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Curtis Mayfield

Curtom 8014
Released: July 1972
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 46
Certified Gold: 9/7/72

Curtis MayfieldThis soundtrack to the flash and clever Superfly is as pleasing and pretty in your living room as it is mingled with the images that it aurally represents. In fact the anti-drug message on the record is far stronger and more definite than in the film, which was diluted by schizoid cross purposes. Superfly, the film, glamorizes machismo-cocaine consciousness while making a political moralization about the process that keeps drugs illegal yet sees that they are supplied in quantity to the ghetto. The only way that black political consciousness is treated is to make it seem impotent and trivial.

Yet the implied "plot" in Curtis Mayfield's music and lyrics closely follows the line of the film; each song is readily identifiable with various scenes; the many attitudes and poses that Curtis adopts in his music, whether it be the tough-yet-sensitive persona or a sort of narrative third person, all point to rejection of dope control and self-liberation, the most positive themes of what will be a heavily influential film.

But the greatest quality of any soundtrack is that it can stand alone. Superfly is not only a superior, imaginative soundtrack, but fine funky music as well and the best of Curtis Mayfield's four albums made since he left the Impressions since the "Gypsy Woman" days. The Mayfield-Pate team dipped into three distinct musical satchels to pull out this lovely and energetic song cycle -- the established Shaft system of dramatic, heaving chords and souped-up, insectine guitar and synthesizer chops by Isaac Hayes; the lyrical power of the song style and orchestration of Marvin Gaye and David Van dePitte; and, certainly not least, the amazing emotive skill of Curtis Mayfield, whose technique is honed and carried to strange extremes. "Pusherman," the major vocal theme of the film, identifying the protagonist ("a man of odd circumstance, a victim of ghetto demands"), is almost scary and perverse, given Curtis' manner: He kisses the word "pusherman" rather than sings it. The implications are so heavy that this truly amazing song, with its metallic percussion and hypnotic, drugged tone, couldn't possibly be released as a single. The more conservative "Freddie's Dead," which deals with the demise of a sad fat stooge, was doled out instead to a faunching public and is now at the top of everyone's Hot Hundred.

"Little Child Runnin' Wild" sets the tone of the whole record -- episodic, tragic, hungry and telling tales of psychic misery. The story is that the coke dealer wants to split the scene, leave it clean and is all pent up with conflicts of values. Mayfield's soothing falsetto purr transforms into an anxious cry during climactic moments in the song/stories -- he is a tremendous vocal actor: "Pusherman," "Freddie's Dead" and "Eddie You Should Know Better" are crawling with tension; "Nothing On Me" and "Superfly" are triumphant and wailing, and "Give Me Your Love" is fine accompaniment for the slippery bathtub-fuck scene that makes the whole picture worthwhile for many of its patrons. The moral is that ol' Superfly is still badass stuff even if the cops are behind it, and also that this record is currently selling as well as good coke and deserves to do so.

- Bob Donat, Rolling Stone, 11/9/72.

Bonus Reviews!

This LP is not only great but will put the Curtis Mayfield name where it belongs -- at the top. In this Sig Shore production of Super Fly, all of the songs are written and performed by Mayfield. An album that should have immediate high sales in pop and soul markets. Other than the single cut "Freddie's Dead," entry also includes cuts like "Pusherman," "Think" and the motion picture title cut. Mayfield's best to date.

- Billboard, 1972.

I'm no respecter of soundtracks, but I can count -- this offers seven new songs (as many as his previous LP) plus two self-sustaining instrumentals. It's not epochal, but it comes close -- maybe Mayfield writes tougher when the subject is imposed from outside than when he's free to work out of his own spacious head. Like the standard-setting "Freddie's Dead," these songs speak for (and to) the ghetto's victims rather than its achievers (cf. "The Other Side of Town," on Curtis), transmitting bleak lyrics through uncompromisingly vacious music. Message: both candor and rhythm are essential to our survival. A-

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

What could have been a slick soundtrack for another black exploitation film is elevated to another level by the Impressions' former lead singer. "Freddie's Dead" and the title track charted, but there's an insinuating quality through all nine, and lyrics that speak truth. With disco beginning to drain the black music scene of its vitality, Superfly stands out for both its craft and creativity, benefitting from one of the sweetest soul voices of the era, coupled with some well-produced, light funk sounds. The sonics of this recording are impressive on CD, a minor problem being an occasional tendency to let the vocals slide a bit far into the mix. B+

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Curtis Mayfield's talents as an all-around artist became evident in the 1970s. This was one of many inspirational soundtracks Mayfield composed for films that seldom matched his musical tapestry. Superfly was a misunderstood film, but there were no questions about the music: such songs as "Freddie's Dead," "Pusherman" and the title track brought home the impact and scourge of drugs with clarity and power. Mayfield's singing was consistently magnificent, and the production and arrangements were equally superb. * * * * *

- Ron Wynn, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Curtis Mayfield was never better than on Superfly, where his falsetto cut through visions of ghetto life like a stiletto blade in a street fight. The wah-wah guitar that drives through this album is exemplary proto-funk. * * * * *

- Lawrence Gabriel, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.

