Melvin Van Peebles

As an Afro-American auteur whose cinematic innovations mutated into 70s Blaxploitation, MELVIN VAN PEEBLES – born August 21, 1932, Chicago, Illinois – remains justly famous. Save for his soundtrack to “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song”, his pioneering contributions to music – and that includes several non-film LPs – remain less well known. Disillusioned at what he saw as an apolitical black music scene out of step with oral, African-rooted tradition, VAN PEEBLES paired gonzoid proto-rap with frazzled funk and free jazz, inspiring the likes of The LAST POETS and GIL SCOTT-HERON.
Having relocated to Europe at the tail-end of the 50s as Hollywood inroads eluded him, VAN PEEBLES indulged creative talents which encompassed acting, editing, painting, film production and a series of novels. A grant from the French Cinema Center in 1967 duly enabled the budding director to shoot an adaptation of one of his novels, La Permission, and release it as “The Story Of A Three-Day Pass”; writing the script and also composing the music. With the movie entered into the 1967 San Francisco Film Festival, VAN PEEBLES returned to America wielding an impressive C.V. As well as a deal with Columbia Pictures, Melv inked a recording contract with A&M, home to the first three of his non-OST LPs.
Recorded in 1968, but released early the following year, BRER SOUL {*8} was an unconventional and radical opening for an unknown quantity; Melvin waxing lyrical and observational among the black neighbourhoods of America. Something on a par with the counterculture prose of Jack Kerouac, but seen through the eyes and mind of characters living in the ghetto, the album was peppered with spontaneity from `Lilly Done The Zampoughi Everytime I Pulled Her Coattail’ to `Catch That On The Corner’.
His soundtrack to racial satire, WATERMELON MAN (1970) {*6}, had nothing much ado with HERBIE HANCOCK’s much-covered 1962 classic, but its significance in terms of a breakthrough was just as profound. By contrast, Melvin made music in which his vigour was the outstanding feature, like this soundtrack’s `Soul’d On You’, which found him delivering a would-be comically over-wrought vocal on a hapless musical steal of `Heard It Through The Grapevine’. And while it was hard to deny a man his creative expression, it was also possible VAN PEEBLES might’ve prospered better with more frugal marshalling of his talents. Mercifully his vocal on the opening so-loose-it’s-saggy blues workout, `Love, That’s America’, was actually shouted, and the satirical polemic that resulted turned out to be the one memorable thing on the album. Elsewhere, apart from an embarrassing lullaby sung by Estelle Parsons, its generic instrumental stuff; with added quirks that, like everything else, were hard to make out through the hapless production. Guess who the producer was.
SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971) {*9} turned out to be so… so… so much better. A seminal tale of a sexually omnipotent black man defying the Man (mandatory viewing for Black Panther members!), Melvin created a raging, disorientating maelstrom of a score, cutting up testifiying gospel, delirious, desperate dialogue, dapper jazz-funk and wicked soul with subversive, William Burroughs-esque glee. Yet while the cinematic revolution remained untelevised as Hollywood went on to have its sleazy way with Blaxploitation (a term VAN PEEBLES himself recoiled at), the multi-talented director turned his hand to theatre.
Like its author’s forthcoming solo A&M albums peering around the corner, this set was more a sonic cut-up than a soundtrack; a Blaxploitation blueprint which – in reality – bore little or no resemblance to any of the big-name scores which it supposedly inspired. Nor did it bear much resemblance to the jazz fusion with which backers EARTH, WIND & FIRE followed it up. But it did kick off as it meant to go on: as controversially, gratuitously and calamitously as the film, pitching and reeling wildly between wailing siren, white noise and bordello funk.
VAN PEEBLES’ use of the old spiritual `Wade In The Water’, over the movie’s most disturbing scenes, was infamously cited by Black Panther leader Huey P. Newton in the critical fallout that accompanied the film’s release. Ultimately, though, it was the explosive energy, desperation and anger invested in creating the polar opposite of the so-called “Poitier persona” – as outlined by Post-Soul Black Cinema author William R Grant – that drove the score, with the titular anti-hero’s hysterical, strangulated commentary disorientating the mix ever further, cat-called by sardonic female choirs: “They burned our mama, they beat our papa, they tricked our sisters, they chained our brothers”; “Yeah They Won’t Bleed Me!”.
VAN PEEBLES wielded the phrase like a mantra, driving himself on into the darkness (“blacker than a landlord’s soul”) in the relentless spine-tingling avant-jazz-punk `Come On Feet (Do Your Thing)’, the high-spot from his next A&M set. The nearest thing to conventional cinematic funk was EW&F’s `Sweetback’s Theme’ (a single), a coyly sleazy, pimp-rolling organ groove which strutted for a full seven minutes, resurfacing at anarchic angles.
A couple of straight-up R&B numbers, `Hoppin John’ and the sassy voodoo-funk of `Mojo Woman’ (dropped as a vinyl 45 in the film), punctuated the collage, as well as a mellow jazz instrumental, `Sanra Z’, but it was in its demented, radio-dial confusion that the music worked its insurrectionary spell, sonically reproducing the convulsive cinematography. Yet while the movie was widely recognised as a watershed in black cinema (“the most important black American film of its age”: argued Time Out), the soundtrack still hadn’t had its full critical due, either in terms of its long-term influence on black music (hip-hopper Madlib liberally sampled VAN PEEBLES on his Quasimoto outings), its conciliation of soul and the avant-garde and its anticipation of hip-hop’s cut-and-paste culture to come.
