Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield

In an excerpt from their new book, Curtis Mayfield’s son and Travis Atria dissect the superb soundtrack for the 1972 blaxploitation flick Super Fly

October 10, 2016

Somewhere between New York and Chicago, late 1971 – sitting on an airplane, the Super Fly script in his lap, Dad couldn’t stop the music from coming. “Wow, was I so excited,” he said. “I’d written a song just flying back home from New York. It took me hardly no time to prepare the songs and that’s how it began... I began writing immediately upon reading the script. I was making notes and coming up with the songs already. That was just a fantastic adventure for me.”

Reading the terse script, he felt drawn to the main character, Youngblood Priest. By name alone, Priest was an obvious archetype, a broadly drawn amalgamation of every drug dealer and pimp who stalked the ghettos. The main difference – Priest wanted out. Curtis said, “I didn’t put Priest down. He was just trying to get out. His deeds weren’t noble ones, but he was making money and he had intelligence. And he did survive. I mean all this was reality.”

Curtis Mayfield - Freddie's Dead

Even closer to reality, my father felt, was Priest’s fall guy, Freddie. “Reading the script, I started feeling very deeply bad for Freddie,” he said. “Between his friends, his partners, and his woman, he was catching a hard time. ‘Freddie’s Dead’ came to me immediately. While you might not know a lot of pimps and drug dealers, we do meet quite a few Freddies.”

Dad crafted “Freddie’s Dead” on the Fender Rhodes piano he kept in his basement bedroom of the three-flat house – he said it only took him five minutes to write. He liked to work late into the night, long after we’d fallen asleep. In the morning, sometimes we’d see the aftermath of a songwriting session. As Tracy recalls, “I remember all this legal paper balled up everywhere on the floor. And I remember picking one up to read it and it just said ‘Freddie’s Dead’ on it. I was like, ‘Who’s Freddie? Who’s dead?’”

Curtis Mayfield - Little Child Running Wild

Dad had another song already written – “Ghetto Child” – which he tried to cut during the Roots sessions. It fit the Super Fly script perfectly. He renamed it “Little Child Runnin’ Wild,” and as he explained, “I started writing [‘Little Child Runnin’ Wild’] three years ago. It never seemed to come out right, though. And then, all at once, while I was scoring the movie, everything fell into place.”

To score the rest of the film, Dad received rushes of the scenes and watched them on a Sony VO-1600, a huge, heavy, professional piece of equipment that was a precursor to the VCR. The rushes came on three-quarter-inch videocassettes, each one the size of a book, featuring a timeline running across the bottom of the screen so he could sync the music exactly where he wanted in each scene. He had the machine set up in a room he used as a home studio, and sometimes he’d let us watch the tape while he worked. Other times, my brothers and I would sneak in and watch the famous bathtub love scene while he was napping.

Though we were still young, we’d grown accustomed to watching Dad work in such an intimate setting. He made a point of including us in his professional life whenever possible, often letting us sit in the Curtom studio as he recorded. We learned quickly, however, that watching someone write a song isn’t nearly as exciting as listening to the finished product.

Dad was more than excited, though. On top of giving him a chance to score his first movie, the Super Fly script called for a cameo performance featuring “The Curtis Mayfield Experience,” which would mark his first time on the silver screen. Because of scheduling conflicts, the band had to shoot the scene for the movie before recording the album, so late in December 1971, Dad called Craig, Lucky, Henry and Tyrone and said in typical last-minute fashion, “Hey, we’re going to go do this movie. We got to go to New York.”

Curtis Mayfield in Superfly (1972)

Dad had written a song called “Pusherman” for the scene, but he hadn’t had a chance to work it out in the studio. Filmmaker Gordon Parks Jr. needed a finished song for the shot, though, so the band booked a session at Bell Sound Studios in New York to cut it. Craig recalls, “I think we went in at night, because we had to go do the movie thing the next day.” The band hadn’t heard any of the other songs my father had written, but if “Pusherman” was any indication, they were in for something special.

When they arrived on set, as Craig recalls, “That’s when we found out what movie making is all about. We’re just standing there, and they’re adjusting the lights. They’re trying to get all the entrances right and things.” The band mimed the song while the actors attempted to nail the scene, take after take. The next day, they did it again. As my father learned on the first Impressions’ tour, what once seems glamorous often becomes mundane when viewed up close. Movies were no different.

