With the possible exception of Beyonce as Etta James in Cadillac Records, no onscreen portrayal of a female jazz singer tops Diana Ross as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. She is so mesmerizing, in fact, that it’s easy to forget, if you haven’t seen the movie recently, that Ross is flanked by two other excellent performers in Billy Dee Williams as Louis McKay, a composite stand-in for Holiday’s three husbands, and Richard Pryor as the “Piano Man,” Ross’s accompanist. It was a role that “propelled him into stardom” and kept Pryor out in front of an audience as a movie actor. Watch a clip from the film below, with Ross’s Holiday and Pryor’s surly Piano Man together at 3:39.
Odd as it seems that a dramatic role would be Pryor’s breakout performance, unexpected still perhaps is the video at the top of Pryor singing the blues himself. None of his raunchy or self-deprecating wit here, just a genuine, heartfelt rendition of Jimmy Cox’s 1924 “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.” According to eOne Music’s Eric Alper, Pryor not only started performing comedy after he moved to New York City in 1963, he also sang, opening for such soon-to-be-greats as Nina Simone and Bob Dylan. Pryor in fact got his start on the club circuit as a drummer, so “he was familiar with the scene.” Movies.com recounts a poignant story from Simone’s autobiography about Pryor’s intense stage fright before one of these early gigs:
He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn’t bear to watch him shiver so I put my arms around him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down. The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time.
As a singer, Pryor doesn’t channel and focus his anxiety so much as he slowly masters it, appearing a little stiff at first but eventually knocking it out with a surprisingly good performance that well deserves a listen. The provenance of the clip isn’t exactly clear, and some intro material marks it as part of a documentary, maybe. Please weigh in if you know or suspect the film clip’s source.