Photo credits: Dave van Bladel
“ If the Chicago blues sound doesn’t go the way of the dinosaur, it’ll be because of artists like Rip Lee! “
Sometimes, to truly appreciate the present, one has to understand the past.
For Carbondale musician Richard “Rip Lee” Pryor, life’s story contains three main chapters: a childhood wrapped in rhythmic blues, an adult life focused on career success, and a second lease on life when everything really began to click.Born in Chicago in 1958 to renowned blues artist Snooky Pryor, he most certainly was a daddy’s boy, emulating his father every chance he got. I was just infatuated with what my dad did,” Pryor said. “I just tried mimicking his records.”
Picking up his dad’s old harmonicas and playing along with records, Pryor could feel the rhythm flowing through his blood. The blues were built into his DNA, and a future in music seemed inevitable. When Pryor turned 10, his family moved away from the city, planting roots deep in the state in Pulaski County. Years passed. And, having settled in Southern Illinois, his father walked away from music.
By 1994, however, Pryor, now in his mid-30s, persuaded his dad to step back into the saddle. Pryor had started building a reputation of his own, playing venues across the region, and his dad picked up his instruments one more time to play with his son.
In the following years, the father-son duo recorded an album, “Mind Your Own Business,” and toured Japan. Pryor felt on top of the world. “That was the highlight of me playing with him,” he said.
he fun continued for a little while, and the two recorded a second album, “Pitch a Boogie Woogie.” But, as they say, nothing gold can last forever.
As the new millennium rolled around, Pryor decided to take a break from the music business. Music, which had played such an instrumental role in his upbringing and early adult life, would be moved to the backburner.
In 1979, Pryor had begun work as a carpenter at Southern Illinois University and decided to focus more on his career and planning for retirement. There’d be plenty of time for music once that day came, he told himself.
“I just wanted to finish up my day job,” he said. “I was going to pick it back up when I retired. That was the plan anyway.” In August 2008, the university honored Pryor and 133 other retirees with a special reception. The working world was in Pryor’s rearview mirror, and the road ahead was wide open. Pryor, though, didn’t stick to life’s original road map.
Rather than returning to the music scene like he’d promised himself he would, Pryor turned to gambling, which would consume his life for the next two years, keeping him away from the machination of music making.
Then, one day, in one instant, everything changed.
“I got a rude awakening in life,” he said, “and that was the big C.” Cancer struck in May 2010, when Pryor was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a form of bone marrow cancer. The diagnosis shocked Pryor and caused him to reevaluate his life.
“I didn’t know if I was going to make it,” he said. “It was like, if I make it,
I’m going to play music because that’s where my heart was at, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
Early the next year, Pryor entered remission. Cancer-free, he upheld his promise to himself this time and booked his first gig in several years at The Underground in Carbondale. Playing only a short 45-minute set, Pryor was back on the scene; but, with his health still in recovery, he knew he had to take it slow. He built up his stamina and soon returned to full headlining sets. And not just in Southern Illinois.
Modern technologies allowed Pryor opportunities his father, who died in 2006, never had. Through Facebook, he connected with Adrian Flores, a South American musician who wanted to meet Pryor.
Facebook conversations turned into a musical adventure, as Pryor completed three tours of South America from 2011 to 2013. He also ventured to Switzerland and Holland in 2015, where he will return in 2017.
When he’s not jet-setting across the globe, Pryor generally can be found somewhere around Southern Illinois. The region’s wineries and venues offer an eclectic mix for a blues artist and create a special vibe for the area, he said.
Wherever he goes, Pryor entertains audiences of all kinds. It’s not hard to imagine that there’s an audience of one looking down from above, a father proud of his son. And, for the son, it’s an honor to keep the father’s legacy alive.
“To me, it’s just carrying on the tradition,” Pryor said. “I play a lot of his style, so it’s keeping him alive.”
Now that Pryor has reconnected with his musical roots, the next chapter of his life’s story remains a mystery. Ask him, and he’ll say he just wants to continue entertaining people wherever the winds of his journey take him. “I’ve got a second lease on life, and I’m just glad I can do it,” he said. “I feel good doing it, and it makes me feel good to have someone enjoy what I do and make them smile.
You can tell when they genuinely enjoy what you’re doing; that’s the fuel that keeps me going.”