In the 1970s, what most Blaxploitation films had in common were their scorching soundtracks that sounded great in the grindhouse blaring through ancient speakers. As the rhythms from the soundtrack washed over the audience, sometimes the cinematic adventures became secondary to the driving funk grooves, lush Moog textures, blaring horns, stirring strings highlighting gruff vocals or wah-wah guitars of the music.
While years before there were a few Black jazz composers working in the film industry, most notably Duke Ellington (Anatomy of a Murder, Paris Blues), Benny Carter (A Man Called Adam, Fame Is the Name of the Game) and Quincy Jones (The Pawnbroker, The Anderson Tapes), these new kinds of Black action films required an equally action-packed Black pop soundtrack that was a gritty aural equivalent of the images on screen.
With its finger-snapping logo, Stax Records was one of the funkiest and most popular soul labels of the ‘60s and 70s; as the gritty side of the Motown era, their roster included Otis Redding, Johnnie Taylor, Rufus and Carla Thomas and Booker T. & the MG’s, who was their most popular acts.
Under the visionary guidance of Black record executive Al Bell, who later became Stax’s co-owner, the label was also innovators in the Black soundtrack game, having released the music for the proto-blaxploitation film Uptight (Booker T & the MGs) in 1968. While the revolutionary film was judged too controversial and was pulled from theaters shortly after release, the album did well, with the instrumental single “Time is Tight” becoming a top-ten hit.
Time is Tight
Three years later, Stax Records would release two soundtrack projects that proved to be game changers for the industry when 39-year-old Chicago-born, Paris cultured director Melvin Van Peebles got the idea to approach the label about releasing the soundtrack of his ground-breaking Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song with the notion to use the music as a marketing tool to spread the word of the movie. The film was about swaggering hustler Sweetback (Van Peebles) who murdered two white cops (L.A.P.D.) after they brutalized a ghetto rebel named Moo Moo. For the rest of the film, Sweetback was on the run and the driving music took both the protagonist and the audience to the edge.
Inspired by the spirit of the Watts riots, Sweetback was no ordinary movie; many film fans of all races thought it was a mess while others hailed it as a masterpiece. Van Peebles starred, wrote, directed, produced and distributed the picture himself. The film was endorsed by the Black Panthers and placed on their mandatory viewing list.
Hiring a then unknown Earth, Wind and Fire to help create the score, the album was also sold in the foyer of movie theaters and, according to a 1972 Billboard story, sold 100,000 copies. “Marcie (White, the group’s leader) was good friends with Melvin, so he asked us to be involved in the project,” his brother and E,W&F bass player Verdine White told me in2013.
“The score is somewhere between a rather raw free form jazz and the funky riffs that Earth, Wind and Fire would become famous for,” U.K. critic Richard Dyer wrote in In the Space of a Song: The Uses of Song in Film. According to Dyer, the music, “…as well as supporting our sense of Sweetback’s energy and mobility, the formal qualities of Earth, Wind and Fire’s music also support a sense of his persistence, as the music itself persists, endlessly flexible in its reinvention of itself.”
Having secured radio exposure prior to the film’s release, many patrons already knew “Sweet Sweetback's Theme” before entering the theater. “Usually the record came long after the movie,” Van Pebbles told me in 2014 when I interviewed him for the Philly Weekly[KK1] . “But, I knew the Black radio disc jockeys would play the music, which made people aware of the movie.”
Still, for Stax Records at least, the real sonic breakthrough in the soul soundtrack market came three months later through the killer hi-hat intro, wah-wah guitar and soulful bop that was “The Theme from Shaft.” Composed by Isaac Hayes, that lead single and the double-album soundtrack that followed was a milestone.
Shaft was a black private detective created by white former New York Times journalist Ernest Tidyman in 1970 that the studio rightfully believed would be their foray into Black films. Yet, while he was an Harlem born ex-Vietnam vet “private dick who was a sex machine to all the chicks,” keyboardist/songwriter/singer Hayes was a cool country cat who grew-up in Memphis and went from working in a bloody slaughter houses to playing piano with the Stax band in 1964.
Hayes’ first session was on the Otis Redding album Sings Soul Ballads and later he joined forces with songwriter David Porter. Together the duo wrote the classic Sam & Dave/Blues Brothers song “Soul Man” as well as many others compositions. “Stax was like a family, man,” Hayes explained to me in 1995, lounging in a suite at the Peabody Hotel in his hometown. [KK2] “Sometimes I would sleep on the floor of the studio or fall asleep at the piano.” By 1971, Hayes was already a successful songwriter and solo artist when he was approached about Shaft.
“After Melvin did Sweetback, the head of Stax (Al Bell) set-up a meeting with MGM to discuss a concept they wanted to sell to Black consumers; it was as if they just discovered there was a Black market out there. They already had a leading Black actor (Richard Roundtree), a Black director (Gordon Parks) and Black editors Hugh A. Robertson/ Paul L. Evans), so now they wanted a Black composer and they picked me.”
The then 29-year-old Hayes was excited about the challenge. “I also was a little nervous. I had never recorded a soundtrack before and I was scared that I would mess up.” The soul sonic outcome was quite the opposite. After Parks gave him some footage from Shaft, he went into the sound lab and composed the iconic theme song as well as the vibes heavy “Ellie’s Love Theme” and downtempo “Soulsville.” Parks loved it.
“It was an exciting time. They turned me loose and let me do it.” Holing up for four-days with the Stax studio players the Bar-Kays, the Memphis Strings & Horns and advisor Tom McIntosh, an American jazz trombonist, Hayes cut the music to film in penthouse studio on the MGM lot. “The engineer asked to see our charts and I told him, ‘We have no charts, just roll the film.’ We had worked out everything in our heads already and memorized it. The first two days we laid the tracks, the third day we did the strings and the fourth day we put down the back-up singers. I would go sit in my car and write lyrics. We finished a day and a half early.”
No matter how country Hayes might’ve been, he knew how to make big city music. The psychedelic soul of “The Theme from Shaft” was a pop hit crossover in an era when Carole King and Three Dog Night ruled radio. “The drums on “Shaft” (played by Willie Hall) was one reasons I, and so many others, stated playing,” former Klymaxx drummer/ producer Bernadette Cooper says. “That beat just pulled you into the song.”
Hayes would go on to win two Grammies, a Golden Globe and was the first Black film composer to win an Oscar for Best, took his seventy-nine year grandma to the ceremony.
After the success of Shaft, both the film and the soundtrack, Hollywood realized not just the money making potential of Black films (Shaft supposedly saved MGM studios from bankruptcy), but also the encouraged producers to hire top-shelf soul/funk artists for the soundtracks instead of massive orchestras.
“I didn’t sit down to write a smash, I didn’t sit down to write an Oscar winning song,” Hayes explained to me in 1998, “but they gave me total freedom and I made the kind of score that I wanted to make. After that, I was seen as a trendsetter.” While Stax Records would close their doors by the end of the decade, there is no denying their influence on the music as well as the marketing, promotion and smashing success of Black movie soundtracks.