see also:
Soundtracks index

In 1965 the young black actor Sidney Poitier starred alongside Anne Bancroft in a thriller called 'The Slender Thread'. The job of scoring the film went to Quincy Jones, a jazz trumpeter from Lionel Hampton's band. He had completed scores for 'The Pawnbroker' and 'Mirage' by this time and was set to score a number of television series. He said of Sidney Pollack, director of 'Slender Thread', that he was 'a modern guy who didn't get shocked when he heard a far-out piece of music'. This gave him the artistic freedom to experiment outside of the traditional jazz score. The track 'Big Sir' which closes the album gave a hint at what was to come. Uptempo, with a strong 'four' feel, it captured the evolving soul sound using full, brassy instrumentation.

Poitier went on to star in the racially-charged 'Guess who's coming to dinner?' in which he played white middle-class Katherine Houghton's boyfriend to the mixed reactions of her friends and relatives. 'In the heat of the night' saw Poitier playing a cop coping with Rod Steiger's racist redneck sheriff. These films showed Poitier in a presentable, middle-class light, tolerated rather than accepted by the white society in which he found himself.

While Poitier set about taking the Hollywood screen by storm, Jones meanwhile was in considerable demand as a soundtrack composer. Amongst his most well-known works are T.V. themes such as 'Ironside', 'Sanford and Son' and soundtracks for a number of later major Hollywood releases like 'The Heist' ($) with Warren Beatty and 'The Italian Job' with Michael Caine.

Although Poitier's films, mainstream Hollywood creations at best, suggested that it was possible for blacks to be accepted into white American society, the reality for many was harshly different. Race riots had broken out in cities across the US. The Black Panthers, with a large following in deprived areas of the big cities, were advocating militant action. Regardless of Poitier's positive influence on society through his films, they simply did not reflect life for the black majority at that time.

By now, major 'black' artists such as Funkadelic, the Impressions, Sly's multiracial Family Stone and even James Brown were producing music which carried a serious political message on the back of an angular, forceful groove. The R&B charts proved that demand for 'music with a message' was at a high. Black audiences wanted cinema that reflected their daily experiences in the same way.

As the 1970's began, these wants were met in two dinstinct forms. The first, following Poitier's lead, provided a mix of comedy and serious drama which happened to include black lead roles. Bill Cosby, Flip Wilson and later Richard Pryor started their careers in this way. The music in these films also tended to be 'acceptable' to the white-owned studios, produced by Motown-style soul artists such as Curtis Mayfield. Vocal duties tended to be taken up by Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight or one of the Staples Singers. The subject matter reflected the big studios' unease with handling the pressing social issues of the time.

The films which produced the most innovative music, if not plot, were the black alternative to these mainstream offerings. Now known as 'blaxploitation' films, they satisfied the demand from inner-city audiences for movies made by and for blacks. It should be noted that the term 'blaxploitation' refers to the films' continuation of the trashy 'exploitation' films of the 1960's rather than the film studios 'using' black actors.

Early examples tended to follow a typical James Bond style. 1969's 'The Lost Man' (Quincy Jones soundtrack) and the British 'Uptight' (Booker T & the MGs) provided two notable early soundtrack albums.

As these films saw a commercial release the talented black director Melvin Van Peebles was working on a comic drama in which a white bigot wakes up to discover he has black skin. Released in 1970, 'Watermelon Man' proved to be a hit and propelled Peebles into the Hollywood limelight. Hoping that success would allow him to make a film closer to his experiences, he began to produce a film written for the black audience and quickly discovered that the major studios wouldn't touch it.

Called 'Sweet Sweetback's Badaaass Song', it was vicious and uncompromising and deemed inaccessible to whites. Peebles went ahead and produced it anyway, financing it largely himself. Unable to show the film in many cinemas, he persuaded a few black cinemas in Detroit, San Francisco and New York to show it. The response was incredible. People queued in their hundreds to see what was essentially the tale of a promiscuous black antihero as he makes his way towards Mexico to evade the white police. Peebles wrote his own score and enlisted the assistance of a newly-formed group called Earth, Wind and Fire who happened to be friends with one of his production crew.

