Ry Cooder’s Score For ‘Crossroads’

Originally posted September 22, 2008

I’m not exactly sure when I saw the movie Crossroads, the one that stars Ralph Macchio as a young guitarist torn between classical music and the blues. I imagine I saw it on home video sometime during my years in Minot in the later 1980s.

I do know I bought the soundtrack during those days; the date on the back of the record jacket is March 11, 1989, and the titles of the other records I got that date – according to the LP log – tell me that I was at the flea market at the North Dakota state fair grounds.

It’s a good record, far better than the movie for which it was created. The movie’s story, as near as I can remember it, has Macchio studying classical guitar in New York while also learning the blues. Working in Harlem at a home for senior citizens, he meets an old man who claims to be Willie Brown, legendary bluesman (Brown’s name was cribbed, of course, from that of the real-life “friendboy” of Robert Johnson), and the two of them take off for Mississippi to find a long-lost blues song.

The crossroads of the title is, inevitably, the place where Brown once sold his soul to the devil for the ability to play the blues. And the climax of the movie is a guitar duel between Macchio’s character and the devil for Willie Brown’s soul, with Macchio’s character winning the duel by throwing off classical arpeggios blues-style. I never could buy Macchio (The Karate Kid) as tough enough for the blues, so to me, the movie was a scrambled mess. But I watched the whole thing.

What did keep me interested was the music. Whoever made the decisions – Mark Carliner produced the movie and Walter Hill directed it – chose wisely when they selected Ry Cooder to oversee the soundtrack. A genius when it comes to stringed instruments and folk/blues traditions, Cooder put together a soundtrack that for the most part stands on its own, drawing some tunes from the deep catalog of Mississippi blues; he adds four new compositions, two written on his own and two co-written songs, one written with Joe Seneca, the actor who played Willie Brown (who also sings the tune) and an instrumental written with legendary blues harpist Sonny Terry.

The soundtrack bounces around a bit stylistically. The opener, Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads,” slides singers Bobby King, Terry Evans and Willie Green, Jr., in with a gospel-ish chorus amid Cooder’s vocals and guitar and Terry’s harp. Another track, Noah Lewis’ “Viola Lee Blues” – with its baritone horn platform – owes more to New Orleans than to the Delta. But it’s good listening nevertheless.

There are only two missteps on the soundtrack: Cooder’s compositon, “See You In Hell, Blind Boy,” performed by Van Dyke Parks on piano and Alan Pasqua on synthesizer, bogs down. And Amy Madigan’s vocal turn on “He Made A Woman Out Of Me” just doesn’t work. (Madigan’s not listed in the cast – Macchio’s love interest is played by Jami Gertz – so I’m not at all sure why Cooder used Madigan instead of any number of other women; Maria Muldaur comes to mind immediately. Anyone out there know anything?)

There is one fascinating name in the credits: Jim Dickinson has a large presence, one I noticed when I got the record, but it wasn’t until some years later that I connected Jim Dickinson, the long-time Memphis producer and session player, with James Luther Dickinson, the musician behind the quirky 1972 album Dixie Fried (as well as the father of Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars).

Musicians on the record are: Jim Keltner and John Price on drums, Miguel Cruz on percussion, Dickinson on piano, guitar, organ and dolceola, Nathan East, Richard “Stubby” Holmes and Jorge Calderon on bass, Van Dyke Parks on piano, Alan Pasqua on synthesizer, Otis Taylor on guitar, George Bohannon on baritone horn, Walter Sereth on soprano saxophone, Sonny Terry on harmonica, William “Smitty” Smith on organ, Ry Cooder on guitar, mandolin and vocals, Frank Frost on vocals and harmonica, and Joe Seneca, Amy Madigan, Bobby King, Terry Evans, Willie Green, Jr., Sam King and Arnold McCuller on vocals.

Tracks (lead vocals):
Crossroads (Ry Cooder)
Down In Mississippi (Terry Evans, Bobby King, Willie Green, Jr.)
Cotton Needs Pickin’ (Frank Frost)
Viola Lee Blues (Ry Cooder)
See You In Hell, Blind Boy (instrumental)
Nitty Gritty Mississippi (Jim Dickinson)
He Made A Woman Out Of Me (Amy Madigan)
Feelin’ Bad Blues (instrumental)
Somebody’s Callin’ My Name (Bobby King, Sam King, Arnold McCuller, Willie Green, Jr.)
Willie Brown Blues (Joe Seneca)
Walkin’ Away Blues (instrumental)

Ry Cooder – Crossroads soundtrack [1986]


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One Response to “Ry Cooder’s Score For ‘Crossroads’”

  1. Spike Says:

    >>Whoever made the decisions – Mark Carliner produced the movie and Walter Hill directed it – chose wisely when they selected Ry Cooder to oversee the soundtrack.

    I know this post is old, but I thought it is worth pointing out that Walter Hill has used Ry Cooder for most of his soundtracks, way before Alamo Bay starting in 1980.

    >> Jim Dickinson has a large presence,

    Similarly, Dickinson and Cooder had a long history, dating back to 1971.

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