Can Never Say Goodbye to ‘Cooley High’ by Michael A. Gonzales @gonzomike

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Even hardcore Motown aficionados might have problems telling you much about soul singer G.C. Cameron, who stayed on the label as a soloist after his first group The Spinners left for Atlantic Records in 1972. Although he was married to Berry Gordy’s sister Gwen, nobody quite knew what to do with him. Three years later when Motown signed on to supply the soundtrack for a small film called Cooley High, his emotion-stirring song “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” was the only new Hitsville tune used in the movie, which also featured The Supremes’ “Baby Love” and Smokey Robinson crooning “Ooh Baby Baby.”

Becoming a minor-hit in the summer of 1975 (the film was released that June), Cameron’s tear-inducing ballad, which was used for the funeral scene at the end of the picture, not only became the staple of talent shows, graduations and weddings, but was also remade by Boyz II Men on their Dallas Austin produced 1991 debut album Cooleyhighharmony.

However, for me, four decades after Cameron’s original reached #38 on the R&B charts, the song still conjures a mixture of joy and sorrow as I’m transported back to the moment when I originally heard it. Surrounded by my homeboy crew, I was a twelve year-old kid sitting in the Tapia theater in Harlem watching transfixed as the Eric Monte written/Michael Schultz directed film Cooley High flickered on the screen.

Although I’m not sure what I expected, Cooley High was like nothing I’d seen in the movies prior as the camera followed the main characters Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) as they cut school, shot dice, hung out, went to parties, met girls and explored other misadventures on the streets of sixties Chicago. Unlike most flicks made during the Blaxploitation era, Cooley High was down-to-earth and relatable in ways that Shaft, Super Fly and The Mack could never be, because it was predicated upon the premise of real people doing real things. “I wanted to make movies about us as real human beings, not stereotypes,” director Michael Schultz, who also directed Car Wash (1976) and Krush Groove (1985) among a handful of other films, says. Working closely with screenwriter Eric Monte, who based Cooley High on his own sweet and sour life growing up in the infamous Cabrini Green projects in the ‘60s, this was the first film project for both men. “Whether it was the gangster stereotype or the hooker stereotype, I wanted to get to the heart of who we are. That hadn’t quite been done on the silver screen.”

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Schultz, whose background was in New York City theater, where he formerly worked with the Negro Ensemble Company and was the first director to give Al Pacino a part in a Broadway play (Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?), came to Hollywood in 1974 with a mission. “The medium of film is so powerful, we have a responsibility to use it in a more conscious way,” he says. “Every image you put up is saying something about you and your work as an artist, your storytelling and your people.”

Connecting with Monte, who also created the Chicago-based television classic Good Times, and producer Steve Krantz was only the beginning. While Krantz had already sold the film to American International Pictures (A.I.P.) for the chump change total of $675,000, it was up to the entire team to convince the studio that Cooley High was worthy. “Eric Monte did a great job depicting us on the page, but nobody at the company seemed to understand the movie, because it wasn’t Hell Up in Harlem or Sheba, Baby,” Schultz explains. The film purposely didn’t have a real plot, but simply followed the characters from one misadventure to another. “They knew how to sell that, but weren’t sure how to sell a story about five Black teenagers who loved each other and all the stuff they went through.”

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Hiring trained actors as well as local Windy City folks for Cooley High, the film featured naturalistic performances from young actors Turman and Hilton-Jacobs, as well as around-the-way boys in the hood Norman Gibson and Rick Stone (who is listed in the film`s credits as Sherman Smith, his legal name). In 2004, he told The Chicago Reader, “This black guy, Michael Schultz, got out. He said, ‘How would you like to be in a movie?’ He was in town making Cooley High, and they were looking for tough guys from out of Cabrini. They had other people from Cabrini in that movie–Jackie Taylor and Maurice Havis. Me and Norman went to the audition. We said, ‘Let’s go. If we don’t get the part, we can stick them up.'”

Glynn Turman, who was 28 years-old at the time he played aspiring writer and high schooler Preach, had worked with director in New York theater, remembers their time in Chicago fondly. “Michael picked kids who might not have acted before, but they had the energy that took me back to my school days. That’s what my friends were really like; we were those characters.” Still, neither he nor anyone else associated with Cooley High could have predicted its lasting appeal.

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“I loved playing that character that Monte based on himself, but we had no idea it would become the cult classic that it became,” Turman continued. “But, even though Cochise was killed, the movie was one that celebrated life and the love of life.” The following year, ABC adapted the film, updated it and changed the name to What’s Happening!! While the show was popular and successful, it couldn’t compare to the original.

Forty years later, the final scenes of Cooley High, in which Preach watches Cochise’s funeral from a distance, is when G.C. Cameron’s wrenching “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” was cued up. “They put the music in that scene after the scene was shot, so I had no idea, but I was proven and very moved when I saw it,” Turman says. Moments later, Preach was running away from those mean Chi-Town streets towards, we can hope, what will be a bright future.

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About the author:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales writes the weekly column Vintage Vision for Ebony.com, blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com and Twitters @gonzomike.

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