Posts Tagged ‘Love Unlimited Orchestra’

VIDA is a literary organization that every year counts how many men and how many women are published or reviewed in the big magazines and tries to point out how unfair it is that the editors of these zines, who are mostly men, publish mostly men, even though this nation as I understand it is about evenly divided between men and women and that probably goes for writers, too.

When VIDA started this count in 2010, men were running amok. For example, in 2010 The New York Review of Books reviewed 306 books by guys but only 59 by gals. This discovery turned out to be a big bucket of embarrassment for a fortress of liberalism. The editors of NYRB rumbled into action, and four years later the magazine reviewed 354 books by men and 164 by women. Calm down, ladies! Gender equality takes time, especially when men are in charge of the equalizing.

If a VIDA-like organization had been around in 1971 to tally the genders in the blaxploitation game, they would’ve surrendered in the first year. These films are trapped in a tar pit of testosterone. I could imagine Ike and Tina Turner being hired to compose a blaxploitation score, but not Tina by herself, and certainly not Aretha, Diana, or even Chaka.

No more warnings. What follows is my attempt to drive through the safety cones, tire spikes, and sand traps of blaxploitation music. Professional driver, closed course.

Here we go!

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)
Melvin Van Peebles (music performed by Earth, Wind & Fire)
Melvin Van Peebles was the writer, producer, and director of this film, which has the most titanic name of any movie ever made. The main theme in this story of an innocent man on the run from the law is that a woman will help you escape the police if a) you possess a jumbotron reproductive organ, and b) you agree to deploy it under her direction. Just an FYI.

Mr. Van Peebles and his son, Mario, also acted in the film (Mario wielded the jumbotron). The senior Van Peebles couldn’t read or write music but still composed the score. He then hired a hungry new band called Earth, Wind & Fire to record it.

Result: Time for the next record!

Shaft (1971)
Isaac Hayes (music performed by The Bar-Kays)
Surprise! There’s almost nothing to listen to on this double LP outside of the monumental theme song. It’s made up almost entirely of the instrumentals backing the action. You can only listen so many times to the music that plays when Shaft is in a cab or just walking around and not being a sex machine.

The main exception to this formula is The Bar-Kays’ 20-minute jam, “Do Your Thing,” which sounds like them doing their thing. The same thing. For 20 minutes. If only you could edit this down to about six minutes – it might be hot. (The Bar-Kays had a series of R&B hits in the ’80s, but that’s off-limits for now.)

I once owned this LP, but I sold it after I picked up the 45 of “Theme from Shaft.” The album version of “Shaft” is longer but not better.

Super Fly (1972)
Curtis Mayfield
Super Fly – the music, not the movie – is one of the few thoroughbreds in this field of pretenders, nags, and wannabes. This is not just Curtis Mayfield’s best, this is an album for somebody’s Hall of Fame. Mayfield writes compassionately about the lives of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind underclass. He’s especially good with the false road to salvation offered by “another junkie plan/pushing dope for The Man.” That road works just fine in this stupid movie but Mayfield won’t let anyone get away with that shit in his music.

There’s “Super Fly,” of course, and “Pusherman,” which is “Super Fly” at a different tempo and with different words, and the dealer’s inevitable end in “Freddie’s Dead”:

We’re all built up with progress
But sometimes I must confess
We can deal with rockets and dreams
But reality, what does it mean
Ain’t nothing said
’Cause Freddie’s dead

And these great songs are just the three that got the radio play! There’s plenty of funk to go around. “No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)” is a skyrocket of joy, and not because the singer is suctioning up lines of white powder – it’s an anti-drug song.

If the blaxploitation genre did nothing more than give African-American actors and directors a chance to work and Curtis Mayfield a chance to compose this music, it would all have been worthwhile. 

Come Back, Charleston Blue (1972)
Donny Hathaway and Quincy Jones
Come Back, Charleston Blue is the sequel to Cotton Comes to Harlem. It’s a crime drama set in contemporary Harlem, but the unstirring soundtrack often sounds like the Jazz Age. “Little Ghetto Boy” is the one deserving cut. A reissue of this disc includes a live version of the song, which tops the film version and gives me an idea of how good Donny Hathaway must’ve been in concert.

