How the soul legend stuck it to The Man by setting the template for Blaxploitation soundtracks
The history of classic albums is rife with many a tale of long, sometimes tortured recording sessions.
By contrast, Curtis Mayfield needed only four days to record a soul and funk classic, firmly setting the template for the blaxploitation soundtrack format in the process.
The soundtrack for Super Fly, which turned 50 this month, became one of those albums that outdid the movie it came from (even with the movie being one of the classics of the genre, picking up a box office return 10 times its meager earnings).
The movie itself received backlash in some quarters. The NAACP decried its release and there were calls for boycotts. It became the subject of the sort of respectability politics– discussions of the kind that would later involve certain forms of rap and hip-hop over a decade later.
Youngblood Priest wasn’t what a lot of folks wanted as an aspirational character. But then again, who were Wyatt and Billy in Easy Rider but drug dealers who cashed out of a big score looking to do something else? And it wasn’t like Hollywood was widely opening doors for movies with the combination of a Black screenwriter and director like Super Fly had (Phillip Fenty and Gordon Parks Jr., respectively).
VIDEO: Super Fly official trailer
Mayfield had his concerns with the movie as well. Having grown up in a number of Chicago housing projects, people like the movie’s characters and the situations that created them were a part of the neighborhood fabric and he wasn’t eager to glamorize that reality.
Indeed, he later said that when he first saw rushes of the movie, he thought it looked like “a cocaine infomercial.” He set about writing lyrics that were commentary through storytelling.
Mayfield’s music sets the tone of the movie in its first 13 minutes, as we see two sides of an attempted robbery before it happens. It starts with two men, later revealed to be the two inept junkie robbers walking through Harlem. Then we shift to the cocaine-dealing anti-hero Priest with a woman, taking the first of many bumps of cocaine he does throughout the movie. Then we see the stylish clothes and the Cadillac he drives to go to his apartment, where the would-be robbers are waiting.
All the while, an extended medley of “Little Child Running Wild ” and the instrumental version of “Freddie’s Dead” plays, as the whole thing takes over 10 minutes.
Indeed, as the movie unfolds, the soundtrack does its share of heavy lifting, not just playing over the many scenes of walking or driving (as there’s less action than one would expect).
“Give Me Your Love” soundtracks the bathtub sex scene between Priest and Georgia, the one character in the movie supporting his desire to get out of drug dealing before it kills him. Mayfield’s falsetto and urgent instrumentation cut through the soap suds, body hair and overused soft focus.
Mayfield and his band appear in a scene at the nightclub owned by Priest’s mentor, Scatter. The scene led to the creation of “Pusherman.” Parks Jr. asked them to be in the scene, but needed a finished song. Mayfield took his band into a studio in New York to record it, then they filmed the scene the next day.
The song reappears as the interlude for the photo montage that condenses the four months of Priest and Eddie unloading their massive cocaine buy (which often wound up in the hands of wealthy white customers) into four minutes.
The title track shows up in a dialogue-free sequence late, as Priest is seen, through the window of a diner, booking the services of hit men to kill corrupt cop and real drug kingpin Reardon and his family in the event anything happens to him.
And then there’s the matter of “Freddie’s Dead.”
The character of Fat Freddie is the trope of the doomed underling who is incapable of acting in a way that won’t get him killed by somebody. And, indeed he does, getting hit by a car trying to escape from police after an interrogation where he gives up Priest and Eddie’s looming drug buy.
Bizarrely, despite appearing throughout the first half of the movie, his death isn’t acknowledged by Priest, Eddie or anyone else.
Unlike the movie, which treats Freddie as a plot device more than as a person, Mayfield expresses a mourning for Freddie’s loss, decrying the circumstances, including indifference, that lead to his demise and seeing them as a warning sign.
VIDEO: Curtis Mayfield “Freddie’s Dead”
As uneven as the movie itself is, it does have a lot of resonant ideas and Parks’ decision to approach Mayfield for the soundtrack and amplify those ideas was a wise one.
By this point, Mayfield had a track record beyond his work with the Impressions, who he’d left in 1970 in part because the musical direction he was going in would have been incompatible with the group.
There was the writing and production work for various other artists. And most importantly, his solo career had taken off with two albums — 1970’s Curtis and 1971’s Roots — that showed a social consciousness (which had grown in his Impressions work) as surefooted as Marvin Gaye had shown on What’s Going On (also in 1971).
The first hit off Curtis — “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”, about the state of race relations and civil unrest, sounds every bit musically like his work on Super Fly.
Mayfield’s focus wasn’t limited to the soundtrack during its period of creation, as he was also working on material for an Impressions album, a solo album and doing shows in Europe.
Some months after recording “Pusherman”, Mayfield, his band and dozens of additional musicians convened at his Curtom Studios in Chicago for three days of sessions. Everything but his vocals were cut live, with as many as 40 musicians in the studio at one time. Everything was done in three days.
