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Richard Pryor | Gary Burden for R. Twerk & Co.

Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor

When I was hired to design an album cover for Richard Pryor I was warned to be careful because he was kind of “out there”. I was cautioned not to go too far with what he said because he could be off the deep-end. They stressed that they needed a real record cover.

Henry and I went to his house one morning, knocked on the door and his wife answered. She said, “You go try to get him up he won’t get out of bed.” We had never met him before. We said, “Hey Richard, we’re here to take your picture.” We were standing over him, looking down at him and he said, “Just take it here in bed. This will be the cover - me sleeping, you know.”

He had been a little standoffish when we first met him. I noticed that at the time, he was making a documentary about black people taking over the world and he had storyboards on his wall of black warriors mowing down the white pigs. Eventually, though, Richard mentioned that he would like to do something kind of Roots-y. This was before the television series.

I thought, roots for Richard would be some kind of tribal thing, an African thing. So I got the idea to get authentic African artifacts and weapons and things from a store, which was called 49 Steps. They had real, museum quality artifacts. It was logical to go there to find things that would fit the idea of a tribal bushman. We were in the middle, mind you, of mansions in Beverly Hills. Everything was entirely civilized.

I was thinking we would have to go out to Topanga Canyon or Malibu or somewhere out of town to find a location that looked at all real, but Richard said that he knew where there was a cave right near there in Beverly Hills, just in the foothills. It looked perfect. I thought that all of the artifacts would be fine the bow and arrow, the necklace and the belt and all that but I had some reservation about asking him to put in the authentic, brass nose-ring. I thought that might be pushing it a little too far. I finally sucked it up and asked him how he felt about it and he immediately went for it in a huge way.

With some artists, taking them to a place, in a situation, asking them to do something, it can be a little intimidating when they disappear into a character. He wanted to be even more deeply into this bushman and more authentic. I found charred sticks from a previous fire that had burned through those hills, and placed them like it was his little fire in front of his home. Totally in character, he became very protective over that spot. Aiming his bow and arrow at us in a threatening manner. Seeing how primitive he looked, the photos suggested to me the look of National Geographic so I had my friend Rick Griffin, may he rest in peace, do artwork that looks like their magazine border, he made a very elaborate drawing. The cover looked totally real, like a cover of National Geographic.

As a result of the Richard Pryor album cover, which I loved doing, I got two letters: One was a letter from the National Geographic Society’s attorneys offering to sue me for defaming their publication. The second letter was a Grammy nomination for the best album cover.


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