Shooting the scene was a bit tedious, but it only lasted two days, after which the band embarked on another European tour. Next, Dad returned to his old group. The Impressions hadn’t recorded since Check Out Your Mind in 1970, so they hit the studio to cut the songs they’d been rehearsing at Fred’s house. The resulting album, Times Have Changed, introduced Leroy Hutson as lead singer. Dad wrote seven of the eight songs on the album, including his most powerful antiwar song ever, “Stop the War,” featuring a haunting, passionate vocal performance from Sam.

The Impressions - Stop The War

After wrapping Times Have Changed, Dad received more rushes of the Super Fly film and didn’t like what he saw. He said, “Reading the script didn’t tell you ‘and then he took another hit of cocaine’ and then about a minute later ‘he took another hit.’ So when I saw it visually, I thought, ‘This is a cocaine infomercial.’” He was no prude, nor from what I heard was he a stranger to cocaine – I was told he’d begun experimenting with it by the time of Super Fly, and soon he would enter a period of heavier use.

He had also lived the truth of the movie’s seedy scenes during his childhood in the White Eagle. “I didn’t have to leave my neighborhood to be surrounded by the things that Super Fly is about,” he said. “It was easier than most scripts because it was about an environment that I knew. It’s not that the ghetto is thriving with pimps and pushermen, it’s just they are a very visible part of the ghetto. If you stand on the corner, you’re gonna notice the pimp, because he’s so bright. If he goes by twice, you’re gonna remember him and get to know him, while you might not remember somebody else who goes by five times. And you have to understand that half of every big city is the ghetto.”

Curtis Mayfield - Pusherman

Still, he wanted no part of a movie that glorified these things. Instead of backing down, he doubled down. He crafted his songs into character studies, each one becoming its own movie in miniature. In a way, he became the film’s conscience. “I did the music and lyrics to be a commentary, as though someone was speaking as the movie was going,” he said. “It was important for me to counter the visuals – to go in and explain it in a way that the kids would not read it as an infomercial for drugs.”

With the message in place, he needed the music to match, so he returned to the man who had done more for his music than anyone – Johnny Pate. Johnny still lived in New York, working as an A&R man, producer, and arranger for MGM Records. He got a call, and the soft, high voice on the other end said, “I can’t do it without you.” Johnny dropped his work and flew to Chicago.

As usual, Curtis brought in cassettes with snippets of guitar licks and vocal ideas. For the first time though, when Johnny heard the songs, he felt little inspiration to write arrangements. “Most of [the songs had] very few chord changes, very few melodic lines,” he said. “‘Pusherman,’ ‘Superfly,’ ‘Freddie’s Dead,’ if you listen to these closely enough, Curtis was almost rapping through these things.” Johnny did get excited about “Eddie You Should Know Better” – “You’ve got chord structure, you’ve got beautiful chord changes, plus a great melody,” he said – but for the rest of the material, scoring two-chord songs didn’t leave a lot of room for a jazz cat with a full orchestra at his fingertips.

Curtis Mayfield - Eddie You Should Know Better

That simplification – the emphasis on rhythmic rather than chordal movement – had already pushed my father’s music into new realms. It did the same for Johnny’s arrangements. Despite the difficulties, or perhaps because of them, Johnny created unforgettable backdrops to the songs, jaw-dropping in brilliance and complexity. Harps, oboes, strings, horns, bells, and flutes do as much to paint a picture as the lyrics themselves.

The arrangements helped create an intricate tapestry of sound unlike anything Dad and Johnny had yet made together. Part of that intricacy came from the method of recording. “We had the chance to cut with a live orchestra,” Craig says. “The advantage of it is, if you have full orchestra, when you place your licks, you don’t have to worry about your licks bumping. You can hear everything that’s going to go down.” They cut the songs in a mere three days, after which my father perfected his vocals. Then, everyone stepped back to admire the finished product.

Intro credits, 'Super Fly' (1972)

Perhaps counterintuitively, writing to a script and telling other characters’ stories allowed Dad to craft his most autobiographical lyrics ever. He wasn’t just writing about Priest and Freddie; he wasn’t just writing about junkies and pushers; he was writing about himself and his childhood. He was writing about the things he’d seen growing up in the White Eagle, the things he’d experienced living in one of the most segregated cities in the North and traveling through the South during the darkest hours of Jim Crow. His autobiography shines through in lines like “Hard to understand / What a hell of a man / This cat of the slum had a mind / Wasn’t dumb,” and “His mind was his own / But the man lived alone,” and “Can’t be like the rest / Is the most he’ll confess.”

