The Unique Way Richard Pryor Calmed His Nerves Before Performing Comedy

Richard Prior was a master of his craft, a performer whose biting, profanity-laced comedy plowed head-on into issues most others didn't dare address, like racism, police brutality, and sex. Rotten Tomatoes once called the comedy legend "arguably the most influential and groundbreaking comedian of his generation." His jokes not only made his audiences double over with laughter, but go home to think.

While most people recognize him as a comedian whose career spanned the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s, he was also a television and film writer, and acted in numerous movies, including "Stir Crazy" and "Greased Lightning," according to Biography. His varied talents earned him an Emmy and five Grammy Awards. Pryor was posthumously inducted into the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, New York, in May of 2022 alongside comedy powerhouses Robin Williams, Joan Rivers, and George Carlin (per But there was another facet of his career that not everyone knows about. Richard Prior was once a blues singer. Yes, the comic known and loved for his dirty, edgy, expletive-laced shows also sang the soulful blues.

A different side of a comedy legend

In the early 1960s, Richard Pryor was just beginning his career as a comic. He started by playing clubs in the Midwest and then moved to New York City (via Biography). In the Big Apple, he opened for Bob Dylan and Nina Simone (via Far Out), and was so nervous about his comic performances that he decided to perform a few folk songs first to calm his nerves.

Still, night after night the anxiety persisted. Simone did what she could to help. She's quoted as saying, "He shook like he had malaria, he was so nervous. I couldn't bear to watch him shiver, so I put my arms him there in the dark and rocked him like a baby until he calmed down," according to the Vintage News. She describes Pryor's crippling stage fright as something that didn't go away. "The next night was the same, and the next, and I rocked him each time," she said.

Pryor was a complex genius

The singing wasn't just a fluke; he had a genuinely good voice, as the 1966 recording (via YouTube) of a seemingly shy Richard Pryor performing "Nobody Knows You When You Are Down And Out" on TV demonstrates. It may come as a shock to some fans in part because it's hard to imagine the comedian being serious.

Over the course of his lifetime, Pryor was married seven times, to five different women, and was a huge animal advocate. Pryor opposed all animal testing even though he suffered from multiple sclerosis and his own condition might have benefited from testing on animals, according to Mental Floss. In 1999, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) honored him with a Humanitarian Award for urging fast food chains KFC and McDonald's to treat chickens humanely, and also for advocating for circus elephants (via PETA). Richard Pryor died in 2005 at the age of 65.