Here on The Killing Floor we love rennaisance folks, especially those who stand up to fight the good fight for justice and love. So when the intrepid Noah Schaffer pitched me the idea of interviewing legendary comedian and social critic (and activist, actor, presidential candidate, and nutritionist) Dick Gregory, he had me before he finished the first sentence.
Mr. Gregory was plying his trade in Jim Crow America, and he stood shoulder to shoulder with the Kennedys, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. They're all gone but he's still here, talking to anybody who will listen about how the things that they complain about are things they could be changing.
Last night he spoke to Noah about his relationship to music as a performer, a civil rights activist and a regular old music fan.
Mr. Gregory performs a matinee at the Wilbur Theatre this Sunday.
Noah Schaffer: You played a major role in the civil rights movement. Could that history have happened without the music that was such a major part of it?
Dick Gregory: It was the songs that we were singing to block out the fear. We knew we could die. We knew the people who would kill us were the police and FBI. So when you can’t talk, you just sing songs, and we sang the old Negro spirituals, and it got us through. I never realized how important music was until JFK got shot and nothing could have gotten us through those first three days except music. The networks canceled their shows and commercials and just ran music. Being a comic I thought nothing could heal like laughing, until that incident.
Schaffer: Was it the norm when you started that comedians and musicians would always be on the same bill?
Gregory: That was the mode in the 60’s—you’d get a comic with musicians or with folk singers. I loved it. I was the headliner at the Village Gate and opening up for me one week would be Miles Davis, the next week Dizzy Gillespie, then B.B. King. So they weren’t just coming to see me. There’d be 4,000 people on the third night trying to get into the club! Now the whole venue thing done changed. The money is so big they have these huge venues where [musical stars] go in and they might get $200,000 or $300,000 a night. And if you go to a comedy club they don’t need no music. I do Caroline’s in New York about once a month and you just there by yourself. Two comics do five minutes each and then you go out and talk and then the show is over and everyone leaves and another comic comes in for the late show. The whole rhythm has changed, particular for comedy. When I came through there were no comedy clubs, now they’re in every major city—all the southern cities got comedy clubs. Before that you had to go to New York and join the line behind the barracudas and chances are you wouldn’t make it. Now you can come from Atlanta or St. Louis where I’m from, and by the time you break through you’re already ready for prime time.
I was the first negro to work white nightclubs. Before that black folks could sing or dance but you couldn’t stand flatfooted and talk to white folks. Hugh Hefner was the one who brought me in.
Schaffer: You talked about performing with jazz and blues artists. Today upcoming black comedians would be more likely to be on a bill with hip-hop artists. What do you make of the changes in the music?
Gregory: When you talk about Dizzy Gillespie and B.B. King, with all of their greatness they were limited to where they could play in America. There were no clubs they could play in the south. They could go to Europe, go all over the world and be treated like kings, and they can’t pee in the toilet in America. Now all of that is gone. So when you look at hip-hop that’s a whole new generation with a new mentality. They have a freedom of their own expression, and they just create new stuff and that’s what we’re looking at today.
I look at these white kids—if you ever bit that tongue you know how bad that hurts. These kids put screws in their tongue and they’re not even taking painkillers. I’ll be 80 years old in two years. My daughter says every time me and my wife go to the movies and we think that it is too loud, well that means we’re too old to be there! When I was coming up if you saw someone with a tattoo you knew you were in the presence of a felon—you have these white women getting 5 and 6 phds with their head shaved bald, tattoos up to their eyeballs and they don’t give a damn about what old folks think. These kids who wear [sagging] pants—well, Hitler never wore his pants low. Jack the Ripper, the mafia, they were the best tailored and dressed people on earth! So the whole rhythm done change.
Schaffer: What do you listen to at home?
Gregory: Opera. I love opera. I don’t understand it, but I know the people who run the world listen to it. You think they listen to blues and jazz? Ha ha! Can you imagine a multi-billionaire listening to blues ‘My baby left me’—they couldn’t care less! When I was 13 years old I could sing every opera. I didn’t know what it meant. I was poor and raggedy but there was something about watching white folks get dressed to go to the symphony, they weren’t drunk or talking loud—I just thought it was very interesting.
I go all over the world to opera houses and holler “bravo” and I don’t even know what it means! I’ll go anywhere to hear good opera before I’ll want to hear blues or jazz.
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