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That Time When Spike Lee Had the Audacity to Make His Second Joint a Musical

” soundtrack – Various Artists (Manhattan/EMI – 1988)

by A. Scott Galloway (Special to )

school daze, spike lee

From Director/Writer ’s very first movie “She’s Gotta Have It” – which was scored by his father, Bill Lee, and featured one of the final recordings of `70s singing star Ronnie Dyson – music has played a powerful and prominent role in all of his self-dubbed “joints.” The musical selections in his films became a broad, highly purposed cultural canvas beginning with his second feature film, “School Daze” (40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks – 1988), which included Jazz, Go-Go, Reggae-Pop, Spirituals, Traditional Score and Symphonic Funk. All of this music was brilliantly woven into the storylines, never merely for showy eclecticism. Indeed, one looked forward to Mr. Lee’s joints almost as much for the music as the movies themselves. “School Daze” set the precedent with an impressive collection of talents – many that would return to work on his projects again and again.

“School Daze” was a film about life at a historical black Morehouse College which included fraternity and sorority rivalries and rites of passage, campus dating and sex, and getting an education both from books and experiences. Spike being Spike, there was also a compelling message about the age-old division within the race based on skin tone and hair texture, the ultimate takeaway being that we need to “Wake Up” and put an end to that foolishness. On a sub-note, there was a sidebar about respect in relationships between men and women. This all made for an unforgettable film and soundtrack souvenir.

Celebrating and marinating in all things “Blacknuss,” it was hilarious and novel for Spike to incorporate the song “Da’ Butt” into the marketing campaign that helped put asses in seats at theaters. Spike commissioned chameleonic Jamaica, Queens, Brooklyn homeboys Marcus Miller and Mark Stevens (Chaka Khan’s baby brother) to write a Go-Go Funk jam for the dance he created especially for his culture-conscious film. The Jamaica Boys came back with the Miller Thriller “Da’ Butt” which was performed by the Washington, D.C. based band E.U. (Experience Unlimited) anchored by lead vocalist/bassist Gregory “Sugarbear” Elliot and Herculean drummer William “JuJu” House. The pounding percussive swinger was featured at the homecoming dance (dubbed a “Pajama Jammy Jam”) during which the entire cast shook their collective dunks stripped down to their bikinis and trunks in a hot, sweaty gymnasium. A music video was also drafted including outtakes from the party and celebrity cameos. E.U. copped its 15 minutes of fame, including the song on its CD, Livin’ Large (Virgin – 1989). Most novel of all, several thousand fortunate fans of the song enjoyed the rare essence distinction of experiencing “Da’ Butt” performed live at the Hollywood Bowl by the trio of Marcus Miller, David Sanborn and the late, great George Duke…with Sanborn singing lead!

A scene of a kinky, blue-lit sex-down between Alpha fraternity leader Julian “Big Brother Almighty” Eaves (Giancarlo Esposito) and his hottie du jour Jean (Tisha Campbell) was set to the steamy score of “Perfect Match” by the mysteriously credited Tech and the EFFX. Dripping in sensuality and vibe, the piece featured English lyricist/vocalist Tina Harris (also the original vocalist of “Outside Your Door” later made famous by MeShell NdegeOcello) servin’ up some elliptical spoken word seductiveness over a master crafted track by producer Lenny White (drummer dually noted as a member of jazz-fusion superheroes Return to Forever and also the leader of the band Twennynine responsible for the 1979 Funk oddity, “Peanut Butter”). The chorus vocals were sung by a group of singers centered around the short-lived GRP Records trio Voyceboxing (f/ Harris, Jean McClain and Candy Bell), keyboards by Bernard Wright (of “Who Do You Love” fame), programming by Jason Miles (Global Noize) and White, and all that sexy Miles-inspired muted trumpet was the work of Terence Blanchard. If you never knew…now ya know!

