Following my brief post (more a series of video clips) about African-American comedians and their ‘Africa’ jokes, blogger/musicologist Wayne & Wax alerted me to the album cover for Richard Pryor’s self-titled, debut comedy album in 1968. A few google searches later I was on the blog of Gary Burden, the cover designer, who has a post about the politics behind the cover art. Burden writes that, “… 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 … 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 … he immediately went for it in a huge way … 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 … 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.
After the record appeared, Burden “… 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.”