‘Wattstax’: The ‘Black Woodstock’ music festival

The Watts Riots are often referred to by lefties as “The Watts Rebellion.” While both are technically accurate descriptions, “rebellion” is considered the preferable word by sympathists, since “riot” has a negative connotation. For me, the word “riot” lacks any moralist stigma, since rioting has historically played a necessary role in the resistance of oppressed people. I also think “riots” paints a more identifiable picture.

In addition to less explicit economic discrimination, the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles was plagued with racist attacks from both white gangs and and a militarized police force (sound familiar?). The 1965 events that incited the riots are convoluted, but (briefly) a black man was arrested for driving under the influence, his brother (who was was a passenger), left to inform the man’s mother, who showed up to the arrest. There was a physical altercation, all three black citizens were arrested, and onlookers from the neighborhood began throwing things at the cops.

Eight days later, 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries and 3,952 arrests. 600 businesses were destroyed and over $40 million was done in damages over a 46-square mile-area.

In 1972, Stax Records put on a concert featuring their artists to commemorate the riots. Tickets for the Wattstax music festival (held in the massive L.A. Coliseum) were sold for $1 each to keep the event affordable for working class Los Angeles residents. Mel Stuart, who had just directed Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (a box-office bomb, despite its classic status), documented the concert in Wattstax, the electric results of which you see below. Wattstax has been shorthanded as “The Black Woodstock,” but it’s so much more.

The film is something greater than a record of fantastic concert footage, though the performances from artists like The Staples Singers, Isaac Hayes and The Bar-Kays are mind-blowing. It’s the interviews with Watts residents, who reflect on their lives and politics and what has and hasn’t changed since the riots, that really make the film. Richard Pryor serves as a kind of Greek chorus, and his interactions with the crowd are hilarious and full of humanity. You’ll notice that nearly the entire audience defiantly stays seated during Kim Weston’s rendition of the national anthem.

If you want a good clip to sample, there’s a fantastic bit starting around the 38:30 mark where Richard Pryor riffs on black identity (and pork). It then cuts to The Bar-Kays (looking like a heavenly choir from outer space), who do a blistering version of “Son of Shaft.”

Via Open Culture

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Watch Richard Pryor’s jaw-dropping ‘Willie’ sketch featuring Maya Angelou
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Richard Pryor
Maya Angelou

The Richard Pryor Special?
One of the hallmarks of Richard Pryor’s comedy was his fearless willingness to attempt and stunning ability to deliver authentic pathos. Humanity flowed from the man freely; especially after his famous 1967 meltdown in Las Vegas that represented a complete sea change in his career, his standup work often seemed almost as sad or heartbreaking as it was hilarious. Pryor had an essential sweetness that allowed him to remain relatable and childlike even when broaching the most delicate topics of race and sexuality, and had the guts, for example, to incorporate the “N word” into his work—not for nothing was his 1976 celebration of America called Bicentennial Nigger. What must have been an emotionally pulverizing childhood in a bordello in Peoria, Illinois, uniquely qualified Pryor as a subterranean spelunker of the human condition. Only someone inured to such pain could make us laugh about it so consistently.

On May 5, 1977, after several successful appearances on Saturday Night Live and a string of profitable movies, NBC gave Pryor an hour in prime time to put on a show of his choice—and the results were devastating. The show was called The Richard Pryor Special? and it included the most gut-wrenchingly honest and heart-breaking sketch I have ever seen—on what was ostensibly a comedy show.

The show started out on a confrontational note, as Audrey T. McCluskey described it in her edited volume Richard Pryor: The Life and Legacy of a “Crazy” Black Man:

The opening skit takes place on a slave ship with a whip-cracking captain played by Belushi doling out punishment to the captives. Pryor, a random slave, is given the additional punishment of having his own NBC special. In this short skit Pryor manages to compare his predicament in the white-controlled world of corporate television to slavery. Such barbs against television, particularly against its censorship of his material, characterized his work on network television.

You can see Pryor’s horrified reaction to the news that he has been condemned to hosting his own NBC special above. Pryor’s very affability cloaks the sheer gumption it must have taken to open his special with a sketch about slavery, now matter how amusing. I can’t remember Saturday Night Live doing all that many slavery sketches in the last ten years.

