That James Brown/2Pac Song in ‘Django Unchained’ and Other Songs From Beyond the Grave

A scene from ’Django Unchained,’ courtesy of A Band Apart.

Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.

It makes a certain kind of sense that the soundtrack to Django Unchained would feature a track by James Brown and 2Pac. Quentin Tarantino’s film is in the tradition of blaxploitation movies, and Brown in particular recorded a couple of terrific soundtracks for the early-’70s flicks Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off and Black Caesar. Inconveniently, though, both Brown and Tupac Shakur are dead. So “Unchained” is in fact a mashup of Brown’s 1973 triumph “The Payback” (recorded for, but not used in, another blaxploitation soundtrack, Hell Up in Harlem) and a verse or so from Tupac Shakur’s already posthumously completed “Untouchable,” plus a few sound clips from the film, some new drums and guitar and horns in a sort of spaghetti-Western mode, and a lot of excessive miscellany.
Sadly, “Unchained” is kind of a mess, and it’s a bummer to hear the raw, straightforward “Payback” riff with so much miscellaneous gunk dropped on top of it. Compare this live “Payback” performance by Brown (from his show at the Zaire 74 festival in 1974), for instance.
From Hank Williams Jr.’s duets with his pre-recorded long gone daddy to Keith Moon turning up on a video screen with the Who, there’s no shortage of dubious posthumously completed pop recordings. But just because a musician died before finishing a record doesn’t mean it has to turn out badly. One of the earliest high-profile songs from beyond the grave is a minor classic, in fact.

Buddy Holly recorded a solo demo of “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” along with five other songs in late 1958, about six weeks before his death. After Holly died, those tapes were handed over to producer Jack Hansen, who got studio musicians to overdub a full-band arrangement. The song was released in July 1959, as the B-side of another overdubbed demo, “Peggy Sue Got Married”; it became a favorite of the young Beatles, among others, and stayed in their repertoire for a few years.

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