Singer-songwriter Joe Henry, who brings his solo tour to City Winery on Wednesday, also has a book on Richard Pryor on the best seller list. | submitted photo
AN EVENING WITH JOE HENRY
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph
Tickets : $28-$40
Info: (312) 733-9463;
Updated: January 4, 2014 6:08AM
Joe Henry stands alone.
The California-based singer-songwriter-producer writes personal songs about Willie Mays shopping in a Home Depot in Scottsdale, Ariz., and stand-up comic Richard Pryor. He is a passionate witness to the artists who came before him: Harry Belafonte, Duke Ellington and Solomon Burke (whom he produced).
Henry’s also just launched his first solo acoustic tour in 25 years (he opened for Elvis Costello in 2002). He appears at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph.
“No matter how obtuse the poetry might be for some, I want my delivery to be really clear,” Henry said in a conversation from Southern California. “I want to put myself in that spot of dynamically putting a song forward with no adornment other than a guitar. ... So I’m not out campaigning on a new record, I’m playing because I’m a musician and that’s what I’m inclined to do at this moment.”
Expect Henry to mix new tunes with all kinds of songs from his career, which began in 1986.
And don’t be surprised to hear “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation,” an avant-garde, six-minute folk tune that Henry recorded with Ornette Coleman for his 2000 “Scar” album. The song has morphed into the book/love letter, “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $25.95) that Henry wrote with his brother David. Released three weeks ago, “Furious Cool” has already cracked the Los Angeles Times top 10 best seller list.
“At that moment (in 2000), I was on a label owned by Disney,” Henry explained. “They were so nervous about Richard they insisted I change the song title, which I wouldn’t do because it tells you how to hear it. I sing in first person as him. I don’t mention him in the song. I could leave it off the record, which I was absolutely not going to do. Or I could get Richard’s permission, which I did not know how to do.”
Henry’s friend T Bone Burnett (who produced Henry’s 1990 “Shuffletown” album) connected him with Pryor.
“I sent the song to him and his wife,” Henry said. “They responded within an hour of receiving it. They were moved. They gave me permission to use his name and his photo in artwork for the album.”
Henry next wrote a piece for Esquire magazine on the connection between Coleman and Pryor. Pryor and his wife liked that.
“So they asked me if I would write a screenplay based on Richard’s life,” Henry continued. “I said, ‘I’m not a screenwriter, I’m a songwriter.’ They said, ‘Exactly. We don’t want a screenwriter.’ I was interested in taking it on, but I needed some architecture.”
Henry called his older brother David, who is a screenwriter based in Louisville, Ky. , and was co-writer and producer for the Replacements feature film, “Pleased to Meet Me.” The Henry brothers spent two years working on a screenplay, but stopped at the request of Pryor’s wife. They changed gears and decided to write the book.
“It’s nothing like the screenplay,” he said. “And it’s not a traditional biography. I’ll flatter myself and say we’re using Greil Marcus as a template. Rather than pointing his lens at Bob Dylan, he uses Bob Dylan as a lens and looks at everything else. We did that with Richard. We looked at his life, but also look at the cultures through him.”
Henry follows the present day Dylan path and rearranges his older songs in the new acoustic setting.
“I speak differently musically than I spoke then,” he explained. “Can this song allow me in given who I now am? Can I allow it in? But I always write alone. I never write to think about performing songs alone....
“The new record I just recorded, which I feel is the best batch of songs I’ve had going into a record, is very acoustic guitar driven even though it’s a full band record and lush in some ways. Almost every song has a musical motif built into it, and I’m going to strum until the verse comes back around. The result was that I knew how to play the songs alone in way that I never knew how to play my own songs before.”
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