Books by John A. Williams

CLIFFORD'S BLUES by John A. Williams
Released: March 1, 1999

A first novel by journalist Williams (If I Stop I—ll Die: The Comedy and Tragedy of Richard Pryor, 1991), portraying the travails of a black musician imprisoned in Dachau. Prison camps have hardly been places, conventionally, to catch up with one's diary. Here, though, the solitude, boredom, and seemingly endless stretches of they time serve to make our central character quite introspective indeed, even though this person is the gregarious and feckless as Clifford Pepperidge. A gay pianist from New Orleans, Cliff made the scene in Harlem in the 1920s, playing alongside the likes of Ellington, Ma Rainey, and Miss Bessie Smith. When a Russian impresario decides to take a jazz band on tour through Europe, Cliff jumps on board and eventually winds up in Berlin, where he becomes one of the stars of the cabaret years of Weimar. Arrested during one of the Gestapo's periodic roundups of gays, Cliff is taken (in spite of his US citizenship) into "Protective Custody" and sent to Dachau. Upon arrival, he's recognized by Dieter Lange, a gay SS officer with a secret passion for jazz who used to frequent Cliff's nightclubs. Dieter makes Cliff his calfactor (houseboy) and gets him special treatment in exchange for sex and music (all the other Nazis apparently love jazz as much as Dieter, and Cliff helps Dieter win favor with the brass by playing at parties for them). And since Dieter's young wife Anna is (not surprisingly) far from satisfied by her husband, it soon becomes part of Cliff's duties to take care of her as well. How much degradation is enough for a man? Cliff has no illusions: "Good men who are strong don—t last here." But if you want to make it, you can put up with just about anything—and Cliff's diary shows how he does just that. A worthwhile variation on a grim and lamentably familiar story. The tone veers toward the disconcertingly light, but, even so, things remain a long way from Hogan's Heroes. Read full book review >
Released: Aug. 15, 1991

Unauthorized life and career of Richard Pryor set against the careers of many African-American comedians and actors; by the father-son Williams team of novelist John A. (Jacob's Ladder, 1987, etc.) and son Dennis A., a former Newsweek journalist. The Williamses clearly did not have Pryor himself as a source and often fall back on ``seems to'' and ``must have'' when they lack hard facts. Their book, however, is chockablock with data about the history of black comedians and Pryor's rise and fall in the hierarchy. The title comes from Pryor's famous free-basing coke blast in which he set himself on fire and ran down the street, his cooked body smoking, until some alert cops stopped him: ``Stop, Richard. We gotta get you to a hospital.'' ``If I stop I'll die.'' Pryor was a knockout comedian as a Peoria, Ill., school kid, but when he broke into show business he tamed his humor and set about imitating soft-spoken Bill Cosby, whose only rival then was Dick Gregory. In a famous episode in Las Vegas, Pryor walked off the stage in midperformance and drove to Los Angeles: He'd realized to his chagrin that he was enjoying himself when playing to a sort of ``Mother's Day'' crowd. Over the next three years, the true Pryor emerged, with his wildly brash sexual humor and stories about his family and his own self-destructive behavior and drug-taking. Although he's made 40-some movies, often as writer/actor, Pryor is stifled by the screen but blooms on stage. In fact, he often plays characters on film that he once lampooned blisteringly on stage. The authors mean this to be a sympathetic critical biography, but Pryor does not come off all that well, despite a final paean by Dennis A. that directs us back to the comedian's great concert tapes. Still, in all, lively, serious scholarship. (Photographs— not seen.) Read full book review >