panache as an actor. And in some ways, those B-Westerns were funny because you know, Lash LaRue was a bit campy, he wasn't the A-grade Western star. And you see Richard Pryor taking from Lash LaRue and putting some of those things into Black Bart.

GROSS: Why didn't he get the part of Black Bart as he thought he was going to do?

SAUL: Yeah, so when he's writing the movie, in his mind he's not just, you know, writing the part of Black Bart in part, he's also performing it. You know, he's giving life to this character. But, you know, at that time Richard Pryor was not a proven name as an actor. He had never carried a film. And the execs in Warner Bros. were very resistant to giving the lead of a major motion picture to somebody who didn't have a track record. In addition - though I never caught confirmation of this fact - you know, as these negotiations are going down, he kind of has a sort of explosion on the set of "The Mack," another movie - great movie - he did, where he punches out the director and threatens the producer, threatens the life of the producer. And I have a sense that that might've traveled to the executive suites of Warner Bros. and maybe they decided, you know, we just don't want to handle this thing.

GROSS: He was already using cocaine. Was that part of it, too?

SAUL: Yeah, they said that, you know - Andrew Bergman, another writer on "Blazing Saddles" - said he was a known sniffer, and they didn't want that kind of energy on the set.

GROSS: It sounds like Richard Pryor could be very difficult to work with. When he was on "Saturday Night" - this is early in the "Saturday Night Live" show's history, when it was still called "Saturday Night" - Lorne Michaels decided to, without telling Richard Pryor, institute a seven-second delay for that broadcast only because he was afraid that Richard Pryor would not - would use language that you really can't get away with using on broadcast.

SAUL: Right, right. Yeah, I mean...

GROSS: Why did he have to keep it secret from Richard Pryor?

SAUL: Well, Richard Pryor hated censorship. He hated euphemisms. He hated dancing around the truth. And I think that, you know, ever since that moment when he decides to embrace characters, to embrace the pursuit of character in his stand-up, he wants to be able to throw himself into that active projection of becoming the character. And the kind of characters he's going to become, a lot of them are going to use all kinds of language. And he doesn't want to have to censor himself as he's incarnating those characters. So I think it was just a very deep part of his creative process to follow those impulses. So the idea that he would have to censor himself on this show that's aspiring to be super hip and cutting-edge comedy in America, I think to him that would've just, you know, really cramped his style.

GROSS: We started our interview by talking about how Richard Pryor had the N-word used against him when he was growing up and how he used that word himself in his routines and kind of like, used it with defiance, and used it in different ways like you pointed out. Then he made this decision later in his career to stop using that word. And he has a comedy sketch about it from his 1982 "Live On The Sunset Strip" recording that's about his trip to Africa and how that led him to decide not to use the N-word. I know that goes past the place where your book ends, but what do you know about that decision in his life?

SAUL: Yeah. I think that moment in Africa is kind of a religious epiphany of a sort, where he realizes that the N-word has been used to degrade people and that they should be free of any trace of degradation, that there's a deep sacredness to every person, and so they should kind of escape words like that that are used to dehumanize them. I think that's what he's doing at that moment when he says, I'm not going to use that word again.

Now, a few years later he does bring it back into his act. It was just too useful to him. It was a word that was so important to the kind of black working-class world that he had grown up in, and it was deeply ingrained in his person, too.

GROSS: Well, Scott Saul thank you so much for talking with us about Richard Pryor.

SAUL: It's been such a pleasure.

GROSS: Scott Saul is the author of the new book "Becoming Richard Pryor." This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. For the jazz lovers on your holiday shopping list, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead suggests three box sets featuring memorable pianists, including Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, and another lesser-known keyboardist who backed Rosemary Clooney.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA TRIO SONG)

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Chick Corea, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade on Thelonious Monk's work. It's from the Corea Trio's "Trilogy," one of those multi-CD boxes out this time of year that might make a nice present for some jazz fan you may know. All-star groups like this one, put together to play big-ticket concerts, can be more about showboating than interplay play. But this band can sound good gloriously tight. The playing is bright and crisp. They really listen to each other. They even sound rehearsed. It brings out the best in all of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA TRIO SONG)

WHITEHEAD: The trio's live trilogy is on three CDs, and if it didn't violate the numerology, they might've whittled it down to two, maybe ditching three tunes with three guests whose help they don't really need. But there is a lot of very good playing here on diverse material. Moving on.

Pianist Herbie Hancock in his new autobiography devotes a lot of ink to a neglected period that's spotlighted in his three-CD set "Herbie Hancock: The Warner Bros. Years - 1969 To 1972." It was a transitional period, after Hancock got into electric keyboards but before he got super funky. At first, the music could sound kind of like his is acoustic jazz plugged in.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERBIE HANCOCK SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Herbie Hancock followed that with two albums built around his sextet, Mwandishi. Their free-form electric music owed a lot to Miles Davis' earlier fusion jams, only with more bass and some Sun Ra reverb.

(SOUNDBITE OF MWANDISHI SONG)

WHITEHEAD: After that moment, Mwandishi's music got gloriously weirder, like the players were daring each other. You can hear how it finally got too weird for Herbie Hancock, who pulled the plugs. But they got some great spacey textures blending horns and electronics.

(SOUNDBITE OF MWANDISHI SONG)

WHITEHEAD: Our last holiday gift pick features a very different keyboard wizard, backing singer Rosemary Clooney on songs recorded for her 1950s radio shows. Clooney was good friends with Bing Crosby, and he lent her the quartet he used for his own recently reissued radio stuff. It was led by keyboardist Buddy Cole whose zippy, gimmicky arrangements are so over-the-top, they're kind great.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOT A LOT OF LIVIN' TO DO")

ROSEMARY CLOONEY: (Singing) Life's a ball if only you know it. And it's all just waiting for you. You're alive. So come on and show it. There's such a lot of living to do.

WHITEHEAD: That's from "The Rosemary Clooney CBS Radio Recordings 1955 to 1961," a box from the mail-order house Mosaic. It's 104 songs on five CDs, though they could've fit on four. Clooney like Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire had the knack for swinging at tune even while singing it straight. At first, Buddy Cole brought her recycled Crosby charts, but they soon pursued Clooney's own interests. She loved Duke Ellington tunes and sings a few here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DO NOTHIN' TILL YOU HEAR FROM ME")

CLOONEY: (Singing) True, I've been seen with someone new, but does that mean that I'm untrue when we're apart? The words in my heart reveal how I feel about you. Some kiss may cloud my memory. And other arms may hold a thrill. But please, do nothing till you hear it from me. And you never will.

WHITEHEAD: Buddy Cole rearranges Duke Ellington. Now, there's a concept. They do some ballads, too, but Rosemary Clooney, like the band, sounds more at home on an up-tempo numbers. Slow and tender can be lovely, of course. But sometimes, the frothier, the better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S COMING UP ROSES")

CLOONEY: (Singing) Things look swell. Things look great. Going to have the whole world on a plate. Starting here, starting now, honey, every thing's coming up roses. Clear the decks, clear the tracks.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and Wondering Sound and is the author of "Why Jazz?". He reviewed the box sets "Trilogy" by the Chick Corea Trio, Herbie Hancock's "The Warner Bros. Years - 1969 - 1972" and "The Rosemary Clooney CBS Radio Recordings 1955 to 1960." If you want to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you've missed, check out podcast, which you can download on your phone app or on iTunes.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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