Deadsplinter Up! All Night: You Cut Up The Clothes In The Closet Of My Dreams

Here’s one of my all time favorite songs. It’s from the 1973 musical Don’t Play Us Cheap! which was written and directed by Melvin Van Peebles, a true 20th Century renaissance man. This clip is from the filmed version of the stage musical. This was Melvin’s second broadway show, the first being Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death in ’71.

Joshie Joe Armstead – You Cut Up the Clothes

Melvin is most famous for writing and directing Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, one of the most successful independent films ever made, and the movie that inspired the 70’s wave of Blaxploitation films. It’s kind of a shame that that’s what the film is best known as being. It’s not a Blaxploitation film. It’s an angry avant-garde statement about being black in America in 1971 that was purposefully the opposite of a Hollywood movie.

Melvin was born in Chicago and, after a stint in the Air Force, moved to San Francisco where he worked as a cable car gripman. This became the subject of his first book, The Big Heart, a photo essay of his life on the cable car with poetic text by Melvin. That led to his desire to make films, something that was obviously difficult for an African-American in the 60’s. After directing a few shorts, he went to Hollywood, but no one would hire him, so he moved to Holland where he figured he’d study astronomy. This resulted in the break up of his marriage, but also in his short films being appreciated in France. So he moved to Paris, learned French, and became a writer for the anti authoritarian magazine Hara-Kiri. When Mad Magazine started a French edition, Melvin was hired as editor-in-chief. That only lasted six issues, so Melvin wrote four novels in French, and then wrote and directed a French New Wave film called Story of a Three Day Pass. It’s about an African American soldier who has a brief affair with a white French girl and is then confined to his barracks for violating rules against miscegenation. The movie got him attention from Hollywood studios, and he was finally hired to direct a major motion picture, Watermelon Man, the story of a white bigot who wakes up black one day. Melvin hated working with a studio. They wanted a white actor for the role which would have meant having a star in blackface for most of the film. Melvin wanted to put a black guy in white face for once, and managed to get his way, but the experience soured him on studios and he was determined to never work for the Man again.

(My favorite story he tells about that movie is [spoiler alert] about the end of the film. Columbia Pictures wanted the main character, having learned his lesson, to wake up white again at the end. Melvin hated the idea of being black as a bad dream, and wanted him to end up joining the Black Panthers. Obviously the white studio heads hated this idea, but they really liked the novelty of having a black director, so to appease Melvin, they agreed to let him shoot both endings, and then they would decide which worked better. Melvin knew exactly what this meant, so he just didn’t shoot the version where the guy wakes up white. He delivered the film under budget and three days early, much to their delight. He then went home to France while the studio edited the picture. A few weeks later he gets a phone call. “Hey Melvin, we can’t find the footage of the white ending.” Melvin waited a second before putting on his best shuckin’ and jivin’ voice, “Oh my god! I forgots!” Feeling bad for the poor, ahem, black guy, they said, “that’s okay. I guess we can use the other ending.” And that’s the one in the movie.)

Sweetback was entirely financed by Melvin (and 50 grand from Bill Cosby [sorry]) who hired an all black crew, probably the first in motion picture history. The film was an enormous success, and got him blacklisted (no pun intended) by Hollywood even though it showed them that there was money to made in catering to a black audience.

In between making movies, writing novels, writing-directing-producing Broadway musicals, and painting, Melvin recorded four albums in the 70’s that became huge influences on early rap. Melvin was inspired by German opera, and the Sprechgesang style of singing which was more speech-like, and those records are completely unique. Each song is like a version of Sweet Sweetback in verse.

Salamaggi’s Birthday – Melvin Van Peebles

Since he couldn’t find work as a filmmaker, Melvin decided that if you can’t beat the Man, join him, so he figured out the stock market and became an options trader on the American Stock Exchange in the 80’s. I remember seeing him giving investment advice on local New York tv when I was a kid. He would still act (he has a fun role in Jaws: The Revenge), write, and record, but his son Mario became much more of a household name than he ever did. He’s retired now, and apparently has gotten a little senile which is a shame because I got to meet him a few times and he was one of the smartest, wittiest, and joyful people I’ve ever been in the presence of. And he’s lived a one of a kind life.

That’s Joshie Joe Armstead singing You Cut Up the Clothes. She’s also an interesting figure. She started out as an original Ikette, backing up Ike & Tina Turner, and later had some hits of her own as both a singer and songwriter. She wrote for everyone (sometimes partnering with Ashford and Simpson) from Ray Charles, to Ronnie Milsap, The Guess Who, Aretha Franklin, and even W.A.S.P. She also sang backup to Bob Dylan once, was a fashion designer, and managed boxer Alonso Ratliff who won the Chicago Golden Gloves title in 1980.

Here’s her biggest hit as a solo artist, Stumblin’ Blocks, Steppin’ Stones:

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  1. In ’02 John Wilkes Booze released five different Cd EPs titled Five Pillars Of Soul. The first volume was Melvin Van Peebles. The others were Tania Hearst, Albert Ayler, Marc Bolan and Yoko Ono. Here is two songs from the Van Peebles EP.

  2. huh?…. you know… i dont think ive ever watched a blaxploitation movie….ive seen the trailers…and in all likelyhood seent snippets as the happened to be on tv… but largely i seem to have missed them….
    wich is…kinda wierd as i mostly filed the trailers to i need to watch that land…

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