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But instead of painting himself as a cartoon bad boy, he went deeper into self-examination, expressing his frailty in a way that made his worst moments forgivable, almost lovable. And he told some horrible tales about himself. The 1978 concert film Live In Concertfilmed just south of Los Angeles in Long Beachwas likely his first masterpiece. If Crazy was his The New Miles Davis Quintet (Prestige, 1956), this is his Milestones (Columbia, 1958). The style is taut but not stiff, the pace brisk but not rushed. He moves through a variety of voices and imitations, my favorite being his rendering of what the heart attack told him as he was struck by it. The two-record set of the show, Wanted (Warner Bros, 1979), is very good. But the film is the whole nine yards. Pryor's face and body are as wildly expressive as they are expressively wild. He alternates the collected, streetwise voice with the manic one in what would have likely been the greatest filmed comic performance ever had he not topped it with Live On The Sunset Strip (Warner Bros, 1982), released as a single LP and also as a full-length film.
Strip is his Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959). This is the performance people mean when they speak of Pryor as a genius, and they're right. He's unflinching, whether dishing hard luck romance stories or talking about life in the burn ward after his freebase incident. Instead of his heart attack talking to him, now we hear his freebase pipe giving him advice. The whole 82 minutes is a masterstroke of timing, pace, tone, language, grand laughs, and cheap ones.
The unfortunate realization is how little standup he did between the two concert films. While the pre-1978 phases are always great, he hits his stride in with the 1978 film, but distractions ranging from making Hollywood movies to substance abuse seem to have put live comedy performance largely on hold during his most powerful phase.
He would make one last concert film in 1983, Here And Now, that catches the end of a great period, much as Someday My Prince Will Come (Columbia, 1961) catches the end of the fifties Miles reign. Each is a pleasure, but each carries its former glories with it. And those glories overshadow all things subsequent.
In 1986, Pryor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he spoke about it as frankly as he did about cocaine, heart attacks, bad love, and growing up in a Peoria whorehouse.
When I first moved to LA, in 1995, Pryor appeared for a few nights at the Comedy Store, on the Sunset Strip. I took the bus two nights in a row to see if I could get in, but by this point, Pryor's condition was known in show business circles, so it was sold out both times I went.
MS ravaged his body and speech. I get the sense Pryor very little of the money he earned, because he spent his last years living in a relatively modest San Fernando Valley house. He remarried his ex-wife Jennifer Lee, and she was his caretaker for the final ten years or so of his life. I spoke to her around the time Rhino issued their box of the Warners recordings. I asked her what Richard liked to do, since his physical condition was then deteriorating. She said they went to the movies a lot. I asked if he watched any comedians anymore. She said he didn't, but that he still really liked the Cold War era hipsomatic orator, Lord Buckley.
I was just then writing liner notes for a Buckley box set that wound up never coming out, and I told her I had some Buckley that Richard Pryor had likely never heard.
"How quickly can you send it?" she joked.
I was at the post office the next day.
He died in December, 2005. I remember it well. I lived in the Valley at that point, and I was sitting in a diner on Magnolia Blvd, and I heard someone yell from the kitchen "Hey! Richard Pryor just died! I heard it on the radio."
Within a few minutes, the waitresses had told everyone in the place, and I could hear pieces of conversations through the place, talking about cocaine, favorite parts of his movies, even a few lines from standup bits.
George Carlin brilliantly twisted the grammar of life into objective comedy, but Pryor was subjective and self-referenced. To Pryor, freebase addiction was funny. His own heart attack was funny. Burning himself up was funny. Ali was funny. Even the Mafia was funny. Life could be funny even as if was painful. And you could deal with the uncomfortable realities if you made your frailty funny.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.