Flip: The Inside Story of TV's First Black Superstar

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The rags-to-riches story of a groundbreaking, beloved entertainer

When The Flip Wilson Show debuted in 1970, black faces were still rare on television, black hosts nonexistent. So how did Clerow “Flip” Wilson go from Jersey City grade-school dropout to national celebrity, heralded on the cover of Time as “TV’s First Black Superstar”?

Flip is a candid, entertaining biography of a consummate comedian who changed the face of American popular ...

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Flip: The Inside Story of TV's First Black Superstar

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The rags-to-riches story of a groundbreaking, beloved entertainer

When The Flip Wilson Show debuted in 1970, black faces were still rare on television, black hosts nonexistent. So how did Clerow “Flip” Wilson go from Jersey City grade-school dropout to national celebrity, heralded on the cover of Time as “TV’s First Black Superstar”?

Flip is a candid, entertaining biography of a consummate comedian who changed the face of American popular culture. Kevin Cook chronicles Flip’s meteoric rise through the Chitlin’ Circuit of segregated nightclubs to his breakthrough on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show to his hit variety show, on which he created such outrageous and hilarious characters as the sassy Geraldine and flock-fleecing Reverend Leroy. As one of the biggest stars of his time, he performed and partied with Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, and other stars of the 1970s.  

Drawing on interviews with family, friends, and celebrities, Cook delivers the inspiring story of a complex man who broke the prime-time color barrier,  blazing a trail for generations of African American performers who followed him.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the early 1970s, the phrases “The Devil made me do it!” and “What you see is what you get!” rolled easily off of people’s lips and entered our cultural vocabulary, thanks to a young black comedian named Flip Wilson. Drawing on interviews with family, friends, and Wilson’s colleagues, journalist Cook delivers a candid and entertaining look at Wilson’s meteoric rise from struggling stand-up comedian playing segregated nightclubs and bars on the Chitlin’ Circuit to his bursting onto the scene after several momentous appearances on the Johnny Carson Show, to Time magazine’s cover story on him as television’s first black superstar. Cook chronicles Wilson’s impoverished and abject childhood, when he was shuttled from foster family to foster family. Other topics include Wilson’s early memories of another comedian’s show-stopping performance, his escape from poverty into the military, and his own initial and wildly successful stand-up performances at his military base. Wilson’s ascent to the top of the television and comedy peaked in 1970 with The Flip Wilson Show, where on a given night, viewers might have found “B.B. King paired with Sid Caesar, or Andy Griffith paired with Curtis Mayfield.” Cook’s story also reveals a man vulnerable and unable to love deeply, as well as Wilson’s insecurities and his insatiable appetite for drugs. Cook’s fiercely honest biography captures the tumultuous and winning personality of the man who introduced many memorable characters to the world and who paved the way for black comedians such as Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, and Tyler Perry. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Candid and entertaining... Cook's fiercely honest biography captures the tumultuous and winning personality of the man."
~Publishers Weekly
“An engaging story.”
~The Los Angeles Times

[Kevin Cook] keeps the story just as Flip Wilson kept his act and his audience, "in fun."
~The Wall Street Journal
"Flip Wilson was wonderful. His material advanced the possibility of human unity and hilarity."
~Lily Tomlin

Library Journal
Cook (The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless '70s) traces the groundbreaking and ultimately heartbreaking career of Clerow "Flip" Wilson, the athlete TIME magazine called "TV's first black superstar." After an emotionally and physically scarring childhood and a stint in the Air Force, Wilson moved on to the African American-friendly performance venues known as the Chitlin' Circuit, where he took a scholarly approach to comedy. Successful television appearances (many on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show) led to The Flip Wilson Show, a wildly successful variety vehicle that allowed Wilson to spotlight both black and white entertainers. Despite his polished television performance, Wilson's life was rougher off camera. His family saw him mostly on television; the drugs that fueled his creativity also fed his paranoia; talent he launched, such as George Carlin and Richard Pryor, soon surpassed him with their edgier styles. VERDICT Cook crafts a personal and tragic biography, drawing from Wilson's unpublished writings and input from Wilson's son Kevin as well as his contemporaries, including Lily Tomlin and Gladys Knight. Cook also contextualizes Wilson's life against the racially charged atmosphere of the 1950s through the 1970s; this makes the book an important and recommended piece of African American history.—Terry Bosky, Palm Beach Cty. Lib. Syst., FL
Kirkus Reviews
Journalist Cook (The Last Headbangers: NFL Football in the Rowdy, Reckless '70s, 2012, etc.) gives a largely forgotten TV pioneer his due. Raised in a brutal environment of poverty and abuse, New Jersey native Flip Wilson (1933–1988) became an overnight success in the 1970s as the first African-American host of a TV variety show but not before more than a decade of honing his comedy act in dives and nightclubs across the United States, creating routines and characters such as the legendary "Geraldine." Cook promises readers the "inside story," and he does not shy away from presenting the less-than-savory aspects of a life on the road and the stage. Wilson was driven to succeed from the start, and he did not hesitate to clean up his nightclub act for a wider, and whiter, TV audience. He was able, however, to walk a line between comedians like the edgeless Bill Cosby, whose early crossover success both enraged and motivated Wilson, and the unpredictable Richard Pryor, who clearly learned valuable lessons on how to make it big from his time on Wilson's writing staff, alongside fellow future comedy legend George Carlin. Unlike those and others of the time, Wilson's work is mostly absent from the airwaves today, and Cook's readable narrative will hopefully go some way toward rectifying that situation. However, despite the book's level of detail, including some you-are-there creative license on the author's part, readers do not come away with a real appreciation for what made Wilson tick, beyond a desire to entertain and get rich. An entertaining and well-intentioned biography that lacks a deeper understanding of its subject.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781470881283
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/28/2013
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 6.70 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Kevin Cook
Kevin Cook is the author of The Last Headbangers, Titanic Thompson, and Tommy’s Honor. The former editor in chief of Golf Magazine, he has written for Sports Illustrated, GQ, Playboy, Details,
Men’s Journal, and many other magazines, and has appeared on ESPN, CNN, and FOX TV. He lives in New York City.
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Read an Excerpt