He also recognized his adult life in the film rushes. In one scene, a street gang approaches Priest and tries to extort money in exchange for protection. My father had just lived through that exact trouble. One day, he walked into Curtom and found the Blackstone Rangers, one of Chicago’s most notorious gangs, lurking in his office. They demanded money. Just like when the promoter in Atlantic City waved a gun in his face, my father remained cool. He had steel of his own in his desk drawer – a silver revolver with a white handle. He often kept it close in case a situation got out of hand. At home, he tucked it under his mattress or stashed it in the drawer next to his bed. Sometimes he’d even bring it on family outings for safety. One day, he showed it to me – “You see that?” he said. “Don’t touch it.”

Still, he wanted no part of the Blackstone Rangers. He cut a deal. “I’m not giving you any money,” I recall him saying, “but I’ll play a concert in Chicago and you can take the money and help the neighborhood.” They never bothered him again.

Soon, black men everywhere wore Priest’s hairstyle, “the Lord Jesus,” with long, flowing locks curled and pressed.

The Super Fly soundtrack dropped a month before the movie and shot to the top of the R&B chart. It was an odd way to orchestrate a release, but a canny move in this case. Making a blaxploitation film came with tremendous obstacles, and the massive pre-publicity from the soundtrack helped overcome them. Fenty and Shore had that in mind when they handed my father the script in New York. They knew working with one of the hottest artists in the world would help them secure backing, and as Dad wrote and cut the soundtrack, Fenty got that backing. He went to Nate Adams, who owned an employment business in Harlem. Adams said, “I had a good picture of what was happening on the streets, as well as what was happening in the business world.” He signed on.

Spurred on by my father’s music, the movie caused a fracas when it opened in New York in August 1972. “We decided we would go down and watch the lines for the movie,” Fenty recalled. “They ran out of tickets, and there was still a lot of line left. Somebody went around the side of the building, and they broke the door open. You saw this mass of people with police trying to stop them breaking into the theatre trying to see this movie. That was a very, very high moment for Gordon and myself. That was our little picture, and people were actually breaking into the movies to see it.”

Super Fly briefly knocked off The Godfather as the highest-grossing movie in the country, and it was the third-highest grossing film of 1972. Dad took Tracy, Sharon, and me to the movie’s premiere in Chicago. Even though I was only six years old, I still remember the excitement and electricity in the air. I had seen many of the scenes on video while he was in the process of making the soundtrack, but seeing it on the big screen with the score made it seem bigger than life. Obviously, Super Fly wasn’t meant for a young audience, but I believe Dad was so proud of his accomplishment that he wanted to share it with us.

Curtis Mayfield - Superfly

While the movie follows a pusher trying to escape street life, beneath the surface, it is about the same things my father had been singing about since “The Other Side of Town” and “Underground”: the dynamics of power – who has it, who needs it, who is denied it.

The movie has a strong moral center. At the end, Priest wins through intelligence and cunning, not violence – although he did give the cops a good beat down before driving off with his life, woman and money intact. As my father noted, “In all the films at that time black people were portrayed as pimps and whores, who usually got ripped off at the end. Superfly had enough mind to get out of all that, and let the authorities know that he saw through their games.” In other words, unlike every other movie, this time the black man won.

Crowds loved it. Critics did not. Critics couldn’t stop the movie from influencing the culture, though. Soon, black men everywhere wore Priest’s hairstyle, “the Lord Jesus,” with long, flowing locks curled and pressed. Cadillacs, decked out à la Priest’s superfly hog, crept down ghetto streets across America, moving just slowly enough to give the whole neighborhood an eyeful. The clothing of the street hustler became mainstream fare, too – suits with wide lapels and intricate stitching, mink coats, and platform shoes with three-inch heels. That last sartorial trend couldn’t have come soon enough for my father, who at five-foot-seven loved to wear platform leather and suede boots. In those boots, he stood two or three inches taller. Of course, he wasn’t the first or last artist to surreptitiously enhance his height. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Prince took advantage of heels in the same way.

Super Fly (1972)

Despite the success of both soundtrack and movie, though, the critical excoriation stung. My father, who never wasted time arguing with critics, fought back, saying:

“The way you clean up the film is by cleaning up the streets. I can see where those guys are coming from, and how they look upon Super Fly as a dope movie. But it’s just as easy to see it as an antidrug movie, which is what I think the critics don’t give the people enough credit for seeing. I mean even an anti-dope commercial can be looked at as a dope commercial. You can’t do nothing about drugs by pretending they don’t exist. You just have to be able to give people credit for knowing what’s good and what’s bad. That’s why I wanted ‘Freddie’s Dead’ put out as the single. Because the average dude realizes that he’s more like a Freddie than a Priest. And Freddie’s just the average guy who might have been able to be saved except that he fell in with the wrong crowd. More people are gonna realize that they’re like Freddie and if they don’t watch what they’re messing with they’ll end up dead. There’s one other thing that the critics of Super Fly seem to miss. For the budget of less than $300,000, there isn’t that much you can do. The film had to be about things that go on in the street because this is the only place they could afford to shoot it.”

In another interview, he continued his argument. “Forget the critics,” he said. “Ask somebody who has had a true taste of street life. They know this was the only way we could make an honest film about the drug culture. Nobody called James Bond, Tarzan or Frankenstein ‘white exploitation’ movies. If there is a dollar to be made in adventure films, why can’t black people make it?”

Even late in his life, Dad defended the movie. In a 1996 interview, he said, “These films were positive for us. Prior to blaxploitation, we didn’t dare show any intellect in films. The black characters were always getting killed. But with Shaft and Super Fly, things were different.”

With Sweetback, Shaft, and Super Fly, the blaxploitation genre exploded. A pattern formed in which a world-class artist created an album that helped sell the movie and often overshadowed it. It happened with Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street, Roy Ayers’s Coffy (written for the movie that introduced Pam Grier to the world), Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man and James Brown’s Black Caesar – all excellent albums that resulted in some of the best work by each artist.

Even Johnny Pate got back in the mix, scoring Brother on the Run and Shaft in Africa. Dozens of other examples exist, but of all these soundtracks, Super Fly remains in a class by itself. It transcends the genre and time period in a way no other blaxploitation soundtrack does. Perhaps that’s due to its unprecedented and unrepeated success on the charts. Perhaps it’s because my father spoke about real life issues that remain relevant some 40 years later, and will likely be relevant in another 40 years. Whatever the reason, critical opinion and cultural impact have set Super Fly apart from the competition – and it was damn stiff competition, too.

Bobby Womack - Across 110th Street

After the movie became a smash, it propelled the soundtrack to even further heights. Dad was no stranger to the top of the R&B chart, but Super Fly did something else – something Dad had never done before and would never do again. When the Billboard pop chart came out for the week of October 21, 1972, at number one with a bullet, it read: “Curtis Mayfield, Super Fly.” After 14 years in professional music, including countless albums and singles for dozens of other artists, he reigned supreme on the pop chart for the first and only time.

No other black artist had hit the top of the pop chart with an album like Super Fly. It was the grittiest, hardest album Curtis ever made. He painted his most unflinching picture of ghetto reality as black people experienced it – drugs, pimps, pushers, depression, despair, destruction. More than ever before, he spoke directly to the concerns of his people. He wrote no songs of conciliation, no messages of peace and understanding between races. In return for that, the public – both black and white – gave him the highest status in popular music.

It seemed contrary to everything black performers had experienced throughout history. For half a century or more, conventional wisdom held that white people wouldn’t buy “race records,” although white people had always discreetly listened to black radio stations. Such reasoning formed the underpinning of segregated radio. The only way black artists could break through those chains was to walk that tightrope between worlds, between voices. With Super Fly, Dad not only cut that rope, he replaced it with a new model of artistry.

One can debate forever the reasons why that happened. Certainly, the movement and the music of the 1960s helped make it possible. Perhaps the recent years of hard drugs, brutal assassinations, and bloody war also readied the record-buying public for Super Fly’s unflinching honesty. Regardless of why, however, it happened – and it would happen for black artists with increasing frequency in coming decades. It’s hard to imagine the fearless honesty of hip-hop catching on with white suburbia – and influencing the music, culture, fashion, and language of the entire world in the ’80s and ’90s – if not for the success of an album like Super Fly.

Header image © Chicago Review Press / Independent Publishers Group

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