Peoria's Richard Pryor, Unlike You've Ever Seen Him Before

Feb 26, 2021

If the name "Jerry Milam" means anything to you, it's probably because you know something about the Golden Voice Recording Studio he and his wife founded in South Pekin. That's where bands like REO Speedwagon, Styx, and Head East recorded some of their biggest albums.

But that's an entirely different story.

Instead, let's go back to the early 1960s, when Jerry Milam was just a young kid from Pekin. He'd picked up some work in his teens as a photographer, putting his skills to use at the Pekin Daily Times and in some local commercial studios.

But he'd since laid down the camera and picked up a guitar. Jerry and his band were trying to break into the music business.

Blane Gauss, a local promoter, let Jerry and his band lay down some two-track tapes in his office above the Arthur Murray dance studio on Main Street in downtown Peoria.

That meant a lot to the young musicians. So when Gauss needed someone handy with a camera to snap some shots for another project, Milam was happy to help him out for free.

"Blane said, 'Jerry, would you consider doing a photo shoot for me? I got a young comedian that I'm trying to promote.' And I said, 'Sure.'"

That young comedian was Richard Pryor, a Peoria native fresh off a rocky Army stint in West Germany.

Credit Courtesy Jerry Milam / Peoria Riverfront Museum

"That was the first time we had met Richard. We'd never known him up to that point. And we found him really quite nice to work with. He was just very compatible. He was very witty. He just had a really sweet personality, as far as trying different poses and sticking lampshades on his head, or whatever silly thing we were trying at the time," said Milam. "And he brought some formal clothes. So we were able to do some things in a tux, and relaxed, and so on."

In the office studio with its high ceilings and ragged backdrops, Jerry took 12 to 15 exposures. He ended up pleased with nine of them. That may not sound like a lot, but it was no easy feat with the equipment at hand.

"You're shooting kind of blind because you have no proofing, you're shooting with four-by-five cut film and a film holder. And we're using flashbulbs," he said. "I had two flashbulbs set up. One was the main flashbulb, and one was to give it accent. And all that just had to be calculated on the fly. And if the focus, or the flash, was under or overdone or whatever, there was no second take."

Milam believes those black and white photos were the first formal professional photos taken of Pryor.

After that photo shoot, Jerry and Richard drifted apart. Jerry and his wife, Mary, continued in the music business. And Pryor, of course, left Peoria again, this time for New York, where he'd plant the seeds for his legendary comedy career--both on stage and on the big screen.

Gauss used the photos in some promotional materials at the time, but they soon faded into obscurity, only resurfacing decades later.

"I never really had any contact with Richard until I heard he was really ill. And then we got a hold of his wife, Jennifer, and we had a correspondence with her. And I sent her those photographs, asked her if she would like a copy, because it was 60 years, and he had forgotten about them, I'm sure. And she said 'Oh yes, please send them out.'

Credit Courtesy Jerry Milam / Peoria Riverfront Museum

"And he couldn't speak at the time. He was failing that bad. She showed him the photos, and told him a joke that he had told me that night. I won't repeat right now. But it wasn't a vulgar joke. It had to do with blacks and whites. She told him the joke, and showed him the photos, and she said it brought a really big smile to his face. And that made us feel real good that he was touched by it.

"And a few days later, UPS pulls up and drops off a box at our house. And it had a packet of outtakes of his movies that had not been released to the public and she wanted us to have one of the first original copies. And to this day, we've never broken the seal on it. So within the packet of a number of the outtake movies. cellophane has never been broken yet. We just kept it as more of a keepsake than we did something to watch."

Milam's kept these photos all these years, but hasn't ever shown them to a wider audience. But when the photos came up in a conversation with curator Bill Conger and CEO John Morris of the Peoria Riverfront Museum, they wanted to show them to the world.

"The photos that I took of Richard, a few people locally have seen him over the years. Most people kind of had a 'So what?' attitude about it," Milam said. "And Bill and John, totally different attitude. They think it's just historical, very historical, and they want to promote it, and let people really see what Richard looked like, and the whole vibe back there."

Conger said there's actually not much left to mark Pryor's time in Peoria. So when they stumbled upon Milam's photos, they considered it an important find to honor one of the city's most famous native sons.

"It's been very difficult finding any objects connected to Richard Pryor," said Conger. "Even the African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C. has nothing that's directly connected to Richard."

Milam's Richard Pryor photos go on display at the museum in March.  Milam hopes people take away a new perspective on Pryor after seeing these photos.

"What I hope is that they see two sides of him. There are a lot of people who are turned off with his vulgarity. He used it for emphasis in a lot of his material. But he had a really nice side that we saw, and I saw that in a lot of his movies," said Milam. "So I would like to see people see both sides of Richard Pryor. We know that existed, and even up to the end, where he had a big smile on his face looking back at these 60-year-old photos, it proves the facts that he had a good heart."

And even in ill health, that good heart took Pryor back to some fond old memories of his hometown.

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