Don’t Play Him Cheap: Melvin Van Peebles (1932-2021)

Iconic 20th-century renaissance man Melvin Van Peebles died September 22 at the age of 89. As a writer and director, Van Peebles broke multiple barriers with movies like Watermelon Man and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. Over the years, he also wrote novels, composed songs, created musicals and made records.

In June 2003, Van Peebles told MAGNET’s Mitch Myers about his 1974 album, What The…You Mean I Can’t Sing?:

The title of this album really has to do with the evolution of my recording career. When I came back to the United States in 1967, I was really surprised, after being out of the country so many years—and it was right in the middle of all the civil unrest. I felt—and what I surprised about—was that there were so many protest songs, but there weren’t many African-American protest songs. Since they were really at the vanguard of the protest thing, I found that surprising. 

Of course, you had “We Shall Overcome,” but what I felt was that there were constrictions of the musical form that African-Americans traditionally used. That constriction of that musical form had a lot to do with the inability to have these protest songs. And so, I felt [that African-Americans] were very interested in beat and melody, but lyrics had become something that were just tacked on, they were secondary. It was at that juncture that I said, “Well, I’ll do it in a way so that the beat and the melody will be within the lyrics, so you’ll have to follow the lyrics very definitely.” 

At first, when I started doing this, it was called “spoken word.” And then Gil Scott-Heron picked up on it and then the Last Poets picked up on it, and it became, little by little, what is now known as rap. And after I had put out a number of albums, (three on A&M, the Sweetback soundtrack and the Don’t Play Us Cheap musical), rap had gotten its beachhead and was pretty well installed. So, I thought this was the time that I could do my songs in a more classic form and not just use the style that I had done specifically to get my lyrical message across. 

And that’s where the title came from. I was able to do the same type of songs I had done before but I could pay a little more attention to the harmony and other aspects of the songs that I had subliminally pushed into the background before. That was really the whole overview of the album. If you take the songs, like “A Birth Certificate Ain’t Nothing But A Death Warrant Anyway,” that could be just straight rap, but I gave myself the luxury of having more musical instrumentation that I wouldn’t have done at the beginning of my career. 

The same is true of all the rest of the songs—my songs are usually stories. What always astounds me is how provincial people are in the musical genres, that is, half the time it’s simply the song arrangement that makes the difference. That was the genesis of this whole album. I was also surprised, very rarely have any of my songs been picked up, to be done by anyone else. But Grace Jones did make a hit out of “Just The Apple Stretching And Yawning.” 

Many people have been put off by my singing style, which is really just the old Southern style, which is what I heard coming up on the South Side of Chicago. And that’s just the way I sang it—I’m happy as a pig in shit with it, so I see no reason to change. That’s really what happened with the whole thing. “Save The Watergate 500,” now that’s very funny to me. Some people don’t even remember Watergate now.

I also wanted to do a tribute to at least one other singer. I always admired Stevie Wonder, so I did my version of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” Each song just has a story. “There” is a story of how a guy who gets it on the job comes home and kicks his old lady’s ass. It’s that simple. 

“Come On Write Me” recalls a time when we used to have songs where the male singer wasn’t as macho as he is today. They show no vulnerability, not in the African-American songs. They are all tough guys and they’re all on top of it. Before, they used to have songs, “Baby please don’t go, baby please don’t go.” But they don’t have that now, it’s all, “Baby you better stay here and shut up.” It’s a little different. Most of the stuff at the moment in the genre that I sort of started that ended up being rap—there is no vulnerability. 

Once there was a guy who came to me and he liked the song “Eyes On The Rabbit.” I had written the song because I noticed that my piano player’s wife was sappy, so I said, “I’m going to write the sappiest song I can.” I wrote it as a joke. We were working on it at his house, our saxophonist and his wife were there and the pianist and his wife were there, and they all went to the window while the song was being played. I walked over to the window to see if they were laughing, I thought they didn’t want to snicker at me, but they all had tears streaming down from their eyes. 

One guy came up to congratulate me on the song and I said, “It’s a joke.” He got so angry, he and his girlfriend wanted to beat me up. I said, “No, no, it really wasn’t a joke.” So, I backed off, being the coward that I am. I mean, why rain on their parade? The customer is always right. That’s what you have to do, worm your way into the psyche of the listener, the spectator, the reader, the audience. 

The song or soundtrack for a film or musical has other jobs to perform also—it carries the story along. When I’m doing a song for the song’s sake, I can say something like “My Love Belongs To You.” And that’s it.