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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

    £6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing