It seems superfluous to say the importance, impact and influence of Richard Pryor cannot be understated, both in black culture and to the world of comedy. His jokes weren’t always jokes – they were often true stories whose punchlines were born of hard living and bitter personal experience. His language was raw and profane; his ideas unfiltered and profound; his comedy real and as revelatory to black audiences as Lenny Bruce’s had been to primarily white audiences. Maybe best of all, one didn’t have to be black or have the same life experiences as Richard to appreciate his sometimes dark, yet always innovative humor.
In the mid-60’s, Richard was like any other struggling young comic trying to find how and where he fit in. Bill Cosby was arguably the most successful, mainstream black comedian at the time, so Richard reluctantly tried to make himself and his comedy in the mold of Cosby. The problem was that Pryor wasn’t Cosby, and he quickly realized it wasn’t in his character to be a clone. He had shit to say – shit that other black comedians weren’t saying, or were afraid to say. And after an on-stage epiphany in late 1967, Richard began to discover who he really was, and what he really wanted to talk about. There begins the historic, hilarious recorded journey of the birth, subsequent re-birth, and genius of Richard Pryor.
The change in Richard’s tone didn’t happen overnight, and his self-titled 1968 debut already found him at a crossroads. He was in the throes of an internal, professional conflict – caught between who he was, and who he desperately longed to be. And that struggle was being recorded. The joy of performing to an enthusiastic audience is evident in his delivery and the material is solid, as he had been honing the bulk of it for a year or two prior. Two of his early signature pieces are front and center – the career tone- setting opener “Super Nigger”, depicting Richard’s envisioning of the first black superhero, and the character-driven tour-de-force “Prison Play”, starring Richard as Black Ben the Blacksmith. Bold and funny as his jokes are, a tense hint of Richard’s restraint is detectable. That tension would eventually bubble over, driving him to no longer stifle his creative ambitions.
It would be over two years before the release of his sophomore album “Craps (After Hours)” in 1971. However, it was far from a lack of creativity, or having nothing to say that would account for this lapse. During his time away from the record bins, Richard immersed himself in black culture, multi-racial counterculture, and found his true voice. Gone is the rehearsed, occasionally profane comic previously inhibited by convention. Gone, too, is his cast of colorful, fictional characters. In their place – a now frequently profane comic, more comfortable with himself and with blazing his own controversial path, along with a new cast of edgier , seedier characters more uncomfortably close to his reality.
“Craps” is simultaneously the antithesis of Richard’s debut record, as well as a mission statement. It is the re-birth of Richard Pryor with newfound confidence, swagger, and brutal honesty. His brilliance is in the way he can publicly exorcise so many personal demons, and be so goddamn funny and fearless doing it. Fifty years on, “Craps” still sounds like a dangerous, decadent, irresistible party – the after-hours yang to the debut’s closing-time yin.
This pair of reissues from Omnivore offers the opportunity to re-discover these master class comedy records. The first album is supplemented by a generous collection of gems from Richard’s formative years as a budding comic, recorded prior to his debut. It showcases a fascinating, evolutionary period of his humor and on-stage persona. Many of the selections were released in edited form on multiple, slap-dash budget albums (without Richard’s involvement) throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s. The bonus disc was assembled from Richard’s personal archives prior to his passing, with his assistance and approval. Likewise, “Craps” offers a handful of period-era bonus cuts, including an early 1971 take of his classic routine “Wino & Junkie.” –Jay Scott