Next was the infectious Islandy ditty “Be Alone Tonight,” the popular girl group highlight credited to The Rays, named after the song’s composer/producer Raymond Jones, once the keyboardist of `70s dance band Chic who spring-boarded into an enviable career as an artist in his own right as well as at the service of others such as (“Someone for Me”) Jeffrey Osborne (“Stay With Me Tonight”), Stephanie Mills (“Rising Desire”), Lalah Hathaway (“Do You Suppose”) and many more. The Rays were featured singing the number in the film led by Tisha Campbell also including Jasmine Guy (so fine she was stealing mad focus on camera), Paula Brown and Angela Ali. When the song was released as a single with an accompanying video, Campbell sued to get her rightful credit as the performer in place of the fictional group name The Rays.

The centerpiece of “School Daze”’s music is the show-stopping big band

number “Straight and Nappy (better remembered as “Good and Bad Hair”) which pitted the dark-skinned “Jiggaboos” (led by Kyme) vs. the light-skinned “Wannabes” (led by Tisha). The girls trade spiky dozens, insults and perceptions about each other’s skin tones, hair textures and atti-TUDES set to Cotton Club choreography that is alternately heated and hilarious. Both the music and the lyrics were penned by Spike’s father, Bill Lee, for Duke Ellington-esque big band featuring Branford Marsalis on tenor sax, Terence Blanchard on trumpet, Stanley Cowell on piano, Milt Hinton on bass and Joe Chambers on drums, plus sectional horns and strings. That Spike made an all-out production out of this silly yet deeply rooted dirty laundry issue in Black culture is yet another testament to his genius in juxtaposing serious issues within entertaining environs.

The instrumental theme for “School Daze” is the stately “One Little Acorn,” so named as a metaphor for the collegiate roots of maturity because acorns grow into mighty oak trees. Composed by Bill Lee, it is featured twice on the soundtrack: once as a piano solo by jazz great Kenny Barron and again as a duet between Barron and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Blanchard would go on to score entire films for Spike Lee and others including his epic, “Malcolm X.”

The spiritual “I’m Building Me A Home” is utilized as a reverent reminder of the shoulders that students stand upon and the sacrifices made by their ancestors to build institutions of higher learning for them to mature and thrive then go forth and elevate the race. Arranged by Dr. Uree Brown and sung by The Morehouse College Glee Club, the selection is a powerful soul-stirrer.

The incomparable Stevie Wonder made his first of many contributions to Spike Lee films by composing and producing the introspective existential musing “I Can Only Be Me.” Tapped to represent that message with an appropriate “school days” voice was Wonder-ringer Keith John, who would return on Spike’s next film, “Do The Right Thing,” singing “Why Don’t We Try.” Though he never catapulted into a singing star in his own right, Keith worked for years with Wonder and also contributed to recordings by Vanessa Williams, George Duke, George Howard, Wendy Moten and Teddy Pendergrass, among others. Wonder, of course, gave Spike the ultimate gift of an entire soundtrack of all new songs (most profoundly “These Three Words”) for his controversial fifth film, “Jungle Fever,” about interracial relationships (and crack addiction). Additionally, Wonder sang Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” for Lee’s less successful yet no less-inspired Million Man March-themed film, “Get On The Bus” (1996).

The most poignant musical moment of “School Daze” is the slow dance number “Be One” back at the homecoming dance, sung by the late, lamented Phyllis Hyman. The singer sprang to fame in the mid-`70s singing three selections on Norman Connors’ Quiet Storm classic album, You Are My Starship, to become a glamorous diva with one foot in the R&B-Pop world (best remembered for her hit “You Know How to Love Me”) and the other in Jazz (nominated for a Tony Award for her work on Broadway in “Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies” as well as coveted recordings with McCoy Tyner, Pharaoh Sanders and Grover Washington, Jr.). The statuesque 6’1” beauty made quite a splash at “School Daze”’s ‘Pajama Jammy Jam’ wearing a tight, sparkly dress with a deep plunging neckline as she tipped her crown to the immortal Sarah Vaughan on the rangy “Be One” (backed by saxophonist Harold Vick, pianist Consuela Lee Morehead – upright bassist Bill Lee’s brother – and drummer Joe Chambers). Given the heavier side of the film’s subject matters, one might assume that “Be One” was an intra- racial message song, but this was actually a primer for undergrads in their maiden voyages of amore, simply stating that in spite of the heartache that can come with sex and romance, never miss an opportunity to be “one”: a fool in love.

