Monday, November 05, 2007
The Forevers - Soultown
This weekend I saw the new movie American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, which is the story of Frank Lucas, a black crime boss of the '60s and early '70s who managed to build his Harlem empire around "Blue Magic," a potent type of heroin that he arranged to have smuggled from Southeast Asia on U.S. Army cargo planes during the Vietnam War. Both lead actors turned in excellent performances, as expected, but Washington's portrayal of Lucas as more of a charismatic businessman than as a crime boss was very effective, and quite a few members of the full-house audience at the cinema openly rooted for Lucas despite the clear fact that his efficient network and profitable product clearly contributed to the devastation of many lives and the community in which he operated.
Of course, this type of anti-hero was not a foreigner to black moviegoers of the time period in which the movie was set, as movies like Superfly and The Mack, just to name two, presented strong images of the black underworld that have lasted to the present day. The soundtracks to such films were often big sellers, with Curtis Mayfield's score to Superfly and Isaac Hayes' Shaft leading the way. Other artists, writers and producers, seeing the hit potential of such material, started dipping into what I'll call "cinematic soul" - hightly-orchestrated material featuring socially-conscious lyrics reflecting the bleaker side of black urban life. Naturally Marvin Gaye's early '70s work fits in this mold, as does tunes like Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City" and scores of other tunes. Today's selection is more of a rarity. The Forevers recorded the very atmospheric "Soultown" for Weis, a Chicago-based label that was distributed for a period by Stax Records. "Soultown" manages to be both cheerful, thanks to its great groove and arrangement (I love the strings in the choruses and the strong female lead vocals), but also dark. Although "Soultown" almost sounds like a song of pride, it's a great bookend to a tune like Isaac Hayes' "Soulville" (from the Shaft soundtrack), providing a litany of various problems that exist, in no small part due to people like Frank Lucas!