The most powerful sketch of the show was almost certainly the one revolving around Pryor’s drunk “Willie” character. The eleven-minute sketch starts out in a bar, where Willie is already on the verge of being asked to leave for his inebriated antics. He berates a few of the bar’s patrons, jawbones with the bartender (played by John Belushi) for a little while, and gets beaten up by the irate husband of one of the tavern’s drunken regulars. So far there have been a few genuine laughs, but it scarcely seems like a comedy sketch—it’s too trenchant and cuts way too deep about the nature of poverty and alcohol addiction. But the sketch is just getting going.

At this juncture Willie stumbles home and passes out on the couch in front of his wife—played by the astonishing Maya Angelou. The last four minutes of the sketch are a monologue by Willie’s wife as she apostrophizes the hapless, unconscious figure of Willie. Her soliloquy is a masterpiece of pain, understanding, despair, and forgiveness, a howl of anguish by the woman who loves him, the man whose poverty-driven tribulations and shame-fueled alcoholism have, it’s fair to say, ruined her life. It’s a bit of trenchant kitchen-sink racial commentary—I have never seen anything else like it on American TV, and don’t ever expect to see anything like it on American TV in the future.

Definitely watch the video below; it’s futile for me to capture its courage, honesty, and brilliance. It leaves me pole-axed every time.

Here’s a special thank-you advertisement that Angelou took out in the pages of Variety that was excavated by the indispensable Kliph Nesteroff:
Maya Angelou Thank You Note
According to Billy Ingram, The Richard Pryor Special? was a critical and ratings success, and it led to a regular series of Pryor’s own the following autumn—which lasted only four episodes. 

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Cocaine is a helluva drug: Richard Pryor jams with Sly Stone, 1974

When Sly Stone improbably guest-hosted The Mike Douglas Show in 1974, Richard Pryor joined him to jam on the drums for a short, chaotic hash of “If You Want Me to Stay.”

What was the coke budget for this???

I can just see wide-lapelled, mild-mannered nice guy Mike Douglas knocking on the dressing room door before the show to find several of Sly’s armed “security” cronies, a few pounds of cocaine dumped on a table and Sly and Richard both looking like Heath Ledger as The Joker…

“Hi fellas!”


Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him
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Pop Culture

Richard Pryor
Joe Henry

Wild. Singer/songwriter Joe Henry has co-written (along with his brother David) a biography of Richard Pryor entitled, Serious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him, due out in November. If you’re familiar with Joe Henry’s work, then you already know why this is so cool and appropriate, but if not, then I’ll tell you…

If you don’t know who Richard Pryor was, well then, no wonder you think the universe is kind of boring and tedious. Richard Pryor was Chris Rock before Chris Rock was even born, unleashing his ferocious comedy to both white and black audiences in the 60s and 70s, way before it was “OK” to joke seriously about racial issues and about the experience of being an African American in a nation still trying to suppress the inevitable realization that its cultural roots were about as black as they were white.
Here’s Richard Pryor as the first black president of the US. Like a lot of Pryor’s comedy, you can’t quite see where it’s going until it gets there and, prior to arrival it veers into the surreal.

Wild, no? That’s from the 1970s and I’m thinking popular culture was actually somewhat less brittle back then. The ghost of left-wing culture hadn’t quite faded away yet, though of course in just a few years Reagan’s jackboots would stomp even that poor pitiful thing into the ground. Even in the early 1980s, after Pryor recovered from a disfiguring freebasing accident that left him badly burned and near death, the nation laughed when Pryor explained: “When I dunked the cookie in the milk, it exploded!”

Joe Henry, meanwhile, dedicated one of his better albums (Scar) to Pryor, and wrote one of the songs (”Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation”) in his voice. Here’s “Stop,” from that same album (If you are a Madonna fan, you may have noticed that this song has the same lyrics as “Don’t Tell Me” from her Music album, and indeed Henry wrote those lyrics. Joe Henry is, bizarrely enough, Madonna’s brother-in-law (married to her sister Melanie) and also wrote the Baywatch theme, but don’t hold that against him.)

Henry operates in a nominally popular idiom by placing scraps of jazz, rock, R&B and even country into the athanor of his songwriting craft and then melting them all down and shaping the resultant amalgam into the odd and sometimes frightening little homonculi that are his songs.

When Henry (or his “people”) made the announcement about Serious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him on Facebook and his blog a couple of days ago, it came as both a surprise as well one of those things that seems obvious in retrospect. I’m stoked for the publication of this book and will almost certainly celebrate this news later with a bottle of Monday-night plonk and the very loud cranking of Joe Henry’s Blood From Stars album.

