Any discussion of the Blaxploitation genre has to include the amazing music that accompanied the films. While a lot of the soundtracks and songs were just incredibly fun and inventive, a handful went way beyond that and allowed the composers to comment not only on their own lives but also at times the films themselves. Curtis Mayfield’s legendary SUPERFLY soundtrack is probably the most well known example, but I would like to nominate Bobby Womack’s searing socio-political statement ACROSS 110TH STREET as the finest.
Cleveland born Womack first came into prominence for his work with the great Sam Cooke in the early part of the sixties. He scored a hit with his Womack Brothers combo on the song IT’S ALL OVER NOW (later covered by The Rolling Stones) and by the end of the sixties he was recording a series of extraordinary solo albums that would produce two of the periods great masterpieces, 1971’s COMMUNICATION and 1972’s UNDERSTANDING.
It was his work on these two albums that brought him to the attention United Artists who were in the process of creating one of the most stirring films of the blaxploitation genre, Barry Shear’s art house action film ACROSS 110TH STREET.
Shear’s film, starring Anthony Quinn, Tony Franciosa, and Yaphet Kotto is one of the most searing works of the seventies. The film, a powerful indictment of the political climate that help create inner city ghettos, needed a soundtrack that could be commercially successful for the studio but also supply the necessary political firepower to match what was on the screen.
The films score was handed to J.J. Johnson and Womack was brought on board to pen and sing the film’s title track. Womack ended up delivering five songs for the film, and they took up half the original soundtrack album that accompanied it. It would be the devastating title track that would be the most notable though, and it remains one of the most important musical statements of the seventies.
Womack’s angry lament for a country covered in government created ghettos is absolutely chilling, and the punch it manages to pack in just over three minutes is frankly astonishing.
Beginning with a strange instrumental intro consisting of a keyboard synthesizer, bass, acoustic guitars and tambourine, Womack comes in with the heavy background orchestration with one of the most soulful wordless vocal intros ever recorded. The band behind him suddenly starts to swing as the first lyrics begin,
“I was the third brother of five doing whatever I had to do to survive,
I’m not saying what I did was alright, trying to break out of the ghetto was a day to day fight.”
Immediately Womack alerts us that this song is going to be an epic on par with Mayfield’s SUPERFLY material or Stevie Wonder’s INNERVISIONS. He continues with,
“Been down so long that getting up never crossed my mind, I knew there was a better way of life that I was just trying to find.”
Like Mayfield, Womack dealt in characters looking to escape, but who are constantly being held down by their seemingly unbeatable circumstances. The character at this point admits,
“You don’t know what you’ll do when your put under pressure, across 110th Street is a hell of a tester.”
After this bracing opening we get our first listen to the song’s masterful chorus, with its breathtakingly sweeping string section and Womack’s band kicking into double time with some of the funkiest grooves ever laid down on vinyl. It is Womack’s lyrics though that provides the real soul of the piece as he exclaims frantically,
“Across 110th Street, Pimps trying to catch a woman that’s weak.
Across 110th Street, Pushers won’t let the junkie go free.
Across 110th Street, Woman trying to catch a trick on the street.
Across 110th Street, You can find it all in the street.”
It’s a grouping of lines that would have been right at home in the works of Hubert Selby. Womack creates a scene filled with pushers and pimps, junkies and prostitutes…and they are all trapped in the hand of this invisible strong arm that refuses to relinquish its grip.
The chorus crashes into one of the most thrilling bridges I have ever heard before suddenly we are hearing the songs opening again, with Womack’s soulful voice reminding us without words that he is telling us a circular story without an end. It’s a thrilling moment and it sounds like the song is coming to a close just two minutes in when Womack suddenly cuts in with,
‘I got one more thing I’d like to talk to Y’all about right now.”
He pauses then delivers a strong warning to his characters and to anyone listening,
“Hey brother, there’s a better way out. Snorting that coke, shooting that dope man you’re copping out.
Take my advice, it’s either live or die. You’ve got to be strong if you want to survive.” It’s a surprising message for a genre known for supposedly romanticizing the gangster lifestyle, but it is the following lines that deliver the most shocking blow the poetic Womack had to offer.
“The family on the other side of town would catch hell without a ghetto around.
In every city you find the same thing going down, Harlem is the capital of every ghetto town.”
Bob Dylan had been one of Womack’s heroes and in this short couplet Womack equals the master’s greatest protest work from the sixties. He takes the rather subtle message of the film and bravely shoves it strongly in the face of everyone listening. It’s an eerie and quite audacious moment that fits an entire book of urban economics and social anthropology into two of the angriest sentences in all of modern music.
Lyrically the song ends there…where else can it go? The chorus repeats as the music becomes more and more charged before finally slowing down and crashing into the opening moments again…a move that suggests in no simple terms that the story Womack is weaving is never ending, it’s just a cycle that repeats over and over again.
ACROSS 110th STREET is one of the great songs from any genre you care to name. Anyone who suggests that popular music can’t be intelligent and brave should be locked into a room with it. It would make the film even more politically charged with two separate versions of it appearing on the album, and it became a top twenty hit in 1973.
The song’s journey didn’t end there though. Another one of Womack’s musical heroes, Elvis Presley, became obsessed with the film and song. It recalled his own IN THE GHETTO and he was known to recite the entire movie line for line many times to his friends throughout the seventies.
Quentin Tarantino was just ten years old when Womack’s track was climbing the tracks. He would hear the song as a teenager and he thankfully never got it out of head. He would use it to devastating effect in the opening and closing of JACKIE BROWN, which introduced an entire new generation to it. The song recently appeared again in Ridley Scott’s AMERICAN GANGSTER, a film focused on a character that seems taken directly out of Womack’s passionate lament.
Bobby Womack’s ACROSS 110TH STREET can be heard on a number of best of collections. It can also be heard on the soundtracks of the films mentioned above. It’s a brave and unforgettable piece of music that I highly recommend for anyone who doesn’t have it already in his or her collection.