Friday, May 24, 2019

"She's Our Inspiration" - Prince and Aunt Esther

"Hold, it Fred!"

The unmistakable voice of Aunt Esther rings out at the end of Prince and the New Power Generation's 1991 song, "Gangster Glam." In the video, a classic for the "mankini" scene alone (just watch and you'll understand), the God-fearing older woman's picture flashes across the screen in sync with the line.

For those who didn't grow up in the 1970s--a golden age for black television--or catch enough old TV reruns in later years, Aunt Esther Anderson was a character on "Sanford and Son," starring comedian Redd Foxx as widowed junk dealer Fred Sanford.

Portrayed by comedian LaWanda Page, Aunt Esther was Sanford's sanctified sister-in-law. She never missed an opportunity to reprimand the irascible Sanford, often with her trademark phrase, "Watch it, sucker!" Their classic trading of insults--usually in Sanford's Watt's, Los Angeles, home--was a highlight of the show.

In real life, Page and Foxx were great friends. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1920, Page grew up in St. Louis, attending elementary school with Foxx. She spent time playing the chitlin' circuit, a series of venues accepting of black people, "where if you ain't home by 9 o'clock you can be declared legally dead," she once said. Page moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s. There, she joined comedy group Skillet, Leroy & Co. before Foxx recruited her for "Sanford and Son."

"I'd freeze up every time Redd would come into the rehearsal hall," Page said of her rocky first days on set. "They were going to let me go, but Redd said, 'No.' ... I went over to Redd's house that Sunday and we went over that script and got it together! Redd told me to let myself go and do it my way ... and when we taped on Tuesday that's just what I did. And, baby, it went over!"

Running from 1972 to 1977, "Sanford and Son" was a highly successful sitcom--though not without its criticism--breaking barriers for and influencing future black shows. It was part of noted producer Norman Lear's stable of hit shows, which were celebrated for tackling social and political issues of the day. (A testament to Lear's ongoing significance, live remakes of his shows, "All in the Family" and "The Jeffersons," just aired on ABC Wednesday, May 22.)

Related Content
Interview with "Gangster Glam" director Scott McCullough
"Gangster Glam" review on Prince: Track by Track

A teenager in the '70s, Prince clearly watched "Sanford and Son" like most American families. And like many black artists, he was inspired by iconic black characters like Aunt Esther, and paid homage to her through his songs and videos. In addition to appearing in "Gangster Glam," the character shows up in 1992's "Sexy M.F." in the most fitting way: as part of an insult-trading session.

"Would you check my messages, please, and see if Prince's mama called?" NPG guitarist Levi Seacer says in the video, holding up a fan with Aunt Esther's picture printed on the front. The fan was later made available as part of a "Sexy M.F." promo kit, which included the song on a gold 12-inch record.

"She's our inspiration," Prince said of Aunt Esther in a 1991 Spin article.

"Black comedy feeds all other black art," said writer Scott Woods, whose book of essays, Prince and Little Weird Black Boy Gods, was released last year. "If you were rocking [Redd] Foxx in the late '60s or early-mid '70s, you came across Page. ... She's easy to love as ribald comedy goes, and she was just obscure enough by the '80s that you could borrow her energy and stuff without being obvious."

That content was mined from six comedy albums, including 1972's gold-certified Watch It Sucker!, which capitalized on the success of "Sanford and Son." While Page was a devout Christian as "Aunt Esther," her stand-up was extremely raunchy. Of course, that same dichotomy was not foreign to Prince, who could write spiritual songs like "God" or "Anna Stesia" just as easily as explicit songs like "Head" or "Darling Nikki."

LaWanda Page portraying, of course, a religious woman on "The Richard Pryor Show." 

While Prince later became a Jehovah's Witness, Page was not affiliated with a particular group. Nonetheless, she was said to have "strong religious convictions," according to an interview with Ontario Daily Report.

While Redd Foxx's life ended tragically in 1991, Page lived a decade longer, and saw a resurgence in the '90s. She had guest roles on TV shows like "Martin" (Martin Lawrence and Tichina Arnold's ribbing was reminiscent of Foxx and Page) and cameos in movies like "Friday," which featured her, ironically, as a foul-mouthed Jehovah's Witness.

She also collaborated with RuPaul, guesting on the drag queen's classic 1992 song, "Supermodel (You Better Work)," and starring in the music video for "Back to My Roots" in 1993.

"I loved making it," Page said of the video in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. "They treated me like I was Queen Elizabeth.”

When asked about retiring, the comedian said, "Honey, I tried, but people won’t let me.”

It's too bad she never appeared in the flesh in Prince's videos. For "Gangster Glam," Prince also attempted to get video star Leisl AuVante to say, "Hold it, Fred!" during the shoot.

"I tried over and over but I couldn’t catch the rhythm," AuVante said in an interview with writer Laura Tiebert. "He knew I was always a beat behind.”

Prince and Page shared more in common than a robust sense of humor. Like the Purple One, she was an entertainer of many talents, getting her pre-comedy start as a dancer. She added a fire-eating act, billing herself as the Bronze Goddess of Fire, though she nearly burned a club down perfecting her tricks. She later showed off her skills in a circus-themed episode of "Sanford and Son."

Like Prince, Page had a charitable spirit, caring for her ill mother and divulging plans to open a school for handicapped children to Jet magazine.

Jet magazine, Oct. 6, 1977

After decades in entertainment, Page died at 81 years old in 2002 from complications of diabetes. Her memory lives on through fans like RuPaul, who quoted a line from the comedian's Watch It Sucker! album on a recent episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race" ("You was crazy as hell when they brought you here, but you're in your right damn mind now").

"As a tribute to comic genius LaWanda Page, I pronounce
military as 'mill-lent-terry,'" RuPaul tweeted on May 24, 2016.

Billed as the "queen of comedy" during her career, Page is viewed as a pioneer for other women comedians.

"I did attend her funeral out of homage and respect," said comedian Luenell, according to writer Darryl Littleton. "[I said], 'Thank you for the work that you have done. Had it not been for you there would be no opportunity for me.'"

"It makes me happy that I’ve paved the way for a lot of young comedians,” Page once told Entertainment Weekly.


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  1. As serious as Prince could be, everyone who knew and worked with him said he had an outrageous sense of humor. You can hear it in some of the songs he wrote for The Time and Vanity 6 and songs like “Cloreen Bacon Skin.” Great profile of LaWanda Page and her influence on Prince.