Though a separate album was dedicated to the instrumental score for “School Daze,” variations on Bill Lee’s themes and cues were showcased in “The Wake Up Suite” credited to the The Natural Spiritual Orchestra, an ensemble filled with luminaries that took over RCA Studios in New York City for the session. Bill Lee – father of Spike (Sheldon), Joie, David and Cinque’, and uncle of Malcolm Lee (all often employed in Spike’s works) is an Atlanta-born “Morehouse Man” who recorded on four of Aretha Franklin’s first sides on Columbia Records and scored the first three of Spike’s films: “She’s Gotta Have It,” “School Daze” and “Do the Right Thing.” It’s a pleasure to hear his theme “Nola (Queen for a Day)” throughout the new Netflix TV series version of “She’s Gotta Have It” which is introducing the melancholy melody to a new generation.

The end credits theme for “School Daze” is “We’ve Already Said Goodbye (Before We Say Hello),” another lyrically elusive masterpiece composed by the late, great Raymond Jones that, musically, is a grand amalgam of Soul, Classical and – in the soprano saxophone soloing of Branford Marsalis – Coltrane-inspired Free Jazz. Washington D.C.’s Pieces of a Dream was the band for this song which especially featured drummer Curtis Harmon with pianist James Lloyd and bassist Cedric Napoleon. The guest singer is Portia Griffin who waxes both astute in her craft yet with a sound that is exceptionally earthy and engaging…until she soars skyward with a Minnie Riperton soprano flight at the end that is out of this world and reflects Jones’ intention of mirroring the work of the psychedelic soul rock band that Minnie was once a member of: Rotary Connection (who were produced and orchestrated by the phenomenal Charles Stepney). Jones’ orchestral arranger of choice was the ever-exquisite Clare Fischer whose strings here lift the song to Heaven as they so often did for others – from Rufus featuring Chaka Khan to Prince. Though never released as a single for radio, this song – the final music heard in the film – has become a personal favorite of many people who freely interpret the song’s meaning to their own needs and imaginings.

Raymond Jones would go on to contribute generously, passionately and with exceeding excellence on several Spike Lee films as a songwriter and producer, including the closing credits theme of “Do The Right Thing” (“Never Explain Love,” sung by Al Jarreau), the opening credits theme for “Mo’ Better Blues” (an interpolation of W.C. Handy’s “Harlem Blues,” sung by film co-star Cynda Williams), and the opening credits theme for “Clockers” (“People in Search of a Life,” sung by Marc Dorsey who also sang the Jones-produced remake of “People Make the World Go `Round” for “Crooklyn”). Underrated, unsung and underappreciated, Raymond Jones, nevertheless, left behind a priceless catalog of music when he died in 2011, specially his five solo albums: Acts of Love (1997), Naked Soul (1999), Intimate (2001), So Amazing: Solo Piano Interpretations from the Songbook of Luther Vandross (2004) and Hillside Stories (2007) – all released on his own UEG Music imprint and, taken together, the score of one incomparable, artful life. They are all highly collectible now and well-worth seeking out.

As outstanding as the “School Daze” soundtrack is, it gets a half-point shaved off for not including the marching band song played during the halftime of the big homecoming game. The short piece should have easily been able to be squeezed onto the album especially as music is just as crucial to Historical University (HBCU) football battles as it is to Spike Lee films – a perplexing oversight. This writer believes the piece is titled “Kick it Out Tigers,” composed by Spike’s uncle, Consuela Lee Morehead.

American film and Black culture owe much “dap” (respect) to Spike Lee who even had a short-lived 40 Acres and a Mule Musicworks record . The brother has made big, black and bold contributions – in both the cinematic joints department and the musical jammy jam department.

Ya-Dig? Sho-Nuff! By Any Means Necessary!!


(The writer dedicates this essay to Spike Lee in honor of this week’s launching of “She’s Gotta Have It – The Series” on Netflix, and in memory of departed friend Raymond Jones whose 59th birthday would have been on December 13. Respect.)

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