When director Spike Lee sent out a call a couple years ago for songs that could be used in his Netflix series “She’s Gotta Have It,” Joe DeFilippo sent in a couple. When months passed and he never heard anything, the retired Baltimore County social studies teacher figured this particular shot at fame was a non-starter.
But in February, he got a phone call saying Lee was interested. Lee wanted to use DeFilippo’s song “Freedom Ride,” but not for the TV series.
“They said Spike was interested in the song for a film he’s working on,” DeFilippo, 62, remembers.
This week, when Lee’s latest, “BlacKkKlansman,” opens in theaters, “Freedom Ride” will be on the soundtrack. Welcome to a taste of the big time, Joe DeFilippo.
“It was very cool,” allows the songwriter, who got to see the finished movie at its July 30 premiere in Lee’s long-time stomping grounds of Brooklyn, N.Y.
“BlacKkKlansman” is based on the true story of a black Colorado police officer, played by John David Washington (Denzel’s son), who successfully infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan. The film also stars Adam Driver, Alex Baldwin and Topher Grace.
“Freedom Rider” is credited to the R.J. Phillips Band. That’s DeFilippo on lead vocals, bass and acoustic guitar; Bill Pratt on drums, keyboards and vocals; Patrick McAvinue on fiddle; Bill Phelan on lap steel and electric guitars; and Leslie Darr on background vocals. It was recorded at Pratt’s Bratt Studio in Woodlawn.
The song was inspired by the Freedom Riders of the early 1960s, whose civil rights activism in the deep South met often violent resistance. It is heard coming from the radio of a pick-up truck being driven by a Klan member.
“This would be the last song that a white supremacist would be playing in his truck,” says Pratt, who produced the song — he and DeFilippo have been working together for about 30 years — and created a YouTube video for it. “The lyrics are the antithesis of what this guy would be listening to.”
But musically, Pratt says, the song, which clearly owes its sound to bands like Creedence Clearwater Revival, fits right in.
“You really don’t hear enough of the lyrics to know what the song is about,” Pratt says.
DeFillippo has written a lot of songs over the years, many with their roots in history and often with themes that touch on the struggle for social justice. He’s written songs about American Indian rights, Vietnam veterans, women’s rights. And while getting one of his songs into a major Hollywood film is cool and all, it hasn’t set him up for life.
Although he declines to specify how much he was paid, DeFilippo says with a laugh, “I might end up owing money, after taxes and everything.”