Watch Rare Film of Richard Pryor Singing the Blues: No Joke, All Heart

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.” 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Richard Pry­or Does Ear­ly Stand-Up Com­e­dy Rou­tine in New York, 1964

Nina Simone Per­forms Six Songs in 1968 TV Spe­cial, The Sound of Soul

Hear Zora Neale Hurston Sing the Bawdy Prison Blues Song “Uncle Bud” (1940)

Watch the Only Known Footage of the Leg­endary Blues­man Lead Bel­ly (1935 and 1945)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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