March, 1989. Snowed out of school one day, I wandered over to a place called Faubion's Fabulous Junk, a flea market on 38th Street where I had bought a lot of used albums at in months gone by. I was flipping through some newer boxes of stuff when I found a Richard Pryor album I had never seen before with the odd title of Who Me? I'm Not Him, and a drawing of him up in heaven. I had a small knowledge of him having been on the Laff label (known for its trashy, X-rated porno-comedy albums), but this was new to me. A little beat-up, but playable. It cost me only fifty cents.
I got it home and put it on the turntable. What I heard sounded like it was recorded on a battery-operated reel-to-reel and cobbled together on a cheap cassette deck, but I was fascinated by what I was hearing. He sounded very young, almost Bill Cosby-like, and--dig this!--virtually no swearing at all. I was hooked, and played the album over and over. But at the same time, I would ask myself, Are these old recordings? Is this a bootleg?
As I began research and finding more that were released in this series, I eventually found out the story. In 1971, Richard recorded and released the Craps (After Hours) LP, but was dissatisfied with the recording and left Laff for greener pastures. In a resulting lawsuit, Laff released Richard in exchange for releasing all the archive tapes of him they had in any way they saw fit. And, boy, did they! The albums that they released had cover-art that tied in with his movies and TV appearances throughout its run, firstly by Michael Sell, and then Rhonda (Voo) Klapper. The first four albums had some corny liner notes by Shelby Meadows Ashford, but were finally done away with. The albums actually sold (at least, in the beginning), and charted on both Billboard and the R&B charts.
Contrary to some reports and paperback biographies that these were albums that were recorded on the side (that they were "too blue" for a listening audience), the albums' content were actually old recordings that ranged from Richard as a mere joke-teller to very experimental to early rumblings of his better-known "street" humor. Some of the material was (and is) great, some of it doesn't fly or go over with the audience, and some of it goes absolutely nowhere. But, then again, we are listening to a true artist here. Some of the material was professionally-recorded, and some of the material was very poorly-recorded, edited and mastered. And sometimes this was within the confines of one album!
There are some absolute gems to behold, sometimes routines that were done time and time again, but always had some differences in them. Two that come to mind are the old-timer giving directions on how to get back onto Highway 16, and of Richard's fire-and-brimstone preacher, who was running into God himself in various forms, in the year "nineteen twunny-nahhhhn!!!".
Someone on Amazon.com commented on Richard's work from this period and made an interesting parallel with bluesman Robert Johnson that maybe Richard sold his soul sometime around 1968 in order to become a better comedian; a very interesting connection. After all, just look what happened to him around that time, and then the dire consequences that followed years later. Makes you wonder!
As a special tribute to Richard, I wanted to go over these misunderstood and underrated collections of his old recordings, and report what exactly is on them, which ones you need, and which ones to avoid. The first four of them, Craps and (oddly enough) Supernigger were available on CD's on the Uproar Entertainment label, and can still be obtained at www.amazon.com , and the albums and tapes of them can always be found at www.ebay.com
Special thanks for this project goes to those at Laff Records, Jennifer Lee Pryor, Reggie Collins & Steve Pokorny at Rhino Records and Rockula's site http://rassoodock.com for some filled gaps, 2nd Time Around, Turntable Treasures, Jeff at Golden Oldies for selling me these things at a young age, and Faubion's Fabulous Junk for getting the ball rolling.
A great place to see the album covers are at: http://rassoodock.com/data-pages/laff_records.html
But, above all, thanks to the man himself for the timeless hours of laughs and insight, and for listening to his works and his God-given art. So, without further ado, from the stages of the Troubadour, P.J.'s, the hungry i, the Redd Foxx club, and many others to name, would you welcome with a nice round of applause as we bring up to the bandstand...onto the stage...MR. RICHARD PRYOR!!!