Killer Ride

He can’t wait to ?nish his bows. Flip Wilson, a compact man in a bespoke suit and pink tie, faces an adoring studio audience in Burbank, California. “Goodnight!” he says, bowing with his manicured hands on his knees, letting the applause wash over him. His name sparkles behind him in letters ten feet high: FLIP.

Winking at the camera that’s sending his smile to twenty million viewers, he looks like the happiest man in America. But the moment the camera’s red light blinks out, his smile disappears. His lively eyes dim. He’s out of there.

He greets a few front-row fans on his way offstage. Loosening his tie, he pats his producer on the back. “Bob, good work tonight.” Moving on, he slaps hands with one of the show’s writers, Richard Pryor. “See you Monday, motherfucker.”

Pryor bows. “Yassuh, massa.”

Flipping Pryor the bird, Flip strides through the soundstage to a loading bay behind the studio. Light spills from the loading-bay door to the hood of his car, a sky-blue Rolls-Royce Corniche convertible, top down. Flip’s two-ton road yacht has a 250-horsepower engine and a top speed of 115. Its license plates read KILLER. Its glove box holds a bag of pot and a vial of cocaine. Tossing his jacket onto the front seat along with a yellow legal pad, a script, and a paperback joke book, he climbs behind the wheel and peels out, saluting the guard at the NBC gate as he heads up Olive Avenue to the Ventura Freeway.

He barrels east through the last clots of rush-hour traf?c, through Glendale and Pasadena to the Barstow Freeway, dry wind shooting dust and bits of sand up the hood and over the windshield. He reaches up to feel the wind through his ?ngers. It feels like freedom. Another ninety-hour workweek done, another show in the can.

North of San Bernardino the freeway climbs four thousand feet to Cajon Pass, a notch between the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. This is where covered wagons struggled west from Utah to Southern California a century before. The wagon trains averaged a mile per hour on a good day. Flip kicks the Rolls past ninety and pokes an eight-track tape into the dashboard, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Stars emerge in the blue-black desert sky. The road ?attens out, arrowing through the cactus-studded Mojave. He drives to the rhythm of the music, rolling from right lane to left and back. Several hours out of L.A. he reaches for the amber vial in the glove box. He taps a pair of white dashes onto the back of his hand and sniffs up the powder. Now the stars look a shade brighter.

Just outside Needles he pulls into a truck stop, giving the attendant ?fty dollars to ?ll the tank. “Keep the change.”

The attendant says, “Hey, aren’t you—”

“Nope. He’s taller.”

There’s a bar nearby, a honky-tonk with beer signs ?ashing in the window. Flip parks, grabs his script and legal pad, and steps inside. He sees American ?ags at both ends of the bar, pinball games along the wall, and hears Johnny Cash on the jukebox. Three years ago he would have thought twice about coming in here, but fame changes everything. A couple guys at the bar, good ole boys in jeans and ?annel shirts, check out the new arrival. The black new arrival. One of them elbows the other. No shit?! They know him.

Flip asks the bartender, “What’s on tap?”

One of the drinkers says, “What you see is what you get!”

He takes a Schlitz to a corner booth and opens next week’s script. Soon he’s humming, alone with his show at last. He mumbles punch lines, underlines a few, crosses out others, jots notes in the margins. Reaching for his legal pad, he writes the setup for a sketch: GDINE=1ST LADY?? He’s getting a little tired of Geraldine, but what’s he supposed to do? She’s his meal ticket. He works and reworks the sketch until it’s a crosshatched, scrawled-up mess, just the way he likes it.

Two big-haired women hurry in, buzzing about the Rolls. A minute later they’re crowding his table. “Say something funny,” one says.

“Sorry. I’m off duty.”

“Do Geraldine.”

Flip drops a twenty on the table. “I’m a professional entertainer. I don’t do my act in booths in bars. I’ll sign autographs if you’d like.”

“C’mon, do Geraldine. The devil made me buy this dress!

He slips out the door as she says it again and again.

Kingman, Seligman, Ash Fork, Flagstaff—Arizona towns ? y by like the credits at the end of the show. Near the border of Arizona and Utah, just north of Bitter Springs, a side road leads to a high-desert gorge almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. This is his spot, a mile off the highway, 525 miles from the NBC lot. He found it on a previous drive when he took a wrong turn and almost drove into space two thousand feet over the Colorado River.

He parks at the barricade where the road dead-ends, a few yards from the canyon’s edge. Worn out by the show, the drive, the coke, the beer, and the weight of the choice he’s about to make, he stretches out in the front seat with his feet on the dash, looking up at the night sky, waiting. It won’t be long now.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 31, 2013

    A great read...so good and a true reality! He was quite an indi

    A great read...so good and a true reality! He was quite an individual. Thank you for sharing his life story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 20, 2013

    What a great book for those who what to take on the networks of

    What a great book for those who what to take on the networks of tv.Always read up on your history.Learn from those before us.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 4, 2013

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    Posted August 21, 2013

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