Tuesday, June 17, 2008

North to Alaska,
East to Harlem

Gladys Knight
& the Pips,
Claudine &

Pipe Dreams:

Shout! Factory


How can I work out this sweet relation?
-- "Mr. Welfare Man" (Claudine)

It isn't impossible to evaluate a soundtrack when you aren't
familiar with the film—I've done it plenty of times in the past—
but it's a compromise at best without the accompanying narrative
to provide the proper context. In this case, I haven't seen either
Claudine or Pipe Dreams, the sweet music from which has
been combined by Shout! Factory onto one compact disc.

Released in 1974, the former revolves around a single Harlem
mother of six (Oscar nominee Diahann Carroll) and the
garbage man who steals her heart (James Earl Jones).

Though he doesn't lend his
mellifluous vocals to the mix,
Curtis Mayfield wrote and
produced the score, setting
socially conscious lyrics to
mid-tempo funk and string-
saturated soul (both sound-
tracks were originally issued by Buddha Records).

Separately, "On and On" and "Make Yours a Happy Home"
landed at #2 on the Hot Soul chart. In addition, Knight
and the Pips cover Mayfield's "The Makings of You"
(from his 1970 debut, Curtis) and the Ralph Ellison-in-
spired "To Be Invisible" (from 1974's Sweet Exorcist).

That said, the Claudine soundtrack seems likely to please fans
of Knight more than Mayfield for the simple reason that the
lady's fine voice takes center stage (and seems to echo director
John Berry's emphasis on Carroll's Claudine over Jones's Roop).

"Hold On," in particular, shows how down and dirty Knight could
get given the right material. The Pips, on the other hand, sound
flyweight, but then that was the quartet's formula: female grit
tempered by male gloss, an inversion of the usual equation.

In the liner notes,
Knight reminisces,
"We did that album
in a weekend! Cur-
tis had in mind the
songs he wanted to
do, but he was literal-
ly writing as we were
recording. We lived in
that studio [referring
to Curtom in Chicago].
We had our food brought in. We slept there."

By contrast, Pipe Dreams, soundtrack to the 1976 pipeline
picture starring Knight and husband Barry Hankerson, covers
more ground, but Dreams was considered a dud (since I grew
up in Alaska, however, I've always been curious about it).

In the liner notes, A. Scott Galloway reveals that
Knight neglects to even mention the film in her auto-
biography, Between Each Line of Pain and Glory.

Heavily-orchestrated top 20 soul tune "So Sad the Song"
(written by Gerry Goffin and Michael Masser from Diana
Ross's Mahogany hit "Do You Know Where You're Going
To") and "Follow My Dreams" (Reverend James Cleve-
land) witness Knight going for a soaring Barbara Streis-
and sound (circa "The Way We Were," a song Knight
and the Pips would cover that same year), but oth-
er selections retain more of Claudine's earthiness.

Set to a jaunty piano mel-
ody, "Pot of Jazz" (Ivory
Joe Hunter) almost sounds
like an outtake from Out-
kast's criminally under-
rated Idlewild (granted,
the soundtrack didn't do
poorly, but too few peop-
le actually caught the duo's prohibition-era musical).

Other songwriters include Pip Merald "Bubba" Knight, Tony Camillo, J. & M. Spikes, and Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill.

For followers of Gladys Knight and the Pips, Claudine &
Pipe Dreams marks an essential purchase, but the 16-track
CD (14 vocals plus two instrumentals) serves just as well as
an introduction for new or curious listeners, particularly
those who only know the group from the top 10 pop
and soul sensation "Midnight Train to Georgia."

Endnote: By coincidence, I recently picked up the remastered Superfly soundtrack (as a kid, I played my dad's record all the time). The irony is that Claudine was conceived as a response to blaxploitation films like Superfly, yet Mayfield composed both.

He was also behind the scores for 1975's Let's Do It Again, 1976's Sparkle, and 1977's Short Eyes. The liners reproduce a story he related to Rolling Stone in 1993, "One time I was in downtown Chicago, and right on State Street, three of my movies were playing at the same time. And they had my name on all the marquees, lined up. It was quite a sight to see."

Images from Amazon, The Cocoa Lounge, Kalamu,
and Martini and Jopparelli's Music Selections.

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