Graded on a Curve: Pimps, Players &
Private Eyes

Compiled and produced by Ice-T and Jorge Hinojosa, the 1992 collection Pimps, Players & Private Eyes offered a healthy dose of full-bodied and progressive ‘70s Soul culled from the frequently-elusive soundtracks of an oft-maligned film genre, and it functioned simultaneously as a history lesson and a fountain of deep groove. Issued in multiple formats (though apparently not 8-track tape), its judiciously chosen 10 songs fit perfectly on a trim vinyl record.

The track-list of Pimps, Players & Private Eyes features no duds. But just as importantly it holds three standouts; their strategic placement seals the LP’s worth and makes the integrity of the compilers abundantly clear. To some this might not seem like a big deal. I can only assume those who feel that way have little or no experience getting stuck with compilations that appear to contain great potential but are ultimately revealed as major disappointments.

Stuffed with second-rate cuts randomly sequenced, records of this nature can often end up taunting the owner through the bogus claims of enticing sleeve design. That Pimps, Players & Private Eyes’ jacket is an utter beauty exuding no false promise obviously increases the robustness of the situation, but its greatest strength is derived from the varied concision of its revelatory offerings.

Or more accurately, revelations once offered, for nearly all of the soundtracks excerpted here have seen subsequent reissue. Additionally, within a few short years of this album’s release, the majority of the movies could be purchased or rented fairly easily as a byproduct of the VHS retail boom. But in ’92, as part of the then (and to an extent, still) disreputable action/grindhouse Blaxploitation phenomenon, videotapes of Across 110th Street were scarce (at least in my neighborhood), as were copies of the movie’s soundtrack.

In fact, even though Bobby Womack & Peace’s title-song was a sizeable R&B hit in 1973, its inclusion on Pimps, Players & Private Eyes served as this writer’s introduction to the tune. And it’s an exquisite hunk of Soul artistry, teaming-up instrumental backing of dynamic precision with lush but non-syrupy strings, though the cut’s strongest facet is easily Womack’s distinctive vocal qualities as he expresses subject-matter of considerable emotional weight. It’s really no surprise that Quentin Tarantino recycled it for Jackie Brown.

And it combines extremely well with the raw and at times disturbing power of the film. Directed with impressive economy by relative unknown Barry Shear and starring Yaphet Kotto and Anthony Quinn, Across 110th Street handily refutes the stereotypes of artistic bankruptcy that still occasionally get attached to Blaxploitation, though the movie’s so grim and nastily violent (the currently available version has a key scene removed) in a thoroughly ‘70s manner that many will miss its substantial achievement.

As one of the three standouts previously mentioned, “Across 110th Street” sets the LP onto a very strong course, and while “Make a Resolution” from the (post-Curtis Mayfield) Impressions doesn’t retain that standard, it’s still a very likeable effort, blending soulful vocal harmony with nifty hand-drums and production strategies reminiscent of late-‘60s Motown (i.e. lots of strings and an absence of horns.)

The modest charms of “Make a Resolution” accompanied ’74’s Gordon Parks Jr.-directed Three the Hard Way, and in terms of quality it’s a good match. Unlikely to be anybody’s favorite picture in the genre, Three the Hard Way does remain a solid action flick nicely exceeding its function as a star vehicle for Fred “The Hammer” Williamson, Jim Brown, and Jim Kelly.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for ‘73’s Shaft in Africa, the third film based around the character (played by Richard Roundtree) that helped to launch the whole Blaxploitation shebang (though both Ozzie Davis’ critically esteemed and commercially successful Chester Himes-adaptation Cotton Comes to Harlem from ’70 and Melvin Van Peebles’ still compelling X-Rated polemic Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song from ’71 preceded Gordon Parks Sr.’s Shaft.)

Helmed by British journeyman John Guillermin, Shaft in Africa is a prime example of Hollywood milking a cash-cow until it lows in pain (directly following this misfire was a short-lived TV series and much later a Samuel Jackson-starring sequel), and the most positive aspect of the film’s existence is easily The Four Tops’ #2 R&B hit “Are You Man Enough?”

If “Make a Resolution” is a sturdy approximation of late Motown, “Are You Man Enough?” is straight from the source, though it can be fairly assessed as the studio operating on auto-pilot. That means it hits all the spots, but it’s also not amongst the company’s highpoints. Much closer to that standard is the next track, Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man,” which gave the title-song to Ivan Dixon’s ’72 Motown-funded Shaft knock-off.

Trouble Man is essentially a forgotten film, but Gaye’s soundtrack, which fell in between What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On in his discography as he followed Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield into the realms of movie scoring, stands as a rather underrated album. The most immediately striking aspect of the tune included here is its production, which differs sharply from the string-based early-‘70s R&B norm.

