Soundtrack of the 1970s: Shaft, Car Wash, and The Jeffersons

By Sean Yoes
Special to the AFRO

A significant chapter in the history of Black American culture was the so-called “Blaxploitation” era of American film anchored mainly in the 1970’s. And of course a big part of any movie, especially a Black movie is the soundtrack, the music. But, Blaxploitation was not limited to the big screen; there were plenty of Blaxploitation, or stereotypical Black themed television shows of the 1970’s as well. And most of them counted on a dope Black theme song to set the tone each week we tuned in. Here are some of the favorite Black themed soundtracks and theme songs of the 1970’s.

Shaft (1971)

One of the greatest soundtracks ever produced for one of the seminal and best Blaxploitation films of all-time. The movie was directed by Gordon Parks Sr., who tapped the great Issac Hayes to craft the soundtrack. And the man who came to prominence as a Soul demi-god at Stax Records in Memphis did not disappoint.

(Classic Film/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0)

Super Fly (1972)

Another essential film offering of the Blaxploitation era was Super Fly, directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. Legend has it that when the sensational Curtis Mayfield got the call to deliver the soundtrack he took the task so seriously, that his effort significantly outshone the film it was made for. The end result for Mayfield on his third studio album after leaving the Impressions was a musical masterpiece.

The theme from Baretta (1975) 

Baretta, starring Robert Blake, was an American detective television series that ran from 1975-1978, on ABC. Blake played detective Tony Baretta, a hard-nosed, but affable plainclothes detective, working in an unnamed grimy American city. Of course there is an ethnically eclectic supporting cast of characters, including a Black pimp named “Rooster” (played by Michael D. Roberts). And the theme song for the show, “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” was performed by arguably the greatest all-around entertainer of the 20th century, Sammy Davis Jr.

Which Way Is Up? (1977)

Which Way Is Up?, a comedy starring Richard Pryor and Lonette McKee, was a remake of a 1972, Italian comedy The Seduction of Mimi. Generally, the film couldn’t boast of an outstanding soundtrack. However, the main theme “Which Way Is Up?,” written by music super producer Norman Whitfield, produced by Mark Davis and performed by the all-female group Stargard was a Disco/Funk tour de force. Stargard consisted of Rochelle Runnels, Debra Anderson and Janice Williams and Which Way Is Up?, was by far the biggest hit of their career.

(Courtesy of Amazon)

Car Wash (1976)

Car Wash was another comedy starring Richard Pryor, perhaps the funniest man to ever walk the planet. The movie also starred another man who some argue could hold that title, George Carlin. The movie also had a spectacular soundtrack (it won a Grammy in 1977 for Best Score Soundtrack Album) with most of the songs written and produced by Norman Whitfield, who was the producer for the talented R&B band Rose Royce, who performed the movie’s main theme.

From the rhythmic hand claps, to the syncopated guitar, to the soaring strings, the theme from Car Wash (with a sparkling lead vocal by Gwen Dickey) was a disco wonderland. The soundtrack produced three Top 10 Singles: the aforementioned “Car Wash,” “I Want to Get Next to You,” and “I’m Going Down,” all performed by Rose Royce.

The Sanford and Son theme (1972)

If you are Black you loved Sanford and Son, the NBC situation comedy that ran from 1972 to 1977, and chronicled the life and times of Fred G. Sanford, the crotchety and hilarious South Central L.A. junk dealer and his son Lamont. The truth is if you love to laugh, you loved Sanford and Son, period. And a lot of people also loved the show’s opening theme, the quirky instrumental produced by arguably the greatest Popular music producer in American history, Quincy Jones. The Theme from Sanford and Son (actually called “The Streetbeater”) was one of a litany of themes for television shows composed by the indefatigable Jones and that list included: Ironside, The Bill Cosby Show, Banacek, the opening episode of Roots and others.

Trouble Man (1972)

Some would say Trouble Man, starring Robert Hooks, was a low-rent version of Shaft, (although Trouble Man was set in South Central L.A., instead of Harlem) which had been produced a year earlier. But, there was nothing low-rent about the soundtrack produced and performed by the incomparable Marvin Gaye. Released in December 1972, it was the 12th studio album for one of the greatest singer/songwriters of the 20th century. The Trouble Man album, which followed the groundbreaking What’s Going On, was a hit for Gaye. And the soundtrack was well-received critically, with many comparing the effort to those of Mayfield (Super Fly) and Hayes (Shaft). But, it was the first and last soundtrack Gaye ever produced.

The Good Times theme (1974)

One of the most popular television sitcoms in history, Good Times ran for six seasons from 1974-1979 on CBS. The show followed the urban adventures of the Evans family: James the patriarch, his wife Florida, their children Thelma, Micheal and J.J., and their nosey neighbor Willona. Despite the often harrowing circumstances of life in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago’s Southside, the tight-knit Evans family always managed to laugh and see the bright side. And that attitude was certainly reflected in the upbeat and optimistic show theme, one of the most popular sit-com themes of all-time. The gospel-styled (which featured a gospel choir singing the chorus) Good Times theme was composed by Grammy award-winning jazz composer Dave Grusin. 

Claudine (1974)

The producers of Claudine, the romantic comedy-drama that starred two powerhouse dramatic performers Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, also joined two powerhouse musical performers Curtis Mayfield and Gladys Knight to create the film’s legendary soundtrack. 

The Claudine soundtrack was produced by Curtis Mayfield (who had received four Grammy nominations for his work on the Super Fly soundtrack) and the music was performed by Gladys Knight and the Pips, one of the most popular R&B groups of the time. The album reached the top of the Soul Album chart and featured three extraordinary tracks: “Make Yours a Happy Home,” “On and On” and the beautiful ballad, “The Makings of You.” The album was a significant hit for both Gladys Knight and the Pips and Mayfield, two of the most formidable music artists of the time.

That’s the Way of the World (1975)

That’s the Way of the World, produced and directed by Sig Shore was a somewhat forgettable film about the music business. But, the soundtrack for the film produced and performed by Earth, Wind and Fire became one of the most unforgettable albums of the 1970’s or any decade.

The film actually starred the legendary band, as well as the iconic character actor Harvey Keitel. The movie was a box office flop, but the album is certified Triple Platinum, named one of the 500 greatest albums of all-time by Rolling Stone and arguably the greatest album in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame career of Earth, Wind and Fire.

(Courtesy of TV Guide)

The Jeffersons theme (1975)

The Jeffersons ran for 11 seasons on CBS from 1975 to 1985, and was one of the most popular sitcoms in television history and the second longest-running American series with a majority Black cast. And the theme from the Jeffersons “Movin’ On Up” may have even been more popular than the show itself. Ironically, the theme was co-written and primarily performed by Ja’net DuBois, who starred in Good Times, another popular Black sitcom with a very popular theme song. Some of the lyrics are forever etched in the pop culture pantheon:

“Now we’re up in the big leagues
Getting our turn at bat
As long as we live, it’s you and me baby
There ain’t nothin’ wrong with that

Well, we’re moving on up to the East side
To a deluxe apartment in the sky
Moving on up to the East side
We finally got a piece of the pie”

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Sean Yoes

AFRO Baltimore Editor