How Melvin Van Peebles Gave Earth, Wind & Fire a Big Break

Melvin Van Peebles in 1971
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Pix/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles, one of the most important Black filmmakers of the '70s, died on Sept. 22 at 89 years old. Van Peebles' breakthrough, 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, was a watershed in the genre that would become known as blaxploitation; eschewing the Hollywood system entirely, Melvin wrote, directed, edited and starred in the film, which would transcend its modest $150,000 budget (earning some $15 million at the box office) and be hailed by both the Black Panthers and the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.

But Sweet Sweetback was a victory for one of the biggest soul acts in the '70s, too - the film's soundtrack offered early exposure for Earth, Wind & Fire, and helped set a template for a new kind of sound on screen.

READ MORE: Keep Your Head to the Sky: Maurice White's Biggest Hits with Earth, Wind & Fire

At the time, EWF were between recording their first two albums: a self-titled debut and follow-up The Need of Love. (The band looked and sounded very different at the time: only Maurice White and his brother, bassist Verdine, would remain in the group as they increasingly earned success as a pop act.) The band was approached after Van Peebles' secretary, who was dating one of the members, suggested he give them a shot.

The extremely resourceful Van Peebles had already devised basic themes for the film, despite having no musical background - he numbered keys on a piano to remember what the tunes in his head went like - and believed Earth, Wind & Fire were the ones to flesh out his ideas. "Melvin had melodies and groove ideas about how he wanted the music to feel," Maurice explained in his memoir. "He projected clips from the film he had already shot onto a wall in the studio. The engineer pressed record, and we played along to the clips." The band had a finished album in two days.

The filmmaker believed the music would not only enhance his final film, but help expose audiences to it, too. "Most filmmakers look at a feature in terms of image and story or vice versa," Van Peebles wrote in 2004. "Very few look at film with sound considered as a creative third dimension. So I calculate the scenario in such a way that sound can be used as an integral part of the film." In a nearly-unprecedented move, Van Peebles had the Stax label press and distribute the soundtrack to Sweet Sweetback months before the movie made its premiere.

That, coupled with an iconic advertising hook ("Rated X by an all-white jury"), helped the film do as well as it did, and got EWF noticed by new audiences. The soundtrack album reached the Top 15 of Billboard's soul charts, not only outperforming the group's two albums released that same year but also opening up the door for Stax to dominate the blaxploitation soundtrack market. (Months later, their Enterprise imprint would release Isaac Hayes' groundbreaking score to Shaft, which topped Billboard's album and singles chart as well as winning a Grammy and an Academy Award.)

Decades later, White was grateful for Van Peebles' help in getting EWF further toward the top of the charts, where they'd stay throughout much of the rest of the decade. "Melvin taught me about getting the shit done," White cracked in his memoir, "even though the $500 check he wrote me is still bouncing!"

READ MORE: May 1975: Earth, Wind & Fire's 'World' Gets Bigger

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