Instead, Gaye pursues a humid mid-tempo with a bluesy pulse and an eclectic, jazz-informed arrangement, and the whole is unlike anything else on this compilation. It serves as an excellent prelude to the LP’s second standout cut and side one’s closer, the masterful “Theme from Shaft.” A clinic in both compositional and performance terms, it merges Hayes’ Stax Records’ background with movie studio resources, and the result is a song that’s steeped in funk and yet as large as a score from Mancini or Herrmann.

Wildly copied (and parodied) since, there really wasn’t anything else like it around at the time except for Hayes’ own ’69 bombshell Hot Buttered Soul (Motown’s use of strings, up to that point anyway, was decidedly different.) It was also massively popular, with used copies of the original Enterprise 2LP plentiful in the bins for decades afterward. Furthermore, Shaft became one of the most important films of the ‘70s.

Importance doesn’t necessarily equate to greatness, though. Gordon Parks Sr.’s picture holds up very well, but it’s also something less than a masterpiece, with the elements of Hollywood prestige weakening its genre potency. I much prefer Jack Starrett’s rough-edged but intelligent Cleopatra Jones from ’73, and side two of Pimps, Players & Private Eyes opens with Millie Jackson’s contribution to that film, “Love Doctor.”

As the only female contributor on the LP, Jackson instantly stands apart, and her uptempo number’s mixture of grit and polish stakes-out ground halfway between Memphis and Philadelphia. “Love Doctor” is a treat, though it’s admittedly on the lighter side of this record’s spectrum. Leaning toward the opposite is Willie Hutch’s steamy “I Choose You” from the Michael Campus-directed ’73 classic The Mack starring Max Julian and Richard Pryor.

Taking instrumental influence from Hot Buttered Soul as Hutch hits vocal spots reflecting Mayfield and Al Green, “I Choose You” is strong work from the only artist to get two selections on the disc. Between them is O.C. Smith’s “Blowin’ Your Mind,” a song deliberately derivative of “Theme from Shaft,” which in this instance is no crime since it derives from the series’ initial sequel, Parks Sr.’s Shaft’s Big Score from ’72.

The major difference is that while “Theme from Shaft” connects like it was recorded at Stax, “Blowin’ Your Mind” sounds like it was taped in a tool-shed on the outskirts of Chattanooga. This is not a putdown. I dig the mess of emphatically-blown trumpet, a few of the odd lyrical couplets and especially the truly nasty drum beat that culminates the tune. And I also dig Shaft’s Big Score more than Shaft; it’s a rare second installment that’s preferable to its inspiration.

Willie Hutch returns with “Theme of Foxy Brown,” the lesser of his two contributions, though it’s also endearingly stuffed with content in a manner appropriate to an exploitation picture. Many Blaxploitation movies are wrongly tagged as being exploitive in nature, but Foxy Brown, directed by one of the exploitation film’s true vets Jack Hill (responsible for the oddly disturbing Spider Baby, the crafty Pit Stop, the knowingly noxious The Big Bird Cage, and the alternately fascinating and flummoxing Switchblade Sisters) can’t be categorized as anything else.

“Theme of Foxy Brown” feels like it was conceived and recorded in a day or less, and frankly this is an unusual atmosphere for Soul/R&B, particularly from the ‘70s. Between its full speed ahead, no second guessing aura and the sheer perfectionism of Curtis Mayfield’s gemlike closer “Pusherman,” there’s no sharper contrast on the LP. The last of Pimps, Players & Private Eyes’ standout songs, “Pusherman” contributes to Super Fly, one of the ‘70s best albums and also one of finest soundtracks in film history.

Gordon Parks Jr.’s emotionally complex film is also one of the strongest entries in the field, but it can’t but pale next to its score, a record that found Mayfield at the absolute top of his game. If there is one release featured here that’s truly indispensible, Super Fly is it. However, Pimps, Players & Private Eyes isn’t the last word on Blaxploitation soundtracks. For instance, nothing from James Brown’s brilliant score to Larry Cohen’s splendid Black Caesar is included here, an omission I can only chalk up to rights issues. Because there’s simply no way Ice-T and Jorge Hinojosa don’t love Black Caesar.

But in ’92, this album was essentially the first word in Blaxploitation for a younger generation of budding music nuts and emerging cinephiles. The eventual deluge of OST reissues has surely tempered its thunder, but Pimps, Players & Private Eyes still sounds fantastic. And spinning it again inspired me to dig out some battered old VHS tapes from the closet. Next stop: Hell up in Harlem!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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