Trouble Man (1972)
Marvin Gaye
Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve always wanted a nickname. In 1972, I boldly suggested to my teammates that they call me “Trouble Man.” For my audacity they beat me senseless. I’m referring, of course, to my chess-team teammates.

In the 1970s, Marvin Gaye could do anything, so why not write a jazz score for a suckfest movie about a black private dick? This one is a sex machine to only one (1) chick.

The Trouble Man soundtrack is atmospheric and way above average for this genre. “ ‘T’ Plays It Cool,” “ ‘T’ Stands for Trouble,” and the main theme are fine, but the title song, “Trouble Man,” is excellent, a slower, gauzier groove than Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” In places it could even slide into Steely Dan’s “Pretzel Logic,” which came along two years later.

The cliches can beat you a lot of ways in “Trouble Man” (“There’s only three things that I know/taxes, death, and trouble”), but the Trouble Man’s retelling of his life, punctuated by the refrain “I come up hard,” is haunting. Trouble Man, the movie, from what I’ve read of it, should haunt everyone who made it.

Gaye must’ve loved “Trouble Man” because he performed it often in concert. The version on Live At the London Palladium (1977) runs 6 and a half minutes and practically growls. There’s a real slugfest in the horn section. It would be no trouble at all to dance to it.

Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off (1973)
Black Caesar (1973)
James Brown
Only the hardest-working man in showbiz could compose and perform two soundtracks in the same year. However, he recycled his old songs from the ’60s to do it. Not exactly a rip-off but I wouldn’t hail Caesar, either.

Coffy (1973)
Roy Ayers
Coffy is the inspirational story of an ER nurse played by Pam Grier who uses her super-sexy body and substandard acting skills to lure despicable men to her home where she slips into something more comfortable and kills them. This is totally the best plot idea since Oedipus tried online dating.

The music was assigned to vibraphone master Roy Ayers, who at that time was busy combining jazz with funk. Later in the decade he added disco to his résumé. The unexpected results are worth looking at in more detail than these soundtracks normally deserve.

If you loved pounding on your xylophone when you were little, you’re gonna dig the theme, “Coffy Is the Color,” as Mr. Ayers sprints flat-out across his instrument. The first third of the record is a more-than-adequate run of funk until we run head-first into “Coffy Sauna,” a boring bit of lounge that was probably the background for a love scene set by a pool or maybe a long tracking shot in which Ms. Grier floats around in her underwear like an ethereal weirdo.

The interesting part – not many of these soundtracks have interesting parts – arrives in the middle.

You’d expect a song with a title as sophisticated as “Brawling Broads” to be the heart of this movie. But it can’t be, because this song is so poppy and friendly. It swings. In fact, it’s Steely Dan. Yes, on two separate blaxploitation soundtracks I have heard Steely Dan. I am hallucinating Walter Becker and Donald Fagen! Either those guys loved this music or I need to be detoxified.

“Shining Symbol” begins as a boring ballad that explains the significance of our heroine. (Ignore all of the singing and speaking on this disc.) Once the singing stops, the song opens the throttle and we get a funky stretch that again stars Ayers’ vibes.

“Exotic Dance” is not exotic. This instrumental is the most mature statement on the album. It sets a sophisticated mood. It’s filled with the sense of loss that comes with being human. What is it doing in a movie about a vigilante in a halter top and various other costumes that don’t block drafts?

The score ends poorly, especially with “Making Love,” which made me feel as if I were trying to climb out of an aquarium. I also think they unloaded a harpsichord somewhere in there. But Ayers, given what he had to work with, dug in and created a score that flies like an eagle and drops like a rock. Like Super Fly, I don’t think it resembles its own film. How did he get away with that? More power to Roy Ayers.

The Mack (1973)
Willie Hutch
Willie Hutch, a multi-talented Motown artist who wrote “I’ll Be There” for The Jackson 5, turns to scoring movies and does fairly well with this one. The dramatic “Theme of the Mack” runs on too long, but the extended blues jam “Mac Man (Got to Get Over)” works just fine and is definitely worth a listen.

“I Choose You” is a sincere declaration of love from a man who wants to marry his woman. This is so far beyond blaxploitation territory, especially in yet another movie about pimps, that The Mack should be applauded just for that.

Cleopatra Jones (1973)
J.J. Johnson
Tamara Dobson is a government agent with a license to kill. Shelley Winters is a drug-dealin’ criminal warlord with a devastating right cross. This is no more ridiculous than any movie with your recommended adult dose of Iron Man.