The score of Gordon Parks Junior's morally dubious blaxploitation movie -- did it glorify drug dealers? -- was considerably better than the film, thanks to a superb set of songs and incidental numbers from ex-Impressoin Curtis Mayfield. The soundtrack release became, basically, his fourth solo album. Already the sweet-voiced soul songsmith had garnered great praise for his Curtis, Roots and Curtis/Live LPs from the turn of the decade. With Super Fly he took things a stage further, scoring an international hit in the title track that infused the then common wah-wah soundtrack markers with a moody, often magical feel. The staccato, brass-pumping title track gave Mayfield's vocals the perfect platform; "Freddie's Dead," the contemporary hit single, grew into a sad, stirring epic (in the early 90s Fishbone would accelerate the song, making it harder and more threatening), while the cascading pianos of "No Thing On Me - The Cocaine Song" resonated with the dangerous allure of the drug world. While Mayfield's first specialty, romance, was covered on the tender "Give Me Your Love," his brief on Super Fly was to create widescreen excitement and lush atmosphere -- and this No. 1 album succeeded beyond the producer's wildest dreams. Mayfield is in a wheelchair now, but his music continues to fly.

- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.

A textbook case of a soundtrack that artistically dwarfs the film that spawned it, Curtis Mayfield's opus is a testament to the powers of a musician at the top of his game. Mayfield's music imbued the blaxploitation quickie with a moral pulse, taking aim at the scourge of drugs in the inner city. It was one of Mayfield's gifts that his songs could sound joyful and heartbroken at the same time, suggesting the complexities of the human experience. "Pusherman," "Freddie's Dead," the title track -- Mayfield's lyrical high-mindedness would have meant naught if the music weren't as addictive as the drug itself.

- Entertainment Weekly, 2001.

No wonder it's a staple for hip-hop sampling -- the baddest brother around explores the dark streets, full of hustlers, pushers and pimps on hands-down one of the most important funk/soul records to be made. High on howling horns, churning grooves and wah-wah guitar, the kick-ass milestone in black music bests its movie by a country mile. So, skip the cheesy blaxploitation flick and wear out the album 'cause it's cool, real cool. * * * * *

Further reading on
Super Seventies RockSite!:

Album Review: There's No
Place Like America Today

Book Review: Traveling Soul

"Blaxploitation Soundtracks"

"Blaxploitation Cinema"

Curtis Mayfield Lyrics

Curtis Mayfield Videos

Curtis Mayfield Mugshots

Album Reviews:
"70's Black Music -
A Consumer Guide"

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

Curtis Mayfield's career was indeed a rich and fertile one, from those early sides with the Impressions (which influenced, perhaps more than any other American musician, a whole run of exquisite Jamaican rocksteady and ska singles) to the socially conscious numbers he waxed on his own Curtom label (and with which the tunes on Superfly were of a piece, lest anyone think he was celebrating the elephant-lapeled ghetto kingpins that Hollywood was so quick to glamorize.) Indeed, more than any single figure other than Bob Dylan, Mayfield might have been responsible for lifting pop music away from its earliest girls-and-Cadillacs obsession. He brought the church to the people and the people to the church, so to speak. When listening to Superfly, feel free to bob your neck and think mack-daddy thoughts, to enjoy the stately yet stanky pimp-liness of it all (a whole generation of hip-hop players, after all, owe their very livelihoods to this man, also, as much as to James Brown), but remember this is the real deal. It runs oh so much deeper than that.

Superfly was voted the 63rd greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.

- Matthew Specktor, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.

In the blaxploitation-soundtrack derby, Isaac Hayes' Shaft came first -- but that record had one great single and a lot of instrumental filler. Mayfield's soundtrack to Superfly is an astonishing album, marrying lush string parts to funky bass grooves and lots of wah-wah guitar. On top is Mayfield's knowing falsetto. Tracks such as "Pusherman" and "Freddie's Dead" are almost unremittingly bleak, commenting on the movie's glamorization of the drug-trade action and forecasting its inevitable results. "I don't take credit for everything I write," Mayfield said. "I only look upon my writings as interpretations of how the majority of people around me feel."

Superfly was chosen as the 69th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

Chicago native Curtis Mayfield became a fixture on the U.S. soul scene in 1961, when his vcoal harmony group The Impressions began their run of evergreen chart hits. He embarked on a solo career in 1970, enlivening dance floors everywhere with the euphoric "Move On Up" (from debut LP Curtis). The signature sound was lush yet funky, a deftly orchestrated mélange of guitar, fluttering strings, majestic brass, and fluid rhythms. The icing on the cake was his silky falsetto, which often gilded searing commentaries about urban America.

Superfly was Mayfield's only No. 1 album, a soundtrack to the popular blaxploitation film that neatly denounced the very things the movie was in danger of glorifying. The symphonic minor-key "Little Child Runnin' Wild" paints a foreboding portrait of inner city life, its dramatic crescendos giving way to "Pusherman." Built around a mesmerizing bassline springloaded with congas, this first-person piece of street-level reportage anticipates gangsta rap; it was sampled by Ice-T on his 1988 song "I'm Your Pusher." The sweeping, Latin-flavored "No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)" is another powerful anti-drug statement, but the big singles were "Freddie's Dead" -- a poignant, flute-driven character sketch that reached No. 4 -- and the deceptively suave title track (a No. 8).

Mayfield never matched this commercial high, though 1975's There's No Place Like America Today is an overlooked gem. Tragedy struck in August 1990, when he was paralyzed from the neck down after a lighting rig fell on him. This gentle giant of twentieth century music died on December 26, 1999, aged 57.

- Manish Agarwal, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

Curtis Mayfield made a blaxploitation-film soundtrack album that packed more drama than the movie it accompanied. Musically, Superfly is astonishing, marrying lush string parts to deep bass grooves, with lots of wah-wah guitar. On top, Mayfield sings in his world-wise falsetto, narrating the bleak ghetto tales of "Pusherman" and "Freddie's Dead," telling hard truths about black life in the 1970s.

Superfly was chosen as the 76th greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.

- Rolling Stone, 10/20.

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