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.
Gavin Bryars’ most famous piece of music arguably counts as a posthumously completed recording. “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” started as a tape of a homeless man singing a piece of a hymn in 1971. Bryars looped a section of the song and wrote an orchestration around it; he released the 25-minute version of the piece, below, in 1975 (the original singer, who Bryars has never named, “died before he could hear what I had done with his singing,” he’s noted). Bryars later expanded it to three times that length (with additional vocals by Tom Waits!) and released it as a CD in 1994.
Roy Orbison’s unfinished late-’80s recording “You May Feel Me Crying” was completed for the 1997 soundtrack to The End of Violence by none other than Brian Eno — many of whose other collaborations we discussed a few weeks ago. Eno was even immodest enough to add his own subtle backing vocals. (Not a bad idea, as it turns out!)
Since Elvis Presley died in 1978, the machinery around him has released scores of unearthed outtakes, alternate takes, and remixes (like the JXL mix of “A Little Less Conversation” that became a hit a decade ago). But a couple of releases go in the opposite direction from the posthumous-rock tradition of overdubbed demos. Two volumes of Our Memories of Elvis, released in 1979 (and a third, which was put together at the time but didn’t appear until this year), remixed some of Presley’s more richly orchestrated recordings to sound as if they were little more than the King and a small band. Here’s the version of his 1976 hit “Hurt” from volume 3.
Queen’s original frontman Freddie Mercury died in late 1991. Four years later, the band released Made in Heavem, an album pieced together from a couple of songs Mercury had managed to complete while ill, plus various other Mercury vocals that were sitting around (including several tracks from his solo albums, with new instrumental tracks by the rest of the band). “Heaven for Everyone” was Made in Heaven’s first single and a significant international hit. It was initially written by Queen drummer Roger Taylor and recorded by his band the Cross in the late ’80s, but Mercury had recorded a lead vocal for it too — that version appeared on the British edition of the Cross’s album Shove It. After Mercury’s death, Queen recorded their own arrangement around Mercury’s performance. Here’s the Cross’s version:
And here’s Queen’s:
Eminem is responsible for one of the more dubious posthumous hip-hop albums (2Pac’s Loyal to the Game, on which Pac’s phonemes are cut up and rearranged to give props to G-Unit, among others), but “Dead Wrong,” his 1999 collaboration with the Notorious B.I.G., who’d died two years earlier, is kind of fantastic. Biggie’s verses apparently come from a 1994 mixtape; Em’s verse goes toe-to-toe with them for flow and outrageousness. And if it doesn’t quite reach the same heights, well, those were some big toes.
The Beatles’ “Free as a Bird” — George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr playing and singing along with (and writing a new bridge for) a faint scrap of John Lennon singing a demo in 1977 — seemed like sacrilege when it was released in 1995, partly for the Jeff Lynne production that sounded more like Beatles imitators than like the real thing. Now that we’re almost as far from its original release as that was from Lennon’s recording, it’s possible to hear it with slightly fresher ears. It’s actually kind of gorgeous: a song that addresses Lennon’s absence in both its words and its sound, and in its peculiar way a worthy successor to “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.”