Here’s a rarity of sorts, of Henry singing (or pretending to be singing) the title track from hisTiny Voices album:


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Heavy meta: A Slayer meets Richard Pryor tee-shirt?
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Richard Pryor

Only 200 of these puppies have been manufactured by California-based artist Aye Jay.

The “Pryor” tee-shirt is selling for $26.00 at Shirts and Destroy.

Via Cherrybombed

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‘This Is Tom Jones’: His first TV show with Peter Sellers, Richard Pryor and The Moody Blues

It was always the voice. He may have sold it short by appearing in over-produced TV shows, or playing seasons in Vegas, or becoming a caricature of a tanned medallion man, but none of it really mattered when you heard the voice—and Tom Jones has one hell of a singing voice.

When Jones’ star was on the rise on the late-1960s, he was offered his own TV show, This Is Tom Jones, which ran for 65 episodes between 1969 and 1971. It was an instant and massive success on both sides of the Atlantic, and led to the singer receiving 2 Golden Globe Nominations. It also saw Jones perform with an incredible array of stars ranging from Dusty Springfield, Little Richard, Janis Joplin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Cass Elliot,  Burt Bacharach, George Carlin, Terry-Thomas, Sandi Shaw, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Lulu, Nancy Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Aretha Franklin, amongst many others.

This is the first episode of This Is Tom Jones, which aired on February 7th, 1969. Jones sang several of his hits, and mixed with an incredible range of talent including a suave-looking Peter Sellers (who changed the script, tried out his Welsh accent and appeared in a skit written by John Cleese and Graham Chapman); a very youthful Richard Pryor in one of his first TV appearances (who looks almost teenage and has yet to find the anger that made his comedy dangerous); The Moody Blues (who reminded me of a holiday resort band); and a beautiful Mary Hopkin, singing “Those Were The Days”.

This Is Tom Jones has dated somewhat, and the sets and dance routines may look positively camp, but the quality of the performances, and the power of Tom Jones’ voice make this a special treat.


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Phil Spector’s 1965 appearance on Merv Griffin’s show gets tense with Eartha Kitt and Richard Pryor

Phil Spector
And this is what he turned into? What a complete shock…
So although it’s fairly well-known what a crazy motherfucker Phil Spector is, it’s still somewhat surprising to see that he never even went a little bit out of his way to at least try to affect an air of bare minimum congeniality, or to be charming, or attempt to appear SANE, even when he was on television. From the get-go, he’s hostile to Merv (how can you be hostile to Merv?) and becomes increasingly irritated and paranoid throughout the interview.

By the time Spector alludes to hitting Merv and a very unimpressed and composed Eartha Kitt—who hits him hard with her well-delivered Socrates quip—the audience is hissing and booing him.

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Steve Martin and Richard Pryor on ‘The Tonight Show,’ 1978
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Steve Martin
Richard Pryor

Steve Martin conducted this awkward/awesome interview with Richard Pryor when he was the guest hosting for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show on June 19, 1978. Glen Campbell was also on the couch that night.

Shout Factory is putting out a DVD box set of Steven Martin’s 70s television work, Steve Martin: The Television Stuff on September 18th.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Richard Pryor invents Black Death Metal in 1977
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Richard Pryor
Black Metal

From the first episode of The Richard Pryor Show, the comedians’ ill-fated NBC series (only four episodes were produced). Imagine seeing this at 8pm on ABC in 1977! Mind-bending!

From archieoogley’s YouTube description:

Pre-Spinal Tap Mystical Hobbit Rockers? Check.
Druidic cloaks? Check.
Smoke machines? Check.
Pryor utilizing the long-accepted habit of slurring your words to get past censors? (See ‘Louie Louie’ by the Kingsmen for history’s best example) Check.
Pryor throwing giant bags of drugs and pills into his all-white teenage audience? Check.
Pryor using a gas gun to kill the first few rows? Check.

And finally, Richard Pryor taking a machine gun to his fans, killing every white teenager in the place? Double-check.

Jimi meets KISS meets Funkadelic meets King Diamond meets Sunn O))) meets Sigue Sigue Sputnik meets the Cowardly Lion meets Dawn Davenport? You just can’t beat it.

You’ll see a very young Sandra Bernhard in the audience. They cut to her a few times.

Thank you, Lee Richard!

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment