Wilbur White was a nightclub singer on the South Side of Chicago whose bluesy growl wielded so much power that he was nicknamed Hi-Fi. He’d been in the clubs since the 1950s, and although I hear he put on a knockout of a show, that never translated into record sales. Speaking of knockouts, he played bit roles on Sanford & Son and in the boxing-in-prison movie Penitentiary (1979). In the film, he was cast as the gap-toothed Sweet Pea. Behind the scenes, the film was so under-budget that White took initiative and collected food stamps from cast and crew, becoming the production’s official caterer. He fed over one hundred actors and technical staffers for the final week of shooting. That’s good ol’ Chicago can-do!
here’s a clip of perhaps his signature number, Bulldog.
and here’s the trailer for the film:
NOTE: view the comments on this post for first hand stories and recollections…
The year was 1972. The Year of his “Superfly” soundtrack (arguably, one of the best albums ever to come out of Chicago), and Curtis Mayfield could do no wrong…including this record, produced by Mayfield (and arranged by Rich Tufo). A sixteen year old Nashvillian named Patti Jo says to some Cassanova, “ain’t no love lost“. A monster record, then and now. Manic congas, soaring strings, symphonic piano chords, and a pulsing guitar echo the very best that the Superfly soundtrack had to offer (but “Lost” was never released on any album). Two years later, Curtis recorded his own version of the song. Unbelievably, neither made any impact on the charts of the time. In fact, I went through some serious changes to get this original 45 single.
NOTE: I’ve heard multiple (reputable) accounts that Curtis Mayfield wrote the soundtrack for Superfly before he saw the completed movie, and didn’t know that the film glorified a drugged-out, masochistic lifestyle. This may explain why the soundtrack is so against drug abuse. Rolling Stone’s Bob Donat actually said in a 1972 review of the album, that “the anti-drug message on [Mayfield’s soundtrack] is far stronger and more definite than in the film.”
I will start with the disclaimer: I am not really a blaxploitation film lover. I’m a lover of their funky romps-of-soundtracks. That said, I dig Shaft in Africa despite its more reserved soundtrack. Why? It’s titled Shaft…..in Africa! Not only Africa, but, specifically, Ethiopia… a country that holds a lot of romance for me because its people fought colonization (and won) in a time when Africa was being sliced up like hot apple pie.
Fast forward sixty years to this film. Shaft’s mission is to break up a human trafficking ring luring young Africans to Paris. Starring (former Ebony-Jet Fashion Fair model) Richard Roundtree and Vonetta McKee,Shaft in Africa (1973) also encompasses a love storyline between Shaft and Aleme. Lovely as McKee is in this film, amazing scenes of both Paris in the 70s and Ethiopia are enough reason to snatch up a copy of this film.
One of my favorite touches to this film is the Capoiera-styled fight scenes and the 007-outfitted wooden staff that Shaft uses when he goes undercover: the staff has a built-in camera and anything else he may need. It’s like James Bond, but he gets dirty…. and I like it.
One note about the soundtrack: the theme song was recorded by the 4 Tops (“Are You Man Enough”) and the soundtrack was composed by Chicago’s own Johnny Pate. Pate was the arranger for most of the early work by the Impressions and the man who Curtis Mayfield relied on as a orchestrator/arranger for years. In fact in Rolling Stone’s 1972 review of the Superfly soundtrack, Bob Donat stated,
“…equal credit of course goes to arranger – orchestrator and long-time Mayfield collaborator Johnny Pate, who’s written charts for Curtis and the Impressions since the “Gypsy Woman” days.”
I had a recent conversation with a friend in which I said I’m sorry that tourists miss out on the Other Chicago, the part I can’t live without:
Driving down Lake Street. Waiting in line FOREVER for a Rainbow Cone. The Garfield Park Fieldhouse presenting as a tiny gold speck on the horizon westbound down Madison. All the neighborhood murals. Anyway, this reminded me of my intent to see a film called The Architect (2006). It is a movie shot here in Chicago that I completely missed. Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Viola Davis, Isabella Rossellini and Hayden Panettiere , LaPaglia’s character is an Architect who is confronted by residents of the Housing Projects he designed. Drama ensues. Click here for the trailer.
Yeah, I said it. Angela Bassett, Terence Howard, dude from Welcome Back, KotterLawrence Hilton-Jacobs, etc., in the story of Gary, Indiana’s most famous sons (and daughters). I recently pulled out my (second) dub of this. It’s a textbook cult classic: lines you can’t forget, larger than life characters… and untouchably-dope music. Since I couldn’t make it to London to snag tickets to the gloved one’s “final” tour, this will have to suffice. Below is that scene when Katherine finds Joseph’s been cheating. You know what’s next. She don’t wont him, she don’t wont him, she don’t wont him no mo’…..
Coke bottles clanging together, the sound ringing down a dark, wet alley. A voice calls out menacingly:
“Warriors…. Come out and Play-yay…..”
The Warriors (1979) is many things. It is a classical Epic tale (like Homer’s Odyssey). It is a pulpy cult classic with a look all its own (co-starring the New York Transit System and a bunch of dudes on rollerskates). It is a gangland movie. It is a spectacle.
Picture New York in the Late 1970s, poster child of ‘urban decay’. Now picture a late night meeting of every Gangmember from all five boroughs. In that meeting, a gangland kingpin named Cyrus (attempting to unite the Gangs of New York into one indomitable threat), is assassinated by an unknown assailant. Somehow, one member of the Warriors is fingered. Suddenly, the hunt is on to wipe them off the map, and their struggle becomes making it to their home turf (Coney Island) by daybreak. This becomes horribly difficult as night progresses, and gangs come out of the woodwork to avenge the death of Cyrus. Super-fun, no wonder it was made into a video game. Each gang rumble plays out like a “level”. In the final scene, with Coney Island Beach as a backdrop, everything comes to a head.
NOTE:In real life, Coney Island (gritty neon playground of New York [and homebase of the Warriors]) has had its future in jeopardy. Mayor Bloomberg plans to destroy what is there and create a squeaky-clean remake of the island a’la the Times Square revamp. Click here to learn about the campaign to take the grit out of Coney Island (and the community-based backlash).
Another NOTE: You can catch “The Warriors” on the big screen March 6 & 7th (this Friday and Saturday) at the Music Box Theatre (3700 North on Southport, accessible via the CTA Brown Line) at Midnight.
Monkey Hustle is a blaxploitation film shot in Chicago in the 70s (a rarity, in that regard), around the same time as Cooley High. Mainly shot around 63rd Street, East of the Dan Ryan (the Woodlawn Neighborhood), and various West Side locations, the city figures prominently in the overall vibe of the film. Starring in Monkey Hustle are (among others): Yaphet Kotto as a small-time hustler/love interest of the lovely Rosalind Cash, and a very young Debbi Morgan as Cash’s daughter.
Cash runs the local teenage hangout. As the neighborhood hero/big-time hustler, we have Rudy Ray Moore (who is also Cash’s alternate love interest). The other major character is Win, Debbi Morgan’s love interest who, despite showing promise for bigger things, dips deeper and deeper into the “Monkey Hustle” with Kotto.
The overlying plot is fairly pointed: The city government is pushing ahead on plans to construct an expressway on land currently occupied by the neighborhood (which was actually happening in real-life Chicago… remember the plans for that “Crosstown Expressway“?). Ultimately the set-up becomes ‘the hustle must go on to save the community (by any means necessary)’. Overall, a message movie with too many competing angles. But fun for the shots of Chicago (and the girl fight).
“Killer of Sheep caught the lives of the children with a fidelity to how kids really do fight, play, and cry — and how they can sometimes be cruel simply because they’re so scared.” — ROGER EBERT
“If Killer of Sheep were an Italian film from 1953, we would have every scene memorized.” — MICHAEL TOLKIN, SCREENWRITER
This is perhaps my favorite cult classic movie of all. With very sparse dialogue, and a 1950s R&B soundtrack, the film is most telling through the soulful, grey images it engrains in viewers’ hearts: a herd of brown children, running in a dusty, vacant lot, dwarfed by dark, stoic palm trees; or a little girl clinging to a cyclone fence, face hidden by a grotesque rubber mask. Killer of Sheep records mid-70s Watts through Stan, “a sensitive dreamer who is growing detached and numb from the psychic toll of working at a slaughterhouse”, according to killerofsheep.com. “Frustrated by money problems, he finds respite in moments of simple beauty: the warmth of a coffee cup against his cheek, slow dancing with his wife in the living room, holding his daughter”. One day Stan conjures up one more plan, one more dream… to make a better life for his family, but to what avail?
Killer of Sheep absolutely breaks your heart and rouses your senses, as well.
Curtis Mayfield performing “We the People” and “Gimme Your Love”, plus archival tape of folks vibin’ in various Chicago parks back-in-the-day. From the classic film “Save the Children” (1972). The film chronicled PUSH Expo ’72 (at the International Amphitheatre** in Chicago), touted as the biggest gathering of black business in history. When black power was green!
from TIME magazine:
Black Expo in Chicago
Monday October, 11, 1971
“Black Expo in Chicago Black Expo was billed as the largest gathering of black businessmen in history. When the five-day trade fair opened in Chicago last week, there were representatives of nearly 400 black firms on hand to prove the premise. But before the week was out, Black Expo proved to be more than a display of the products of America’s fledgling black capitalism. It turned out to be an unofficial convention of entrepreneurs and politicians in search of power at the polls as well as in the marketplace.
the Rev. Jesse Jackson, black businessmen from 40 states gave their backing to Jackson’s assertion that economic development —”green power”—is the way to black power. Self-sufficiency, Jackson said during the opening-day ceremonies, is the first step in breaking out of the ghetto. Said Jackson: “We do not want a welfare state. We have potential. We can produce. We can feed ourselves.” Despite the enthusiastic speeches, however, black capitalism is still in an initial stage of development. Aware of that, Jackson proposed a “domestic Marshall Plan” to help black neighborhoods develop their economic potential….”
**the Ampitheatre was also where the Democratic National Convention took place (in 1968) as well as countless concerts.
(runtime 00:16:16) Produced by the University of California at Los Angeles, Extension Media Center, and Directed by Richard Wells. This is a beautifully raw short film shot in 1971. The opening scene portrays kids, fresh out of high school, but already short on hope. The public domain film presents the first-person experiences of a black teenager coming up in Watts whose brother is in a soul band. He expresses his views on ‘the System’, education, war, drugs, revolution, his community, the Black Panther Party, and the police.