Almost simultaneously, MGM Studios were shooting the first big-budget Hollywood blaxploitation film, 'Shaft'. The studio had been struggling and badly needed a hit movie to revive its flagging fortunes. In the film, according to MGM's synopsis, a 'black, muscular, fine-looking' private detective called John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree) comes up against a variety of mobsters, hustlers and kidnappers, proving himself handy both in bed and with a gun. White critics proclaimed that it was a true reflection of life on the streets when it was really nothing more than a slick thriller that just happened to feature black actors.

MGM were delighted when 'Shaft' went on to win an Oscar. The statuette was awarded to long-time Stax records artist and arranger Isaac Hayes for his 'Theme from Shaft'. His appearance at the Oscar ceremony had as much of an impact as his music. He appeared on a floating piano in a shirt made entirely of chains.

The theme is one of the most memorable and enduring pieces of music written for film. Beginning with a toppy, tight hi-hat rhythm complimented by a superbly edgy wah-wah guitar, the theme told the entire story of the film inside three minutes. The lyrics, thanks to Hayes' accomplished songwriting backgound, simultaneously satirised and glamorised the hero. The whole score was strong, following cinema convention in that slow ballads accompanied intimacy and brass and drums were used for the chase scenes. The difference was in the funk; gritty but danceable, the album went on to sell in the millions and remains a classic.

Most of the soundtrack albums that followed, in the same way as 'Shaft', provided a number of hit singles in their own right. Shaft's soundtrack, and the film itself, set the style of black movies for the next five years before the genre died out as it became increasingly ridiculous.

'Shaft' was quickly followed by a sequel, 'Shaft's Big Score', for which the soundtrack was written by the film's director Gordon Parks, with help from O.C. Smith who provided the vocals. The third, and last, in the film series was 'Shaft in Africa' which blended Johnny Pate's jazz background and experience as arranger for The Impressions with African rhythms and a hefty slab of the funk. The Four Tops provided a great theme and hit single, 'Are You Man Enough', for the soundtrack. This album features many strong tracks and is well worth seeking out. 'Shaft' also spawned a TV spinoff series.

1972 saw the artistic peak of the blaxploitation soundtrack. Several of America's biggest black artists were working on soundtracks simultaneously. Marvin Gaye's superb 'Trouble Man' album, much covered and respected, provided the only significant outlet for his jazz aspirations of his career, and allowed him to include several instrumental funk tracks. Bobby Womack, assisted by jazz soundtrack veteran J.J.Johnson, showcased some of his finest soul tracks on 'Across 110th St.' The highlight of this period was undeniably Curtis Mayfield's 'Superfly'. Only four years previously Mayfield had been producing upbeat, happy songs for The Impressions. He had by now absorbed the rhymical influence of James Brown's music along with the melodic feel of Marvin Gaye and was producing music wide-ranging in mood. 'Superfly' was as violent a movie as you could find. It romanticised the antics of a drug dealer antihero, Priest, played by Ron O'Neal. Mayfield's beautiful and compassionate songs completely undermined the apparent message of the movie and represent his finest work.

The films that followed became more formulaic as the seventies progressed. Plot-wise, most of them were either 'private detective takes on the mob' or 'dealer becomes king of the pimps'. Record companies fought to add their biggest stars to any soundtrack they could get space on. Virtually all of the major soul artists and many minor stars of the period can be found on a blaxploitation album.

James Brown, ably assisted by regular JBs trombonist Fred Wesley, provided scores to 1973's 'Black Caesar' and 1974's 'Slaughter's Big Rip-Off'. The latter was a sequel to 'Slaughter', which had no soundtrack LP but featured a Billy Preston theme song. Interestingly, James Brown's best written-for-film album, 'The Payback', was rejected by director Larry Cohen for 'not being James Brown enough, y'know?'. The film was 'Hell Up In Harlem' and eventually featured an Edwin Starr soundtrack.

Solomon Burke wrote music for 'Cool Breeze' (1972, with assistance from Gene Page) and 'Hammer' (1973), for which an album was never issued. Allen Toussaint scored 'Black Samson', released in 1974. Gene Page, with the Hues Corporation, wrote 1972's 'Blacula' soundtrack while Roy Ayers produced the superb 'Coffy' in 1973. The Blackbyrds made their contribution with 'Cornbread, Earl and Me' while The Impressions provided songs for 'Three The Hard Way'. Barry White wrote music for 1974's 'Together Brothers' which included some solid stripped-down funk instrumentals. Even drummer Bernard Purdie wrote a score to an erotic film called 'Lialeh' in 1974, subsequently issued on a scarce LP.