J.J. Johnson, a pioneering jazz trombonist, composed the score. Except for the theme song, I haven’t heard it. I’d rather learn more about the guy who sang the theme, Joe Simon, who worked at the lonely intersection of soul and country. I would’ve guessed that that intersection, if it existed, was somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

Simon is a Chubby Checker kind of belter, and he lifts the Cleopatra Jones theme well above its natural level. In the ’70s, Simon had hits with the plaintive “Drowning in the Sea of Love” and the chumsy “Get Down, Get Down (Get on the Floor).” I’m betting that either one is better than the entire score to Cleopatra Jones.

Truck Turner (1974)
Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes throws a punch, shoots a gun. Lt. Uhura runs a brothel. Any questions?

Leave it to Isaac Hayes to write the music and play the role. I can’t comment on his acting, but I assume that he convincingly beats up every bad mother- (Shut your mouth!) in sight. The music trends toward jazz; it’s background music when you don’t want to be disturbed by anything in the background.

These tracks remind me of Tom Scott & The L.A. Express’ music for Starsky & Hutch (Hayes does it better) and made me realize how the cop shows of the ’70s – and any TV show or movie of that time that wanted to prove it was hip – were influenced by the blaxploitation breakthrough. (Or the blaxploitation breakdown, depending on your perspective.)

Willie Dynamite (1974)
J.J. Johnson
We’re saved – more pimps! Martha Reeves of Martha & The Vandellas sings the theme song, in which we learn that Mr. D has “seven women in the palm of his hand/got a woman for every man.” Sorry, that is an insufficient number of women for Shaft or Mac “Truck” Turner.

Forget everything Ms. Reeves sings on this disc. Forget most of the disc, which sounds like recycled cop show. But if you like funky bongos, try “Willie Chase” and “Willie Escapes.” The soundtrack to Willie Dynamite was obviously constructed by somebody who knew what he was doing, but that doesn’t mean I want to know what he was doing.

Roscoe Orman, our man Willie, has spent the past 40 years playing Gordon the schoolteacher on Sesame Street.

Foxy Brown (1974)
Willie Hutch
Pam Grier again, still sexy, still vengeful (“Please don’t make Foxy mad/Or you’ll find out that the lady is Superbad”). Willie Hutch again, serving up a funky homage to the music of Shaft, though he sings closer to Ike Turner than to Isaac Hayes. “Give Me Some of That Good Old Love” sounds like Rufus without Chaka Khan. The lyrics are painful.

This disc is considered a classic of the genre. That claim is probably based on tracks 6-8: “Out There,” “Foxy Lady,” and “You Sure Know How to Love Your Man.” “Out There” is almost atmospheric enough to fit on the Trouble Man soundtrack. “Foxy Lady” reminds me of “Nutbush City Limits” and “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin).” “You Sure Know How to Love Your Man” has some real emotion to it. I could imagine it performed by Howlin’ Wolf.

Of the other tracks, “Have You Ever Asked Yourself Why” is a sweetheart that’s well within Fleetwood Mac’s range. The closing song, “Whatever You Do (Do It Good),” reminds me of “Can’t Turn It Loose” or something I heard on Soul Train. In fact I probably did hear it on Soul Train. Overall, a solid effort from Mr. Hutch, which is more than I can say of everyone else connected with Foxy Brown.

Last but not least:

Together Brothers (1974)
Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra
I have fond memories of this album. In the summer of 1974, I worked in a record warehouse, and one record I never had to hump around on a hand truck was Together Brothers. That record did not sell. There were stacks of these LPs in a corner on my first day and there were stacks of them in a corner on my last. (Fleetwood Mac’s Mystery to Me was another favorite, for the same reason.)

The Together Brothers score is a peppy group of songs from a gentleman I associate with a glittery romance rather than a gritty ghetto. The songs are heartfelt. Most are disco-y. “Honey, Please Can’t You See” sounds like the disco hits in White’s future, particularly “You’re My First, My Last, My Everything.”

This isn’t a good record, but it’s better than it has any right to be.

Next time: More black music of the 1970s…but in a lot fewer words. There was an avalanche of blaxploitation soundtracks beyond what I’ve tackled here but someone else will have to listen to them!