The movie itself wasn’t intended as the cocaine infomercial Mayfield feared and others thought it was. Ron O’Neal, the actor who played Priest, said “Super Fly is about people who don’t believe in the American Dream at all.”
Mayfield’s songs, both musically and lyrically, flesh things out for an album that, unlike Isaac Hayes’ brilliant soundtrack for Shaft (directed by Parks’ father) the year before, wasn’t loaded with instrumentals. There were only two — the urgent “Junkie Chase” (which sounds like the theme to so many ’70s TV cop shows) and the contemplative breather “Think” , which is as close as Super Fly gets to filler.
“Little Child Running Wild” had been around longer, first recorded as a more spare, but still funky, demo called “Ghetto Child” dating back to the time around Curtis.
It’s a potent example of Mayfield as a storyteller, an ability that keeps things honest and real rather than devolving into preachiness. He inhabits the characters, saying things through songs that are often only hinted at onscreen.
The desperation of “Little Child” gives way to the preening confidence of “Pusherman”, which cuts deeper as it points out the pusher really could be anybody in that world, where civil rights gains were being undercut by redlining, white flight and economic discrimination. With fewer opportunities, it could be a family member, a friend, that person you see in the alley, who turns to the drug trade as a path of opportunity.
Mayfield is also poignant with the loss of friendship on “Eddie You Should Know Better”, in which he sings the words Priest knows, but doesn’t say in the movie to Eddie. It’s clear he’s aware that Eddie can’t bring himself to get out of their lucrative cocaine business and that he’ll betray him, which he does.
Even if none of the movie’s main characters sees a path away from cocaine, Mayfield offers an optimistic note with “No Thing on Me (The Cocaine Song)”, a nice gesture, if incongruent with the film’s tone.
The album finishes with its biggest hit and defining song — “Superfly.”
It’s clear the goal was to announce the title character with authority, much as Hayes had done with “Theme From Shaft.” But whereas Hayes had opened his theme with an extended intro with the recognizable hi-hat, wah-wah and heralding strings, Mayfield starts his with that iconic bass riff, quickly joined by percussion and horns.
Hayes’ intro winds up taking up over half the song before he utters that instantly recognizable “Who’s the Black private dick who’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” line.
Mayfield gets to his lyrics in 25 seconds, because he has more to say than how Super Fly is a bad mother. He starts by making it sound like the theme for an infomercial on The Power of Positive Coke Dealing, “The man of the hour/Has an air of great power/The dudes have envied him for so long” but soon undercuts it.
VIDEO: Curtis Mayfield performs “Superfly” on Soul Train
Priest’s American Dream is a curdled one, a personal empire built on pain with little chance of it ending.
As Mayfield sings “The aim of his role/Was to move a lot of blow/Ask him his dream/What does it mean?/He wouldn’t know/”Can’t be like the rest”/Is the most he’ll confess/But the time’s running out/And there’s no happiness”
Priest does indeed reach his goal to get out, but he does so with less money than he’d planned, a cocaine addiction without ready access to his own supply anymore and an uncertain future. Reardon might need new dealers, but he’s still free to continue his profitable drug business. Priest may have “stuck it to the man,” but it wasn’t a fatal blow.
There’s a certain irony, given how much Mayfield focused on the lyrics, that the album proved as influential, if not moreso, for its sound. It has all the elements so recognizable, not just to future blaxploitation soundtracks, but soul and funk throughout the ’70s. And rappers took notice, both for what Mayfield said and how he said it, as he certainly became well-sampled.
Musically, so much of the album is dynamic, full of rhythmic grooves, strong horns and strings that are cinematic without being overbearing and the guitar, full of fuzz and wah-wah.
The soundtrack was the biggest hit of Mayfield’s career, his only No. 1 album. It also was hugely successful marketing for the low-budget movie, released a month before it. Many fans were familiar with the songs onscreen by the time they had a chance to see it. The impact would ripple through so many successful film soundtracks to come (see Saturday Night Fever). It did so as many of them would be well-curated playlists rather than the work of a single artist (Purple Rain being a glorious exception).
The success of the movie and its soundtrack led to other Black artists like James Brown, Bobby Womack and Willie Hutch getting the opportunity to do their own albums tied to blaxploitation flicks.
Mayfield would go back to the soundtrack well throughout the 70s — writing and producing Claudine for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sparkle for Aretha Franklin and Let’s Do It Again for the Staples Singers. All three would have hits — “On & On” for Knight & the Pips, “Something He Can Feel” for Franklin and “Do It Again” for the Staples Singers.
But Super Fly remains at the top of Mayfield’s musical legacy, even with his Hall of Fame resume. It’s masterfully as soulful as it is funky, an essential fleshing out of the movie it was created for, a stellar display of the man at his peak.