In 1976 Charles White provided a drawn rendering of Leadbelly for the record that accompanied the eponymously titled biopic of the singer’s life, directed by Gordon Parks. This was not the first drawing of Leadbelly that White had produced. For that matter, White had produced a significant number of drawings of African American guitar players, signifying the extent to which White saw within African American music much that sustained and reflected the lives of his people. The drawing of Leadbelly on the record sleeve depicted a man sitting atop a pile of rocks (themselves evocative of the chain gang), strumming his guitar. Not surprisingly, given that the man – a prisoner wearing distinctive striped pants that were at one time regulation prison attire – is manacled at his bare feet, the guitar player carries a somewhat pained expression on his face.
Within the film itself, the life of legendary blues and folk singer Huddie Leadbetter, (nicknamed Leadbelly) is recounted. Much of the film is set within the context of Leadbelly’s life in prisons and the chain gangs that were such a dreaded aspect of incarceration. With Roger E. Mosely playing the part of Huddie Ledbetter, Parks’ film emerged alongside a significant number of the Blaxploitation films common at the time. Indeed, several years earlier, Parks was responsible for directing the defining film of the Blaxploitation era, Shaft, a 1971 American action-crime film which revolved around a private detective named John Shaft, who is hired by a Harlem mobster to rescue his daughter from the Italian gangsters who have kidnapped her.
Amongst the credits on the back of this 1976 release by ABC records is Cover illustration: Charles White.
In its auction of February 17, 2009, Swann auction house, New York, offered for sale Study for Lead Belly, graphite and charcoal on vellum paper, circa 1978.