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Music

Remembering Richard Pryor’s days as a folk singer opening for Bob Dylan and Nina Simone

@TomTaylorFO

“When you ain’t got no money, you gotta get an attitude.” – Richard Pryor

When Richard Pryor moved to New York City in 1963, he had a lot to escape and not much cause for hope, but nevertheless, he set about pursuing his dream of being an entertainer despite the odds. He was raised in his grandmother’s brothel where he was sexually abused at the age of seven, expelled from school at the age of 14, and he spent two dark years in a U.S. Army prison for retaliating against the racism of a white soldier when stationed in West Germany

All the while he held true to the following assertion: “Two things people throughout history have had in common are hatred and humour. I am proud that I have been able to use humour to lessen people’s hatred.” Thus, when he arrived in Greenwich Village it was the beat folk scene that he first infiltrated. After all, it was the beat progenitor William S. Burroughs who once wrote: “Artists to my mind are the real architects of change, and not the political legislators who implement change after the fact.” Aside from the new conversational style of comedian that inspired him, it was equally this notion that motivated him to stand under the spotlight. 

Remarkably, even though Pryor had only just begun, he had endeared himself to the scene of the Village and soon started opening for names like Nina Simone and Bob Dylan. However, as Billy Connelly once said of being a comic opening for someone else’s audience: “I remember reading once that Tom Waits went out to open for someone big like Loggins and Messina. He said it was a nightly experience in horror. I couldn’t put it more succinctly.” Thus, in order to get the crowd on his side, Pryor tried his hand at a few folk songs.

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Nevertheless, this proved nerve-shredding for the would-be comedy star. As Nina Simone once said when recalling her backstage moments with Pryor: “He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn’t bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time.”

It is this humility that makes his early music performances so charming, not to mention the fact that talent seeps out him like spiritual honey. At the time, he also began finding his voice in a comedic sense. As other performers were bolding dishing out virtues around him, he decided that he too would articulate his own experiences in a different way. It may well have taken years of fine-tuning, but these early experiences facing his fears in the presence of trailblazers proved highly formative for him. 

He may well have had issues in his life, but he undoubtedly achieved his goal of lessening people’s hatred. This desire to charm and extol truths is apparent from the very start, as you can see from the humble clip below of him performing the blues classic ‘Nobody Want You When You’re Down and Out’.