Motown's Wille Hutch provided two fine albums in the form of 'The Mack' (1973) and 'Foxy Brown' (1974). J.J.Johnson, a veteran jazz musician with a strong ear for soundtrack composition, often wrote his best work in collaboration with other artists. 1971's Bill Cosby western 'Man and Boy' saw him working with Quincy Jones and Bill Withers. The superb 'Across 110th Street' was written with Bobby Womack. Johnson also wrote the music for 'Willie Dynamite' (with Martha Reeves) and 'Cleopatra Jones' which included a hit theme from Joe Simon and vocals from Millie Jackson.

A relatively early blaxploitation release, 'Come Back Charleston Blue' features an interesting 1920s style soundtrack thanks to Quincy Jones. This album also includes Donny Hathaway's soulful classic 'Ghetto Boy'. The 1973 sequel to 'Black Caesar', 'Hell Up In Harlem' had a theme song by Edwin Starr while Barbara Mason sang the theme to 'Sheba Baby' in 1975. The unlikely choice of Osibisa provided the 'Superfly' soundtrack sequel in the form of 'Superfly T.N.T.' in 1973.

Many of the best blaxploitation soundtracks were issued on major record labels, for which the collector should be thankful. Sales figures for these albums were invariably respectable but failed to live up to those of the original 'Shaft' LP. In addition to the mainstream releases there were a number of notable independent issues. The Fantasy label issued the soundtrack to the adult cartoon 'Fritz The Cat' and followed this up with 'Heavy Traffic'. Ed Bogas and Ray Shanklin, responsible for the original material on these two albums, wrote a further soundtrack to a serious black drama 'Black Girl' on Fantasy with the assistance of a number of great studio jazz musicians including Bud Shank. The Rimshots, studio band of the Platinum / Stang label, contributed tracks to the Stang label's 1976 score to 'Patty'. Bizarrely this all-soul album was taken from a film about Patty Hearst.

In a fitting close to the mainstream blaxploitation genre, Isaac Hayes provided soundtracks to, and performances in, two films in 1974 and 1975, 'Truck Turner' and 'Three Tough Guys'. Although both albums have good funk moments (check out 'Tough Guys Theme' and 'Pursuit of the Pimpmobile' from 'Truck Turner') they're not as vibrant and consistent as 'Shaft'.

The cinema genre had effectively ended as a creative force but the musical influence continued. Curtis Mayfield produced the soundtrack to 'Short Eyes' and appeared in the film, and arranged 'Let's Do It Again' for The Staples Singers and 'Sparkle' for Aretha Franklin. War made a late appearance with the soundtrack to 'Youngblood' in 1978.

The proliferation of action and kung-fu B-movies during the late 1970s provided source material for several notable special-pressing soundtrack albums to accompany the original films. The obscure Happy Fox label gathered a number of small-time soul artists to score 'Black Fist' in 1977. In the same year the abysmal action movie 'Bare Knuckles' spawned a superb soundtrack album on the tiny Gucci label scored by Vic Caesar, one of the stars of the movie.

It should be noted that, surprisingly, a large proportion of blaxploitation film soundtracks were never issued on commercial soundtrack albums. The movies for which a soundtrack was issued were not necessarily those with the biggest stars or highest budget, a fact that may dismay blaxploitation film enthusiasts. A limited selection of tracks from otherwise-unissued scores can be found on sound library or special pressing LPs.

Many of the soundtracks to these movies, like the films themselves, disappeared into obscurity during the 1980s. The recent revival of interest in cinema and 1970s culture has lead to a corresponding desire to explore the music of the blaxploitation genre, and with it the long-overdue acknowledgement of the huge influence of its artists on modern music.

To find out more about blaxploitation soundtracks, see the soundtrack index.


All site contents ©1998 The author has asserted his moral rights. Cover scans, album reviews, all other text content and/or pictures may only be used by prior permission of But what the hell, I'm a nice guy, so drop me a line!