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BLACK MUSIC MONTH: SELECTED '70s SONGS

The songs discussed below are but a few of the classics on our Black Music Month playlist, which you can find here (Spotify) or here (Apple Music). These particular entries track the changes of the '70s, from political awakening to hedonistic abandon.

Isaac Hayes, “Theme From Shaft” (Stax, 1971)
Hayes spent most of the 1960s behind the scenes, writing music with partner Dave Porter on the Memphis label Stax before making his powerhouse bow as an artist. In 1971, he was asked to score the movie Shaft, and instantly joined the film-composer elite. With his brilliant soundtrack, which flowed throughout the Harlem-based tapestry of the film, Hayes powerfully captured the gritty urgency of the movie’s world and the guts and soul of its hero, black private dick John Shaft.

“[Filmmaker] Gordon Parks sat down and talked to me about the character, because I’d never scored a movie,” Hayes remembers. “He said, ‘Isaac, just remember, when you write this music, zero in on the lead character, on his personality. He’s a roving kind of character. He’s relentless, and your music has to depict that.’ So that’s when I got the idea for these hi- hats, you know, the guitar and all that stuff and everything else followed.”

With an immediately recognizable melody and those percussive female background vocals, “Theme from Shaft” has become iconic—not just a career-defining song for Isaac Hayes, but representative of an entire era of “blaxploitation” films.

Hayes became the first African American to receive a non-acting Oscar when he won the Academy Award for Best Original Song. He was also the first-ever recipient of the award who both wrote and performed the winning song. “Theme from Shaft” was released in 1971 and went #1 on the Hot 100 and #2 on the Soul Singles chart.

Curtis Mayfield, “Freddie’s Dead” (Curtom/Buddah, 1972) This cut from the soundtrack to the blaxploitation blockbuster Super Fly is one of the greatest anti-drug songs of all time, with an unflinching lyric wrapped up in a driving funk backbeat that vividly conveys the movie’s ghetto landscape. It peaked at #4 on the Pop charts in November 1972. Mayfield, who had been infusing social consciousness into his music since the 1950s, contributed soundtracks to several black films after Super Fly.

The Temptations, “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” (Gordy/Motown, 1972)
The second time was the charm for this song, originally recorded by the Undisputed Truth, but re-recorded by The Temptations in 1972. A psychedelic soul epic about parental abandonment with funk-fueled social commentary (brought to mind-blowing aural life by Motown producer Norman Whitfield, who co-penned the track with Barrett Strong), it became the Temps’ final #1 hit, in December of 1972; the symphonic recording later won two Grammys and, in 1999, was inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

James Brown, “The Payback (Part 1)” (Polydor, 1973) This prodigious soul classic about bitter revenge was grooved out by Brown and his passionate, tenacious band of badass musicians, the JBs. Under Brown’s creative direction, his ferocious crew took R&B basics and forged them into the style now known as funk, using horns, guitar and keyboards as forms of rhythmic percussion—and coming down hard “on the one.” This uncompromising track, recorded during their most innovative period, was originally conceived as soundtrack material for Hell Up in Harlem, a 1974 blaxploitation crime film. The producers declined, however, and Brown released it on his own. This was his last #1 R&B song—and has been the backbone of countless samples ever since.

Gil Scott-Heron/Brian Jackson, “Winter in America” (Strata-East, 1974)
“There’s nobody fighting/’Cause nobody knows what to save.” This jazz/soul lament by the brilliant poet/activist/composer Scott-Heron and frequent collaborator Jackson wasn’t a hit—or even fodder for a catchphrase, like Scott-Heron’s earlier landmark, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” The Winter in America album ended up selling reasonably briskly, thanks to the uptempo single “The Bottle.” But over time the title track, a despairing assessment of black American life in the mid-’70s, came to seem an integral document of the decade and a key piece of Scott-Heron’s consciousness-raising oeuvre. And listening to it right now, the sentiment is depressingly on-target.

The Isley Brothers, “Fight the Power” (T-Neck, 1975)
Conceived in a 1975 recording session by guitarist Ernie Isley, whose take on the post-Watergate landscape became a relentless groove about rising above the powers that be, “Fight the Power” is one of the most galvanizing protest songs ever recorded, right down to the defiantly uncensored lyrics (“with all this bullshit goin’ down”) delivered by frontman Ron Isley. Released in May of 1975, the song reached #1 on the R&B charts and went as high as #4 at Pop; its impact drove the album that contained it to  #1 as well. The fast tempo and high grooves also kept it in rotation at dance clubs, and the song peaked on the dance chart at #13. It made a lasting impression on a young Carlton Ridenhour, who would go on 
to become Chuck D from Public Enemy.

“I was 15 years old, so it was ingrained in me,” Chuck once noted of the Isleys’ hard-charging anthem, “but it was a record that I thought represented us. ‘I tried to play my music/They say my music’s too loud’: That spoke loud to me. And I didn’t even curse at the time, but that was the first time I ever heard a curse on a record.”

Rose Royce, “Car Wash” (MCA, 1976)
This rousingly upbeat theme song plays over the opening credits of the hit 1976 feature film of the same name, perfectly setting the tone for what follows. Car Wash the movie was rooted in disco culture and made at the apex of that era; while mostly lighthearted, it still touched on a few serious social issues and remains, in its unpretentious way, a cultural landmark. The double album yielded the #1 Pop hit title track plus two Top 10 R&B singles, “I Wanna Get Next to You” and “I’m Going Down,” and won the 1977 Grammy for Best Score Soundtrack album.

Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” (Casablanca, 1977)
A vocalist of surpassing emotional power and technical brilliance, Summer launched several huge singles up the charts and was one of the marquee talents of the disco age. “Last Dance,” one might reasonably argue, is more cathartic; “Bad Girls” is saucier; “Dim All the Lights” is prettier. But this hypnotic, synth-driven track, produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, is arguably Summer’s most lasting achievement—and is widely credited as the founding document of EDM. “Love” was a worldwide hit (though it peaked at #6 in the U.S.). When the restlessly experimental producer Brian Eno—then assisting David Bowie’s umpteenth reinvention in Berlin—heard the song, he was quoted as saying, “I have heard the sound of the future… this single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.” The Library of Congress added the song to the National Recording Registry of “culturally, historically or aesthetically important” works in 2011.

Funkadelic, “One Nation Under a Groove” (Warner Bros., 1978)
“Here’s a chance to dance our way out of our constrictions,” goes this essential P-Funk jam, a vision of communal cohesion and transcendence born of “getting down on the one, which we believe in.” George Clinton got the idea for the unifying anthem after two fans told him a Washington, D.C., concert was the best they’d ever seen, like “one nation under a groove.”

The album of the same name was a commercial and critical hit, going on to become the seminal example of the true funk groove and a perennial on multiple all-time-best album lists. “At the time, I had three bands—Parliament, Funkadelic, and Bootsy’s Rubber Band—that were all basically the same people,” Clinton later explained about the making of the record, “That gave us a better chance of survival. ‘One Nation’ could have been a Parliament record, but Funkadelic needed a hit. The guitar solo made it more Funkadelic.”

Chic, “Good Times” (Atlantic, 1979)
Is it possible that one song bridged two musical eras? This Nile Rodgers bop was a behemoth of the Studio 54 days, beaming to #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts in 1979, and was also, for a spell, the best-selling 45rpm single of all time. Thanks to the troupe’s in-the-pocket chemistry and a refrain that was a self-fulfilling prophecy of celebration, “Good Times” fueled as many good times as the era’s renowned Bolivian marching powder.

Then, after dominating the glittery pleasure domes of the world, the exultant, irresistible cut embarked on an extraordinary second chapter at house parties and on streetcorners—and earned a unique place in music history—as one of the most-sampled songs ever. This was due entirely to the distinctive, easy-to-loop bassline Bernard Edwards laid down as the indestructible spine of the jam. That rhythm became the foundational beat for the nascent form that would eventually emerge as an entirely new genre: hip-hop.

Sugarhill Gang, “Rapper’s Delight” (Sugarhill Records, 1979)
In the emerging realm of the breakbeat, the block party and the DJ, hip-hop would first burst into full form via this debut track from Sylvia Robinson’s Sugarhill Gang, which mapped out the blueprint for all future rap songs: dynamic, inventive rhymes over a sampled beat. It was the first rap song to hit the Pop chart. Studio owner Robinson had conceived, cast and recorded “Rapper’s Delight,” releasing it on her New Jersey label.

The beat was lifted entirely from Chic’s disco smash, “Good Times,” with the pieces rearranged to accommodate MCs Michael “Wonder Mike” Wright, Henry “Big Bank Hank” Jackson and Guy “Master Gee” O’Brien. Of course, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards heard “Rapper’s Delight” in a club and threatened legal action. (The Chic team ended up with writing credits and substantial royalties.) Listening to “Rapper’s Delight” today is a wistful experience—its exuberant warmth and optimism (“Guess what, America? We love you”) is long in the rearview.

 

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