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There’s this li’l section here in your friendly neighborhood record shop we call “The movie is so bad, but the music is so good!” Its hard to find soundtrack albums which fit the bill, but sort of a fun project — the other challenge is that folks buy up the best ones right away because, after all, the music is so good.

Obvious examples would be movies like More American Graffiti: the unwanted sequel’s soundtrack was filled with sixties favorites. Other examples would be when an artist creates an original score which ages more gracefully than the album itself. Perhaps the best example of this is also an extraordinarily rare record: nobody on Earth wants to see She’s the One again, but countless Tom Petty fans would love to track down an elusive copy of the LP.

And The Big Chill, which was a completely unrewarding movie to anyone who wasn’t a baby boomer, but enjoyed the first wave of Motown’s licensing of its extensive catalog, making the soundtrack a sort of ‘essential 60s’ collection. It did so well a second volume was introduced the following year.

And Super Fly— probably the best example of a soundtrack album far superior to the film itself. In fact, it’s one of few films to make less money than its accompanying record.

Curtis Mayfield recorded more than twenty-five albums after leaving the Impressions, but his name is synonymous with the seventies soundtrack based largely on this classic record. Curtis Mayfield’s score for the 1972 movie fits better with the socially conscious albums by Curtis’ contemporaries Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder than the rest of the blaxsploitation genre. Super Fly is entirely different from albums like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft and James Brown’s Black Caesar.

In songs like “Pusherman” and “No Thing on Me” Curtis criticizes the glorification of dealers and pimps in films like Super Fly. and presents a more accurate picture of drug abuse. This is exactly what critics of the movie (like the NAACP) were asking to see. Super Fly is one of the best anti-drug albums ever made.

superfly

Also, the songs are some of the best Curtis ever wrote. “Pusherman” and “Give me your Love (Love Song)” are completely original arrangements only Curtis could have created — and the title track is one of his funkiest moments on record.

And its phenomenal success provided Curtis the opportunity to score several more films in the coming years.

The overwhelmingly ironic 1971 album Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs aside, there were few explicit anti-drug messages to be found in record stores in the early 70s, especially in the soul section. This is especially unfortunate because of the enormous societal toll drug traffic took from those in the inner cities. Curtis’ portrayal of dope fiends and dealers (especially in “Freddy’s Dead”) present a cautionary tale which presaged the crack epidemic of a decade later.

After finishing an excellent follow-up album of new material (Back to the World), Curtis turned to his next film project: the soundtrack for Claudine, a family drama which fit the demands of organizations like the NAACP, who wished to see more African-American films outside the blaxsploitation genre. The songs on Curtis’ soundtrack for Claudine were performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips, hot off the success of their top-selling album Imagination, from which came “Midnight Train to Georgia” and three other hit singles.

The movie Claudine carried heavy social messages about the African-American community, but Curtis translated few of these into his songs for the score, focusing instead on the film’s love story between a single mother played by singer Diahann Carroll and a garbageman played by James Earl Jones. The songs are more in the style of his later-period music with the Impressions than the heavy funk infused soul of Super Fly, but the song “On and On” was a top 10 single in that style.

The theme of self-reliance Curtis introduced in “No Thing on Me” from the Super Fly soundtrack was carried into Claudine by actor Lawrence Hilton Jacobs (whose own records we featured in a post about the music of Welcome Back Kotter), who opposes his mother’s abuse of the welfare system and questions whether it has had a regressive effect on his community.

claudine soundtrack

Curtis again brought guests into the studio to perform the songs for his next soundtrack album, Let’s Do It Again. This time it was the Staple Singers, who had just signed onto his Curtom label after the Stax bankruptcy. The legendary gospel-turned-sou. group proved to be a perfect fit to Curtis’ sound, and the soundtrack’s title tune was a hit single.

Let’s Do It Again is the middle film in a trilogy of Sydney Poitier/Bill Cosby comedies set around zany schemes. The first, Uptown Saturday Night, had been scored by soul saxophonist Tom Scott, and Curtis would come back with Mavis Staples to produce the music for the third, A Piece of the Action.

let's do it again

Let’s Do It Again finds the pair rigging boxing matches by hypnotizing an underdog fighter played by Jimmie Walker, who starred as J.J. on TV’s Good Times., and had recently released his debut comedy album (which we posted last week).

It’s a pretty good comedy, but folks aren’t really scrambling to find classic Cosby these days. Curtis’ soundtrack, however, is well worth the work to hunt down a copy.

His score for the last film in the series was released as a Mavis Staples solo album. We couldn’t find a copy for this post, but you can enjoy the theme (plus watch the one and only Sidney Poitier dance) in its closing scene:

(*We’ve said it before, it’s all about Sidney Poitier)

sparkleThe 1976 period piece Sparkle starred Irene Cara (pre-Fame) in a Supremes-based story about singing sisters. The film received few positive reviews and would be entirely forgotten if it weren’t for Curtis’ soundtrack, which has Aretha Franklin singing all the leads instead of Cara.

