Curtis Mayfield, “the master storyteller” as Don Cornelius so aptly called him, created some of the most socially-conscious, uplifting and thought provoking work of any artist from any era. His albums told stories and spoke of self-pride and the plight and dire conditions of the world and urban neighborhoods. So it was no wonder that the former Impressions singer was asked to score a film that capitalized on the drug and crime scenes that plagued many inner-city neighborhoods: The all-time classic film Superfly, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month.
Mayfield was performing at Lincoln Center in New York in late 1971 for the first of two nights when he was approached by screenwriter Philip Fenty and film producer Sig Shore with the idea to score the movie. Backstage, Fenty showed Mayfield the script to Superfly and he was more than happy to read it and to eventually score the film.
Mayfield poured himself into writing the soundtrack’s lyrics, as well as working with his musicians that included Joseph Scott and Henry Gibson to produce a score as great as Isaac Hayes’ score for the classic film Shaft a year earlier. The mega success of the Shaft soundtrack proved that soul music tied into a so-called “blaxploitation” film could make for a huge hit record.
Drug selling–as well as drug use and abuse–ran rampant throughout ghetto neighborhoods starting around the mid to late 1960s, and the “white man” (commonly referred to back then as simply “the man”) was pegged as the sinister culprit behind the infiltration of drugs into black communities to keep black people down.
Whereas many felt Shaft appeared to glamorize drug use and violence, Mayfield’s songs told the dark and sad reality of drug use, crime and violence in America’s inner cities. There is the soundtrack’s opening track, “Little Child Running Wild,” and “Pusherman,” sung in the first person narrative, told the stark truth about being a drug pusher. “Freddie’s Dead” tells the tragic story about a character who served as the fall guy for a drug dealer; and the pulsating instrumental “Junkie Chase” was used during a scene in which the film’s protagonist, Priest (Ron O’Neal), is chased by thugs.
Side two opens with the romantic love song “Give Me Your Love,” which is played in the film during a scene in which Priest and his love interest Georgia (played by Sheila Frazier) were “romantic” in a bathtub. The following track, “Eddie You Should Know Better,” was about Priest’s friend Eddie and how the choices he made would affect those around him. “No Thing On Me” was an outcry to inner city youths not to be fooled or misled by the superficiality of the deifying of money, drugs and flashy cars. The instrumental cut “Think” was a bluesy, melancholy tune to provoke listeners to reflect and meditate on themselves. The final cut, “Superfly,” was an uptempo funky jam played during the movie’s last scene when Priest maneuvered a $100,000 hit on the lives of the crooked deputy commissioner and his family should anything happen to him, and it is played during the film’s closing credits.
Both the movie and the soundtrack were huge hits with moviegoers and music lovers alike. The soundtrack went to number one on the soul charts for six weeks in October 1972 and number one on the pop charts for four weeks the same month. Supafly helped put Mayfield on the map in the mainstream music market, propelling him to the status of a superstar.
The singles released from the album also did extremely well. “Freddie’s Dead” went number two for four weeks in the fall of 1972 on the soul charts and number four on the pop charts, while the follow-up single “Superfly” went to number five on the soul charts and number eight on the pop charts in early 1973. Both singles, like the album, were certified gold.
The phenomenal success of Superfly opened a lot of doors for Mayfield. Movie producers saw him as a hot property. Indeed, Mayfield was the “king” of movie scores in the seventies as he went on to score the films Claudine, Let’s Do It Again, Sparkle, Short Eyes, and A Piece of the Action.
Mayfield, along with Isaac Hayes, redefined the movie soundtrack, which was not just a bunch of songs thrown together but rather told a story about the film and its characters. Even if one had never seen the movie Superfly one could actually “see” the movie while listening to the soundtrack in the way a storyteller tells a story.
Other recording artists in the seventies followed with soundtracks to movies inspired by Mayfield’s storytelling style: the Godfather of Soul James Brown (Black Caesar, Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off), Motown artist and producer Willie Hutch (The Mack, Foxy Brown), and many others.
The full genius and calibre of Mayfield’s work cannot be summed up with just this one soundtrack. All of his albums were equally great and of significant importance. But the groundbreaking success of Superfly put Mayfield on the map and helped the mainstream masses realize that he was indeed the “master storyteller.”
– Stephen McMillian
Stephen McMillian is an actor, writer, journalist, filmmaker, dancer and a music historian.