Suffering in its wake, but hoping to cash-in on any cultural shift, A&M follow-ups AIN’T SUPPOSED TO DIE A NATURAL DEATH (1971) {*8} and AS SERIOUS AS A HEART-ATTACK (1971) {*6} were again somewhat ahead of themselves in a way the aforementioned LAST POETS and SCOTT-HERON, too, suffered in their cosmic pre-rap destiny. While the first of these albums formed the basis of the man’s critically-lauded, post-Broadway Cast production (released as a double-LP in 1972), it would be VAN PEEBLES’ similar Stax-endorsed follow-up double-set production, DON’T PLAY US CHEAP (1973) {*6}, that possibly underlined some saturation (i.e. several sets in only four years).
Initially adapted for the big screen, its failure to find a distributor condemned it to relative obscurity by way of its Broadway release. If the soundtrack wasn’t quite as revelatory as its predecessor, it was another solid effort nonetheless; a more conventional combination of jazz, gospel, ensemble R&B celebration and the stratospheric, gospel-inflected soul of erstwhile Ikette Joshie Jo Armstead’s `You Cut Up The Clothes In The Closet Of My Dreams’.
Described as a funky good listen, as a stage production most of the numbers were performed by actors, although the spontaneity and soulfulness of the material checked any tendency to thespian stolidity. Among the assorted bluesy sing-along’s, call and response hollers, and bumptious interludes there were also some powerful stand-alone-tracks and at least one other stone classic from former Pilgrim Traveler George McCurn’s epic `Quittin’ Time’. The thundering piano on both this and the said `You Cut…’ was provided by an unaccredited backing band which padded out the soundtrack with some lovely jazz-based instrumentals, including the gorgeous `Ain’t Love Grand’ (also performed as a haunting falsetto vocal by “Sweetback” actress Rhetta Hughes) and the cooking `Watermelon Man’-esque soul jazz of `The Washingtons Thing’. Ironically, the only track which harked back to the subversive anarchy of PEEBLES’ most famous work was wry closer, `(If You See A Devil) Smash Him`.
Atlantic Records decided to take a punt on the man, however in the funky gospel/R&B of the self-deprecating WHAT THE…. YOU MEAN I CAN’T SING?! (1974) {*7}, much of the irony backfired on the American buyer. Coming across like DR. JOHN slyly singing in unison with the Family Stone, not much was written about the set at the time. When Blaxploitation moved up market and in vogue, it was then that critics caught on to Melvin’s unyielding `A Birth Certificate Ain’t Nothing But A Death Warrant’ and the heartfelt `Eyes On The Rabbit’, to a coy cover of STEVIE WONDER’s `Superstition’ and the 10-minute conclusion, `My Love Belongs To You’
Although VAN PEEBLES continued to work on various music, theatre and literary projects, major screen productions remained elusive. His troubled relationship with Hollywood was again underlined when he chose to bail out of Richard Pryor vehicle, “Greased Lightning” (1977), for which he’d penned the script. In between writing and acting for stage and television, the maverick thespian made his most unlikely career move to date, becoming a trader on the US Stock Exchange, and even writing a book on the subject.
In 1989 he returned to directing with the critically slated “Identity Crisis”, starring his son Mario, and, as well as parts in the likes of “True Identity” (1991), “Last Action Hero” (1993), “Terminal Velocity” (1994) and “Fist Of The North Star”, he also acted in his son’s directorial debut, the Afro-American revisionist western, “Posse” (1993). The father and son team again failed to convince the critics with “Panther” (1995), Mario’s adaptation of his father’s historical novel.
At the age of 62, MELVIN VAN PEEBLES was back in the saddle for an album described as a blend of TOM WAITS and Bill Cosby: GHETTO GOTHIC (1995) {*6}. Consisting of ten fresh/past cuts of sing-speak, the gritty set might not be everybody’s cup of char, but there was idiosyncrasy and aplomb on remakes of `My Love Belongs To You’, `Just Don’t Make No Sense’, `Lilly Done The Zampoughi…’ and `Quittin’ Time’.
More successful was “Le Conte Du Ventre Plein” (2000), VAN PEEBLES’ award-winning return to the French screen which he wrote (adapted from another novel), directed and scored in his time-honoured renaissance man style.
At 82, it was as good a time as any for Melvin to get back on track. Teaming up current eclectic/electro nu-jazz shakers, The HELIOCENTRICS (a London combo), there was a cosmic “Chapter & Verse” motif on the exotically-charged THE LAST TRANSMISSION (2014) {*7}. While the set was no SUN RA spaced-out dispatch (now that would’ve been some combination), the `Big Bang Reincarnation’, `The Cavern’, `Infinite List (Toss The Dice)’ et al, prepared him for that inevitable excursion to meet his maker.
© MC Strong 2009/GRD-BG/ND // rev-up MCS Sep2019

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