ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JUNE 21, 2001
By Steve Newton
Richard Pryor is my favourite comedian of all time. Back in the ’70s I used to buy all his records; later on I’d go see all his concert movies, or rent them on video. And I couldn’t put down his brutally honest biography, Pryor Convictions, when it was released in ’95. His ability to see the pain and beauty in the stark-naked truth—and laugh right at it—just made him a hero to me.
L.A. singer-songwriter Joe Henry, who opens for Emmylou Harris at the Orpheum next Thursday (June 28), feels the same way. He recently met Pryor, who’s suffered from multiple sclerosis for many years, and dedicated his new album, Scar, to the ailing comic genius. The CD opens with the compellingly low-key tribute “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”.
“Usually I find out what I’m writing about by writing,” notes Henry from his L.A. home. “Richard had been very much on my mind for one reason or another, and as I was writing that song I realized pretty quickly that it was he that I was speaking of. And then the title just kind of appeared. I thought it was cumbersome and pretentious, and I tried to get rid of it, but that just seemed to be the title of the song.”
In the stark “Richard Pryor”, Henry sings in the first person, standing in Pryor’s shoes, drearily contemplating the comedian’s life and career. The song includes some stirring sax work by jazz giant Ornette Coleman, whose inspired blowing intensifies the lyrics’ sense of a spiritual free fall.
“Again, it’s one of those serendipitous things,” says Henry of the Coleman contribution. “As I was writing and doing a demo of that song at home, just piano and voice, it was so languid and so slow and so open, I thought, ‘Something’s gotta happen to illustrate the tension in the song’—and Ornette just came to mind. Sometimes you have a thought like that, and it just becomes like a prop. You think, ‘Well, if I’m thinking in terms of Ornette’s musical voice in here, what does that tell me about where I want the song to go?’ At that moment I didn’t really think that I would be able to recruit him to play, but like so many ideas, before you know it you’re kinda married to it. Then nothing else made sense to me but to approach Ornette, and when I did, he was very generous and open with his time and talent.”