Forever badass: Melvin Van Peebles on his Philly funk gig and Sweetback memories

The 81-year-old godfather of blaxploitation cinema brings his indomitable cool — and his fusion band, Laxative — to Johnny Brenda's this weekend.

By Michael A. Gonzales | photos by Kyle Cassidy
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 3 | Posted Feb. 5, 2014

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Although he’s developed a take-no-mess persona that his director/actor son, Mario Van Peebles (New Jack City, Panther), captured so wonderfully in Baadasssss!, as a kid, young Melvin was a bookworm who preferred reading, visiting museums and studying at the Chicago Arts Institute. “My mother asked why I didn’t go outside and play, and I told her, ‘Because the game is always ‘Kick Melvin’s Ass.’ By the time I was 10, I’d seen nine people killed.”

The Chicago streets of Peebles’ youth—the Van in his name was added years later—were brutal. The bad boys he knew were “the unknown guys who got wiped out. Guys you’ve never heard of. But I knew them.” In his autobiographical novel A Bear for the F.B.I., published in the States in 1968, he described being a young Black boy growing-up in Chicago. The “sharpness of being a Negro … wears off and you get used to it just as if you have a wooden leg, or one eye, and you don’t notice it unless you come to a high curb.”

For Van Peebles, that curb was when his parents moved to the suburbs. “There were 53 Black kids out of 3,000. The kids’ fathers were mailmen, Pullman porters or dentists.” However, while his classmates were enjoying after-school programs or hanging around the malt shop, Van Peebles journeyed into the city every afternoon to work with his father. Pops Peebles used to also take young Melvin around with him on various adventures through those Bronzeville blocks. “If my mother protested, my father would just say, ‘The boy’s got to learn.’ “It was like I lived in two different worlds.”

With a preference for Lead Belly, “Blind” Lemon Jefferson and Big Bill Broonzy, music still inspires him. Moreover, what he learned from those songs would stay with him always. “My father’s shop was across the street from a spot called Gold’s Bar, and I used to hear all the music coming out of there. One day, I bought one of those records on 78, and my mother had a fit. The poor lady was trying to raise me one way, and here I am listening to what she thought of as ‘nigger music.’”

In his own way, everything Van Peebles has done professionally has been infused with the blues aesthetic he developed as a kid checking out the guys on the street corners and the stone-faced sisters inside their storefront churches. “Blues was about the whole spectrum of life,” Van Peebles says. “Work, love and life. It wasn’t protest music, just life music.”

Indeed, one can hear the blues, as well as funk and Tin Pan Alley, in the music of Laxative. Splintered from the Burnt Sugar musical collective, the group came together when they collaborated with Van Peebles on a Sweetback musical in France in 2010 at the Sons d’hiver Festival. On stage, Melvin wails in a style reminiscent of old drunks in a back alley or a crazy man screaming in the subway, all while the band provides the funk-filled accompaniment. Mack describes the music as a “red-light-district folk-tale-theater meets shuffle-funk groove.”

“In Laxative, we’re playing the songs that have defined Mr. Van Peebles’ legacy,” says Nickerson, who first saw Sweetback when he was a teenager in Ohio. “And, at the end of the movie, the Black hero succeeds. There was nothing else like it.” Pianist Mack, an admirer of Van Peebles’ work from the time he was 15, agrees. “I remember feeling an overall reinforcement as a Black person every time I saw him, sort of the way hearing James Brown’s music always made me feel.”

A bandleader on par with Duke Ellington or George Clinton, Van Peebles always knows what he wants to hear when Laxative hits the stage. He performs material from his complete musical canon, including “Apple Stretching,” which was covered by Grace Jones in 1982, and “My Love Belongs to You.” Smiling, he says, “Being in the group is the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on.”

Five decades after Melvin Van Peebles began making his artistic mark with some of the bluest art of his generation, transforming from a nerdy Chi-town boy into a business-minded bohemian renaissance man, he continues to be cutting edge, always an independent visionary. “When I was coming up, everybody who made it was white,” he says. “I’ve only done a tenth of what I could’ve done, if I just didn’t have to fight so much.” 

Fri., Feb. 7, 10pm. "The Bridge," WRTI-FM 90.1. wrti.org

Sat., Feb. 8, 9:30pm. $25. With Ernest Stuart. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. 215.739.9684. johnnybrendas.com

BEHIND THE SCENES | Photographer Kyle Cassidy's PW cover shoot with Melvin Van Peebles:

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1. Troy Johnson said... on Feb 5, 2014 at 07:38PM

“Excellent retrospective and update of a fascinating individual. I have to admit I re-watched Sweetback a few years ago, actually purchasing the DVD. I still did not get it and have to admit really did not like it very much. The scene with the little boy (was that Mario?) was... well I'm not surprise Lerome penned a scathing review.”

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2. Jarvis Jones said... on Feb 6, 2014 at 11:20AM

“Great article about a African America who was a pioneer in
His industry . The film that were made during this period
Have received a label ( black exploitation ) that in my opinion
Inaccurate . These films depicted some of society
During their era . They evolved the same as R&B and
Hip Hop and Rap. To label them devalue their contribution
To the American Movie Industry. Thank You Mr. Van Peebles”

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3. carl campbell said... on Feb 8, 2014 at 12:57PM

“u have written something about a real icon--I know that u know that I...”

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