Samuel L. Jackson Shows He Can Sing Like a 'Motherf---er' in New Capital One Ad

Shawn Miller
Samuel L. Jackson emcees the 2016 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song tribute concert for Smokey Robinson on Nov. 16, 2016. 

Does the iconic actor have a future as a musician?

He made a punchline of elevator music in The 51st State, but after 45 years of acting, Samuel L. Jackson is now doing some serious singing.

His soulful take on Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” for Capital One and Spotify has generated more than 183 million television impressions since debuting July 10, according to iSpot.tv, which estimates the financial services firm has spent $4.4 million on placements for the slick-yet-stirring spot that is scheduled to run through the end of September. It is directed by Joseph Kahn (of the upcoming battle rap film Bodied).

At 68, Jackson is coming into his own as a crooner, having earlier this month dropped his first single, “Nobody Gets Out Alive,” from the soundtrack to The Hitman’s Bodyguard, released Friday (Aug. 18) on 3,377 screens by Lionsgate. The blues-inflected tune, which credentialed the actor into ASCAP, is also included on the Nov. 11 vinyl release from Milan Records.

“Nobody Gets Out Alive” continues Jackson’s fine tradition of transportation tunesmithing. For the past two years Capital One has featured him in March Madness commercials singing with Charles Barkley and Spike Lee -- first a carpool karaoke version of Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” then an airplane oratorio of “I Will Survive” joined by stewardess Gloria Gaynor (who piloted the song to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1979).

 

In The Hitman’s Bodyguard he’s once again, well, singing shotgun -- this time with co-star Ryan Reynolds. The director, Patrick Hughes, said he originally envisioned a pop tune for the scene. “He’s supposed to be getting under his bodyguard’s skin, and Sam just started singing ‘Nobody gets out alive’ and repeating it over and over, and I said ‘the longer that continues, the more grating it’s going to be. Keep writing!’”

But Hughes liked the song enough to ask Jackson to record a polished version produced by the film’s composer Atli Örvarsson specifically for the soundtrack, where it cohabitates with Lionel Richie’s “Hello,” Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” and King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight.” “Sam’s got a phenomenal voice,” Hughes said.

“Let’s Stay Together” features the thesp in full frontman mode pitching Capital One’s Quicksilver card. Dancing with his mic stand, Jackson is an elegant badass in his deep indigo Ferragamo tuxedo with black-on-black Dior shirt and tie. The 30-second spot was produced by DDB Chicago, under Travis Parr and Mike Ackerman, group creative directors for Capital One.

While Jackson is known for his sonorous basso speaking voice, the Capital One spot was his first opportunity to truly showcase his vocals. “The concept was pretty immediate for us,” Capital One VP brand advertising Daniel McCaskey said. “These ads have always felt really natural and we get great feedback on them. So when it was time to create an ad with Sam for Spotify, it was an easy decision to have it focus on him singing.”

Spotify business development director for consumer subscriptions Kate Opekar admits she had no idea Jackson could sing when initially pitched the on the co-branded spot. “When the idea came up to have leading actor and unknowingly great singer Samuel L. Jackson as part of the campaign, we were thrilled, as we know he would resonate with both our existing and target customers,” the London-based exec told Billboard via email.

Though Hughes cites the fact that Jackson makes music in Black Snake Moan, in that 2006 film he doesn’t so much “sing” as speak the lyrics, backed by a traditional four-piece band. “It’s more of a Delta blues thing,” said Hughes, who grew up in Australia where he was one of the few kids collecting movie soundtracks on vinyl.

Jackson (who declined to be interviewed for this piece) grew up with a stutter in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and used the term “motherfucker” as an “affirmation word” to help him power through the impediment. The F-bomb is dropped freely in “Nobody Gets Out Alive” (even by the gospel choir), and the expression has become something of a signature phrase.

For “Let’s Stay Together,” Jackson sticks to the original lyrics. “It’s one of the true evergreens in the UMPG song catalog, instantly recognizable to multiple generations of listeners,” said Universal Music Publishing Group senior vp music for advertising Tom Eaton.

The song debuted in 1971 and reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, spending 16 weeks on the chart. In 1982 it provided a comeback hit for Tina Turner and in 2011 Seal had success with the cut on Soul 2. It’s been covered roughly 60 times, by everyone from Maroon 5 to Roberta Flack. A song that gets that much exposure is both instantly-attention getting and difficult to make distinctive, which Jackson seems to do.

“People have even told us they stop what they are doing so they can watch the entire ad, which is real dedication,” McCaskey says. “In a world where it’s increasingly difficult to hold people’s attention, it’s exciting to be able to create ads that break through.” In fact, an iSpot.tv gives it a stellar 98 percent play-through rate.

“What an amazingly well-trained actor of our time. And what he’s lived through, having gone to segregated schools, one can only imagine the depth of what he has to bring. And now he’s singing,” says vocal instructor Mary Setrakian, who trained Nicole Kidman for 2001’s Moulin Rouge, coached James Gandolfini, Kate Winslet and Mandy Moore for 2005’s Romance & Cigarettes and recently worked with Mary J. Blige.

“He’s moving sensually, he knows that musical style and I believe he’s inspired,” says the New York-based Setrakian.

As for Jackson’s future as a singer and potential Tony Awards host? “I think he’s got a lot more in his arsenal,” Setrakian says. “He did a beautiful job with this, but he has more resonance to play with. His choices are great -- he makes the song airy and vocally dirty and a little fun, but I suspect he has more range than he realizes.”