Sparkle provided Aretha with her last hit single of the seventies, but it falls short of Curtis’ collaborations with Mavis Staples or Gladys Knight.

The last movie score Curtis produced until he returned to Hollywood to provide a few songs for The Return of Super Fly in 1990) was for Short Eyes, a prison drama based on Miguel Piñero’s award winning play. Unlike Super Fly, nothing is glorified in this harsh and realistic portrayal of prison life, which Piñero penned while serving in Sing Sing for armed robbery.

short eyes

 

The story, which culminates in the beating death of a pedophile, has been praised for its presentation of prison hierarchy and race relations. Curtis’ album is equally gritty. He’d opened his first solo album with “Don’t Worry, If there’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go,” and here starts off with a song which includes the line, “Ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven.” Short Eyes is our favorite Curtis Mayfield album. Highlights include some of his very best guitar work in the hopeless lament “Back Against the Wall” (where he sounds like Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel) and his brand of innovative high-production funk in “Freak Freak Freak, Free Free Free.”

The opening track, “Doo Doo Wap (is Strong in Here)” was one of Curtis’ last charting hits, and would belong on any “Best of Curtis Mayfield” collection, if such a thing exists.

Short Eyes hit shelves in the waning years of the American prisoners’ rights movement, which had previously seen some attention in popular music. Bob Dylan had a largely forgotten hit single (peaking at #33 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart) in 1972 with a song lauding prison writer and Black Panther activist George Jackson. His death — shot in the back during an escape attempt — led to prison protests around the country, notably the Attica uprising in upstate New York which began three weeks after Jackson’s death on September 9th, 1971.

The Attica uprising and its violent aftermath were the subject of many records in the coming years, including songs by John Lennon (“Attica State”), Paul Simon (“Virgil”) and 10cc (“Rubber Bullets”). Gil Scott-Heron referenced Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s culpability in “We Beg Your Pardon” and Charles Mingus implored listeners to “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” on Changes One.

Much of the prisoners’ movement came to a screeching halt with the Supreme Court’s Houchins v. KQED Inc ruling in 1978, which established there existed no “right of access” when it came to the incarcerated. This effectively shut off the movement’s ability to reach the masses via the media, and interest in the rights of the incarcerated waned just as, unfortunately, the war on drugs swelled to epic proportions. We can’t help to think of the tragic cycle described by Curtis in “Freddy’s Dead.” After asking, “Why can’t we brothers protect one another,” he describes another “Freddy on the corner now.”

Our pals the Southside Aces are returning to one of their favorite themes for this month’s ‘second Thursday’ performance at the Eagles Club #34, and that’s the music of New Orleans clarinet legend George Lewis. It may be because the Aces’ clarinet player picks the themes, but either way George Lewis night presents the band at their best.

Lewis was largely unheard outside of New Orleans until the middle of his career, when we went on to become an ambassador of sorts for traditional jazz. From the 1940s until his death in 1968 he recorded and toured, documenting the pre-swing sound with his big sound and distinctive style.

The Southside Aces will perform songs associated with Lewis this Thursday night at the Eagles, starting at 8pm.

Next week we’ll mark the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Kennedy’s tragic death. The occasion has inspired much speculation about alternate histories, but of course we cannot change the past.

Just a couple months earlier, Kennedy faced the unfortunate task of informing the crowd at a campaign rally of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. His speech in Indianapolis on April 4th was unscripted and heartfelt, and is regarded as one of the high points of those turbulent years when America, like today, seemed irreparably damaged and divided.

This speech has appeared on many albums over the years, but it is all the more moving in the news footage.

The latest album by Superchunk, What A Time To Be Alive, is by far their best since they returned from a long hiatus. Old fans like ourselves have enjoyed it as much as the folks who are just discovering the band.

They also have a history of great music videos (we couldn’t even choose a favorite). This is one of the videos from the new album.

The 2000 movie High Fidelity still comes up in conversation around here, and for many it seems to be the definitive big screen portrayal of life in a record store. We enjoy the movie and its very nice soundtrack, and we certainly get some smiles from the “Beta Band Effect” from time to time (what’s this?) but its not our favorite movie set in a record store.

Fish Story is a 2009 movie directed by Yoshihiro Nakamura. It begins in a record store five hours before a comet is to destroy the Earth. Two young men are doing what we do here every day, nerding out about records, when a man comes in and asks, incredulous, “Why are you open?”

They ignore him and continue to discuss music, as the clerk introduces his friend to an obscure band called Gekirin. Their final recording, “Fish Story,” pre-dates punk rock, although it sounds suspiciously like “New Rose” by the Damned.

We follow the song backwards through history — witnessing moments of heroism and terror, before finally meeting Gekirin in 1975 and learning how they came to record “Fish Story,” based on a mis-translated poem.

