That Martin Luther King Jr. was the subject of FBI surveillance in the ’60s is well known. But just how pervasive this harassment was lies at the heart of filmmaker Sam Pollard’s documentary MLK/FBI. Pollard enlisted four-time Grammy-nominated Gerald Clayton to compose the score for his film, which needed a nuanced and balanced approach, despite the disturbing details it reveals.
“It was a bit of shock,” Clayton tells American Songwriter, about how he felt when he first saw the documentary. “And all sort of the questions of like, ‘Why wasn’t I taught this before?’ But also just kind of grateful to get the chance to learn and to get into the details of the story more deeply.” Using newly discovered and declassified files, unsealed by the National Archives, the documentary hones in on the bigger issue of the government’s history of targeting Black activists.
After meeting Pollard and hearing what he was envisioning, Clayton thought about what might fit in terms of a soundscape. When he’d get the images from the film he’d sit with them and begin his process. “I have this sort of iTunes, voice memo-thing of just track after track after track of me playing different ideas and messing with things, and I’d send it to them, get their ideas, and they’d send feedback,” he says.
For the chilling, stirring MLK/FBI theme, he incorporated guitar and drums around a Fender Rhodes piano and arco bass. “I wanted the music to not be too extreme,” he says. “I like the idea that this piece is about presenting information, not necessarily just telling a one-sided story. So I was thinking in terms of creating a theme for Martin Luther King and creating a theme for J. Edgar Hoover.”
It would be easy for Clayton to have leaned entirely into the ministerial background of the civil rights icon but he chose not to. “I didn’t want to go all the way into the church necessarily, but still have some elements of the church,” he says. “There’s also a bit of sadness, but maybe not gut-wrenchingly, over-the-top sad either.” For the FBI director, he chose a harmonic soundscape that he felt had a mix of tension, of mystery and was “a little bit nefarious.”
Clayton, who studied Piano Performance at USC’s Thornton School of Music, isn’t always able to put words to how he exactly works, as his process is usually arranged around trying various approaches to creating the sound and then identifying it when he hears it. “The work becomes how you develop whatever it is that you do choose to work with, and take a theme and then try to find all the different ways to sort of paint it,” he says.
“I had the arco bass to kind of act like my little mini orchestra, and would do a few takes, like a string section-kind of a sound or leaving the piano out of certain tracks.” Trying different things means the film’s editor had a lot to work with too.
A pianist revered for his soulful exposition, with 5 albums under his belt and a recent debut on Blue Note Records, Clayton relished getting to bring his ear to a documentary film. “This avenue of scoring for film is a new one that I’m really excited to explore more,” he says. “The reward is another dimension of expression that can dance along with the sound. That the sounds you create can actually uplift a literal image and not just an imaginary one is a really cool thing to be a part of.”
Clayton’s father, the beloved bass player and composer John, has also scored for film. “My dad is always a source of information for me,” says Clayton. “I’m always going to him with questions and throwing things to discuss with him. We spoke about how the image is your vocalist that you’re accompanying, essentially.” He’d also talk to other friends who’ve composed for film. “Sometimes one note is all you need. Sometimes a scene really just is best served by one note being sustained,” he says. “In MLK/FBI, there’s a lot of this beat, just a drum, that sort of serves a certain kind of dramatic tension. It has its own voice, and these are things that you might not necessarily think of until you kind of take on a project like this.”
Clayton’s “Theme from MLK/FBI” is being released on Sub Pop Records, along with Preservation Hall’s Jazz Band’s “Lift Every Voice & Sing,” recorded specially for the film.