The Color Gray: Quincy Jones and George Delerue by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson
Steven Spielberg’s movies have been notable for their lavish and exhilarating use of music. Although THE COLOR PURPLE is a thematic change of pace for him, it maintained the strong use of musical scoring that has underlain all of his productions.
Rather than the sweeping John Williams scores of films like JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T., the music for THE COLOR PURPLE was provided by one of the film’s co-producers, composer and musician Quincy Jones. Jones has worked in films for many years while keeping active as a producer of recording artists such as Michael Jackson and James Ingram. Before that he worked as a musician, playing with many of the top performers of the last 35 years. The majority of his film scores, which have included IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, MACKENNA’S GOLD and IN COLD BLOOD, are derived from a jazz idiom.
The musical score for THE COLOR PURPLE is especially striking due to the richness of its orchestral texture and the diversity of its style. The film takes place amid the ramshackle juke joints of the 1920’s American South, and Jones has drawn on actual recordings of black jazz musicians of the era to lend an appropriate sense of period to these sequences. As Quincy Jones said in a promotional interview recording released by his company, Qwest Records, “in [THE COLOR PURPLE], we used three different kinds of music. One was represented as scoring music, the ’emotion-lotion,’ which described the emotional action. It rode the emotions. Then we had source music from Sidney Buchet, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, actual records of the people. Then we had to assimilate some sounds and write new songs like “Miss Celie’s Blues” that were supposed to sound like they were written in 1922. It was a very challenging kind of road there, musically and dramatically.”
The new jazz material, such as the theme song, “Miss Celie’s Blues”, though performed on screen by Margaret Avery as the juke joint singer Shug Avery, was actually sung by a vocalist named Tata Vega. “She’s one of the few young people I know who can really put her heart and soul into feeling like it’s 1922,” Jones said. “I worked with her 18 years before when she first came out here, on a picture called THE HOT ROCK, but they didn’t use the song in the picture because it just didn’t come out, dramatically. And I never forgot her energy and her commitment, and the way she was able to adjust to a 1922 song. That’s a tall order, to ask someone to get emotionally involved in a song that’s supposed to sound like it’s emanating from 1922 or 1923. But she nailed it. What’s interesting, when you hear the song come out of ‘The Dirty Dozens,’ which is an authentic song of that period, and come into ‘Miss Celie’s Blues,’ I mean it feels like it`s the same fabric. I was real happy about that, because that was real difficult.”
Other elements of the score included raucous Southern Gospel, homey Americana mingled with the omnipresent jazz references, and music derived from West African musical traditions. “There was one scene which was the equivalent to our chase, and every picture has a chase,” said Jones. “It was a ceremony in Africa, with some dramatic action going on in Georgia between Celie and Mister. We had three elements: we had Caiphus Semenya with an African Choir; we also had a big orchestra playing the dramatic portions of that scene; and underneath there was like a train of African percussion which was put together by Harvey Mason and Bill Summers. Bill and Harvey really know their stuff, and it was very important that we didn’t get into African music and have any Tarzan music going on. They came up with a combination of several different African styled and we ended up with a hybrid, but it’s really the real stuff that comes from almost the secret ceremonial drum patterns from Western Africa.”
While the score, in all its diverse elements, remains highly effective in this striking and remarkable film, there was a peculiar drawback, noted on the turntables of soundtrack collectors and, of all places, in the pages of People magazine (May 31, 1986, p. 38,41). Although the composition of the score for THE COLOR PURPLE was credited to Jones and some 11 collaborators, parts of it, including the primary orchestral theme, sound quite a bit similar to portions of the score for OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE, Jack Clayton’s 1967 macabre thriller scored by Georges Delerue.
None of the principals involved, Jones, Delerue, the Spielberg organization, the Motion Picture Academy nor their attorneys would speak with People magazine about the matter, nor would Jones or Delerue comment on the record to CinemaScore. People magazine did report the following in their coverage of the mini-scandal, what they publicized as a “Purple-gate” during Oscarweek:
“During the production of PURPLE, according to sources close to the filmmakers, one of the recordings used on the ‘temp-track’ was Georges Delerue’s sound track for OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE. From that foundation, Jones crafted some of the music for PURPLE. ‘Spielberg has a very musical mind and he really laid it down,’ Jones told [an interviewer for] Jazziz [magazine]. ‘Many times we had to do revisions, change this or that a little bit, move it over a little to the right or left. Sometimes there were five or six rewrites of a certain section.’
“Parts of the resulting PURPLE score are suspiciously close to the original OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE music, according to those who have compared them. ‘I find a very strong resemblance between the two,’ said a music expert who has reviewed both soundtracks. (People sources for this story, fearing that their Hollywood careers might be jeopardized, declined to be quoted by name.) ‘Quincy uses more up-to-date chords than Delerue, who uses classical-type harmonization, but they are following the Delerue theme by substituting the chords…I think most people would see a strong similarity.”
Delerue reportedly remained amiable about the whole matter and, although lawyers have inevitably become involved, there has been no word of an official lawsuit as far as CinemaScore has been able to determine. “Georges was not mad,” a close associate told People magazine. “He was mostly flattered and bemused as only a Frenchman can be.”
In the final analysis, the whole matter may simply be no more exciting or important than any number of “I recognize that tune!” criticisms that have plagued film composers from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to James Horner, especially with the ubiquitous and often reverential use and treatment of the temp-track in current cinematic postproduction; and perhaps this time around it was only the magnitude of the production, its Oscar potential and Spielberg’s attachment to it (and how the press loves to alternately heap accolades or garbagebags upon this particular filmmaker) that made People magazine blow whole situation into national prominence.
The fact may indeed remain, despite all this, that the score works marvelously on film and the soundtrack album is highly listenable and enjoyable and why not leave the comparisons to the critics and barristers. But if you are curious or perturbed, well, just listen to the soundtracks of both films and make up your own mind. Try side 1, band 1 of OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE, and side 1, band 2 of THE COLOR PURPLE for starters. Then put on some James Horner and forget about it.