5 Questions with Scott Saul, Author of Becoming Richard Pryor

becoming richard pryorOur 2015 event season wraps this week with three events including an evening of Jewish Noir on Wednesday and a visit from our friend Robert Jensen, who is celebrating the release of his new book, on Thursday. Tomorrow we welcome Scott Saul, author of staff-favorite, Becoming Richard Pryor (published by HarperCollins). Scott took the time to answer our 5 questions.

Event: Tuesday, December 8 at 7:00PM at City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133

About the Book: Richard Pryor may have been the most unlikely star in Hollywood history. Raised in his family’s brothels, he grew up an outsider to privilege. He took to the stage, originally, to escape the hard-bitten realities of his childhood, but later came to a reverberating discovery: that by plunging into the depths of his experience, he could make stand-up comedy as exhilarating and harrowing as the life he’d known. He brought that trembling vitality to Hollywood, where his movie career—Blazing Saddles, the buddy comedies with Gene Wilder, Blue Collar—flowed directly out of his spirit of creative improvisation. The major studios considered him dangerous. Audiences felt plugged directly into the socket of life.

Becoming Richard Pryor brings the man and his comic genius into focus as never before. Drawing upon a mountain of original research—interviews with family and friends, court transcripts, unpublished journals, screenplay drafts—Scott Saul traces Pryor’s rough journey to the heights of fame: from his heartbreaking childhood, his trials in the Army, and his apprentice days in Greenwich Village to his soul-searching interlude in Berkeley and his ascent in the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s.

Becoming Richard Pryor illuminates an entertainer who, by bringing together the spirits of the black freedom movement and the counterculture, forever altered the DNA of American comedy. It reveals that, while Pryor made himself a legend with his own account of his life onstage, the full truth of that life is more bracing still.

About the Author: Scott Saul is a historian and critic who has written for The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, and other publications. The author of Becoming Richard Pryor and Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, he is also the creator of Richard Pryor’s Peoria, an extensive digital companion to his biography of the comedian. He teaches courses in American literature and history at UC-Berkeley, where he is a Professor of English.

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City Lights: If you’ve been to City Lights before, what’s your memory of the visit?

Scott Saul: Sometime around my junior year in college c. 1990, I made a pilgrimage to City Lights Books and was dazzled by how beautifully curated all the shelves were–they didn’t seem overstuffed by the sort of books one found at, say, Waldenbooks or Crown, which were the chain bookstores that dominated the San Fernando Valley, where I grew up.

I was also struck by how, despite its international reputation, City Lights still felt like the sort of intimate bookshop where you could get lost in browsing. I remember picking up Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, a slim book of magical sci-fi fables that proceeded to blow my mind. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened as a result of a trip to City Lights . . .

CL: If your book had a soundtrack, what would it be?

SS: When I was writing the book, I listened to Ryuichi Sakamoto constantly. I recommend his solo piano music to any writer who needs a calming musical energy for those moments when you’re wrestling with a blank screen.

For Richard Pryor’s life, the soundtrack would begin with the small-combo jazz and jump blues of the 40s, which was the kind of music Pryor’s family hosted at the Famous Door, the club in Peoria that they ran. Say, Louis Jordan’s “Five Guys Named Moe.” Then we’d segue to some mid-’50s jazz from Miles Davis–”Walkin’,” say–which Richard heard in the presence of his acting mentor Juliette Whittaker, the rare bohemian in Peoria. (She wore dashikis when dashikis were hardly fashionable there.)

By the late-’60s, Pryor had one foot in the counterculture and one foot in the black freedom movement, so we might draw on a performers who also managed that balancing act. Maybe start with the Temptations, whose “Psychedelic Shack” described the black-oriented club, Mavericks Flat, where Pryor first started dropping the n-word and f-word regularly in his act. Or, to signal the darker energies he took on in the 1970s, we might move to Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

By the mid-’70s, Pryor took to wearing a green-red-and-black track suit with the motto “Every Nigger Is a Star” emblazoned on it–which referred to a small Jamaican film from 1973. The theme song is a great place to end our musical tour of Pryor’s life from his childhood to his breakout moment as a star performer. (It’s sampled on the first track of Kendrick Lamar’s new album, too.)

CL: What’s the first book you actually finished reading?

SS: Ooh, that’s tough. It pains me to admit that I loved the Encyclopedia Brown kid-detective series when I was really young; I read one of them recently with my son–and it was a clunky piece of dreck! The first book I read until it fell apart in my hands was Nicholas Schaffner’s The Beatles Forever. I was in 6th and 7th grade, and I would just listen to the Beatles endlessly on my cheapo kid’s turntable while poring over every picture and Billboard chart in Schaffner’s book. Somehow, memorizing how many weeks a Beatles single spent at #1 gave me a sense that I understood the music as much as I loved it.

CL: If you weren’t a writer, what might you do?

SS: Open a restaurant that specializes in lentil dishes. I feel passionately that lentils don’t get the respect they deserve.

CL: Name a few things you’d require if stranded on a desert island for an undefined period of time (and, yes, no wifi). 

SS: The complete works of Italo Calvino. William Steig’s Abel’s Island (the story of a mouse who becomes an artist when stuck on a desert island; I’d need the inspiration). And a sack of fresh coffee beans or, at least, a bag of chocolate-covered espresso beans so that I could wean myself of my caffeine addiction . . .

Join us tonight as we examine the life and career of the great Richard Pryor, using Scott’s great new book, Becoming Richard Pryor, as a guide. For more about Scott, go to his official site, his site dedicated to Pryor, or follow him on Twitter.

Check out our events calendar for the other events this week and into 2016. Follow our podcast, Live! From City Lights, for full audio of all our events at the bookstore.

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