There is a scene in another movie, Almost Famous, when Jason Lee claims that rock and roll will save the world. It’s the kind of hyperbolic statement often associated with pop music’s need to justify itself, not so different from the way we feel about some of our favorite records. “This is important,” we tell ourselves, even though  we know well that in the big picture our records are inconsequential at best.

Fish Story is about those dreams, and how one of our records might save the world.

feminine-complexThe Feminine Complex was a short-lived garage band from Nashville. By the time their only album was released on the likewise soon-to-expire Athena Records, the band had broken up. Four of the five women in the group were high school basketball teammates, and they took the team’s name, the Pivots, for their first performance at a talent show.

Their album, Livin’ Love, clearly draws on Nashville’s stable of session musicians on some tracks, such as “Don’t Want Another Man,” below. Three singles were released from the album and sold well regionally. The band also became a regular at Nashville’s Skateland, which was probably as awesome as it sounds.

Demo recordings of the original band from 1968 were included in a 90s reissue of the album on Teenbeat Records, and a collection of more demos and live recordings followed. These are all believed by some to be a hoax, actually just a new band on the ‘lost tapes.’

Many all-female bands from the 60s have been re-discovered by various archival labels in this era of reissues. Last year Sundazed Records released an album of recordings by the Pleasure Seekers, a band best known as the starting point for Suzie Quatro and her sister Patti Quatro (later of Fanny). Their two singles are sought-after rarities because they’re considered some of the best female garage rock recordings of the era.

There were female garage bands all over the world! Argentina had Las Mosquitas and Japan’s Tokyo Happy Coats were said to play between them more than twenty instruments. Another Japanese band, Dorothy and the Vampires is the very definition of awesome even though we can’t understand a word of this single (here).

Dara Puspita from Indonesia suffered under the repressive Sukarno regime and ultimately relocated to Thailand. The band recorded four albums, the first of which you can hear through the magic of Youtube.

In Norway there was a trio called the Dandy Girls who recorded an instrumental jam called “To You,” and in New Zealand there was a quartet called the Fair Sect who released four singles. Their drummer Norma Stacy was also the lead singer. On their second single, a cover of “I Love How You Love Me,” she sang and a dude was brought in to play the drums, as well as his brother-in-law who added the track’s distinctive bagpipes.

The United States led the world in female bands, of course, as we do in all things rock and roll. From Fulda, Minnesota (that’s down in the southwest) there was the Continental Co-Ets. They released a single on the IGL label and have been the subject of stories on MRP and in the City Pages.

Coltrane plays for Reverend King

John Coltrane’s “Reverend King” was recorded in February 1966, just a few weeks after Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and his family had moved into their 1550 South Hamlin Avenue apartment in Chicago, to begin working on the Open Housing campaign.

coltrane cosmic music

The recording was released posthumously in late January 1968 on Cosmic Music, one of the first two LPs his label, Impulse Records, pulled from unissued recordings after Coltrane’s death. Eventually there would eight albums in all — plus many live recordings — found in the archives. Fans have mixed reactions to some of these recordings, but “Reverend King” is surely an excellent example of Coltrane’s last group at work. This band featured his wife, Alice Coltrane, Pharaoh Sanders, Jimmy Garrison, Rashid Ali, and on “Reverend King” additional percussionists Ray Appleton and Ben Reilly.

At the time the recording was released on Cosmic Music, Reverend King had recently announced the Poor People’s Campaign, with a focus on pushing Congress to pass a economic bill of rights” for working people, as outlined in his last book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? 

The campaign’s broad agenda was not received well by many of The Reverend King’s dearest supporters, notably Bayard Rustin. Five years earlier Rustin had been the primary logistical organizer of the 1963 march in Washington DC at which Reverend King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

After Reverend King’s assassination on April 4th, thousands of demonstrators established a symbolic shanty town at the National Mall where he had delivered this famous address. The encampment was called “Resurrection City” and remained for nearly six weeks.

“Reverend King” was not the first piece of music in which Coltrane expressed the inspiration he felt for the Civil Rights leader. He modeled one of his most moving songs, “Alabama,” on Reverend King’s eulogy for the four victims of the September 15, 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church.

Reverend King’s eulogy for Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carol Denise McNair was delivered three days later, and is a deeply moving and spiritual address, which does not shy from the political situation which led to the terrible terrorist attack. A funeral for the fourth girl, Carole Robertson, was held on a different date.

(we posted an alternate version of Coltrane’s “Alabama” here). There is no account of John Coltrane having met the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. or having been present to hear him speak. His views on politics and the Civil Rights movement we know mostly through the universalist spiritual liner notes he wrote for A Love Supreme and Meditations.

Thank to all reading. We hope you take an interest in these recordings because the goals of racial and economic equality outlined by Reverend King in these speeches and in his last book are still within our reach, if a little further down the road than they were on this day last year.

We also hope you stay warm on this snowy day here in Minneapolis and do not forget those around us who struggle for safety and shelter in this weather.

Oh, and your friendly neighborhood record shop will be open from 1-6pm on this national holiday.

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