Music: Sounds of blackness

The music of the `blaxploitation' movies of the Seventies was more than just a bunch of soul songs, writes James Maycock

The compilation The Big Score is a formidable portrait of the music that accompanied the many black films produced in the early to mid-1970s. Often called "blaxploitation" films, by 1975 their plots had become increasingly formulaic but the music remained consistently inventive. Now many of the soundtracks are finally being released on CD.

The Big Score reflects how the most creative funk and soul musicians of the early 1970s were lured into composing, not just introductory songs but whole soundtracks. James Brown, Roy Ayers, Curtis Mayfield and Marvin Gaye, among others, thrived on the freedom this offered, creating some of the most enduring and innovative music of a colourful, intriguing era.

The music on The Big Score spans the period, beginning with the song "They Call Me Mister Tibbs", written by Quincy Jones in 1970, and ending with "Car Wash" by Rose Royce, a song that announced the decline of funk music and the beginning of the narcissistic disco era in 1976.

The compilation incorporates the obvious songs, such as "Theme from `Shaft'" by Isaac Hayes and "Superfly" by Mayfield, with more rare and overlooked ones, including the sinister "Easing In" by Edwin Starr and the hypnotic, relentless Latin rhythms of "Flying Machine" by War. The musicians captured, consciously or not, the drama, intensity and turmoil of black inner-city life after the civil rights movement fell apart.

The soundtracks to Uptight and They Call Me Mister Tibbs, by Booker T and the MGs and Jones respectively, just preceded the black film era of the 1970s but could be described as prototypes for the soundtracks to the successive films. The music to the film Uptight is one of the first examples of a soul group performing an entire soundtrack. The album is not their most coherent but does include a robust performance by soul singer Judy Clay on "Children Don't Get Weary", and the song "Time Is Tight", which was covered by The Clash.

With his work on The Pornbroker and other films, Jones was one of the few black Americans to have composed film soundtracks before the 1970s. He used clay flutes and electric pianos in the film score for They Call Me Mister Tibbs to create what he described as "an urban feel". The music is mainly jazzy, but it is the title theme, a manic funk song played by a big jazz band, that would influence the black film soundtracks of the 1970s.

Although Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song launched this dynamic black film era in 1971, its soundtrack, performed by Earth, Wind and Fire, is unduly neglected. Melvin Van Peebles, who directed the film and composed the music, has compared the film itself to "a jazz piece", and the soundtrack is a delightful but chaotic mixture of funky jazz, fiery soul music with a raucous gospel choir interspersed between bursts of dialogue.

The music in the films Shaft and Superfly created a standard by which successive black film scores were judged. It was Hot Buttered Soul, the album Hayes recorded in 1969, that revealed his ability to create lush, epic and atmospheric music. Hayes won an Oscar for the soundtrack to Shaft and filled the song "Theme from `Shaft'" with enjoyably ludicrous lines. These, which include the infamous question, "Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?", were all mumbled in his deep, idiosyncratic voice.

But apart from "Soulsville" and "Do Your Thing", the rest of the music is instrumental, some of which inclines towards easy-listening music, although with an abundance of character. In 1974, Hayes composed the soundtracks to the films Truck Turner and Three Tough Guys, which were less impressive.

In 1972, Mayfield wrote the music to Superfly. The soundtrack mixed tense funk songs, bolstered by the sound of congas and bongos, with his more customary orchestrated soul music. The music, like the other soundtracks, was placed in the foreground of the film.

When he composed the music, Mayfield was unaware of the amorality of Priest, the film's protagonist. Priest, a drug dealer, is trying to escape life as a criminal. In the process, he involves his friend Freddie, who is consequently killed. In the film, only the instrumental version of "Freddie's Dead" is heard, but after the film's release, Mayfield, who was appalled by Freddie's death, put lyrics to the song, which condemned the repercussions of Priest's actions. It is this version that appears on the album.

Other musicians also used their soundtracks to criticise or comment on films. Bobby Womack and JJ Johnson wrote the competent soundtrack to the brutal, violent film Across 110th Street. Although Womack does not condone the actions of the criminals from Harlem, he empathises with their desperate social circumstances, pleading to the film's audience: "You don't know what you're doing until you're put under pressure, Across 110th Street is a hell of a tester."

In Gaye's phenomenal soundtrack to Trouble Man he also commented on the film with haunting, wordless cries of despair or by just begging: "Please Chalky, don't mess with Mister `T'." The songs, which dissolve into each other, demonstrate Gaye's desire and ability to escape from the musical constraints of short soul songs and create complex, twisting musical landscapes imbued with jazz. This irritated Motown Records, who expected more singing, but Gaye considered Trouble Man to be a flawless album.

Other notable soundtracks include The Mack and Foxy Brown by Willie Hutch, Slaughter's Big Rip-Off and Black Caesar by James Brown, and Savage by Don Julian. These film scores also demonstrate each composer's ability to expand their musical language, creating dramatic music that not only strengthens and complements the film but can be enjoyed independently of it.

Quentin Tarantino linked his new film Jackie Brown to these black films of the 1970s. But if he had really wanted to emulate their sound he would have commissioned one musician to compose the whole score rather than just use songs from the era. Not only do most of the songs lack the tension of the original soundtracks, but, with a misjudged sense of irony, he includes Womack's Across 110th Street.

`The Big Score' is released by EMI Records on 30 March.

James Maycock wrote the article on Miles Davis entitled `Miles and Miles and Miles' in last Friday's Eye.

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