Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly” Reviewed
In 1972 Ron O’Neal had made it. After years of struggling to establish himself as an actor, raising from the streets of Cleveland, where his father, a jazz musician who became a factory worker, died when he was sixteen and his big brother died the same year, Ron joined the oldest black theatre group in the States, Karamu House, before moving to New York. A successful Broadway play had him getting the lead of blaxploitation movie # 2, Sig Shore’s “Superfly”. # 1 was “Shaft,” of course, a private eye goes after the mafia. “Superfly” was something else, a Harlem drug pusher and all round hustler ready to make one last big time haul before quitting the business and heading West with his girlfriend. Ron was interviewed around the time of the release and mentioned how he always thought stardom to be Hollywood and champagne dreams, and instead found himself the spokesperson for low income Black neighborhoods and the kids who were raised on the meanest of mean streets. Ron’s excuse for the morally fallow being a role model rested on two things: 1) despite all his character’s, brutal Youngblood Priest, criminality and ‘sticking it to the man, the thing he most wants to do is get out of the business. and 2) Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack album doesn’t mince words, doesn’t romanticize what happens: it is, after all, Curtis Mayfield, the poster boy for not being a black criminal. Curtis in the 1960s, with the Impressions, was the sound of middle class blacks, with Superfly he was the voice of the black criminal classes fighting to become middle class. What Curtis personified was the sound of the streets and also the sound of the dreadnaught of the streets.
The most obvious comparison for Curtis’ fourth solo album, is Isaac Hayes Shaft. But Hayes only has the (seminal) “Theme Of Shaft,”, the rest is incidental instrumentals, Curtis has the entire nine song Superfly soundtrack, every single song an epic bass/drums/guitar new world order, that built into a soundtrack of black against black against dishonest racism in the early 1970s dangerland. the sound is urban funk and soulful singing, all wah wah guitar and Curtis pulsating falsetto taking you along for a ride. If “Superfly” the movie was the blueprint for black would be drug pushers (its lesson drowned in sexy violence and cross and double cross, headed by the NYPD), Superfly the album, while at first appearing a blazing renouncement of Mayfield and his son of MLK for Malcolm X’s revered fight violence with violence, on deeper listening, Curtis hasn’t changed his way at all. The multi million selling “Freddie’s Dead”:
Everybody’s misused him
Ripped him up and abused him
Another junkie plan
Pushing dope for the man
A terrible blow
But that’s how it goes
A Freddie’s on the corner now
If you want to be a junkie, wow
Remember Freddie’s dead
If black children from Harlem and the Bronx, or Watts, if the disenfranchised sons and daughters of one family homes, want to take a different message from the movie or album than the one that is being transmitted,, it isn’t Curtis fault. Though what is his fault, or at least his method of operation, is deep blues and blacks based around the most minimal of tracks, with only a trumpet to add color, on his hard funk songs. Only “Give Me Your Love (Love Song)” finds Curtis giving into his melodic strengths. Along with the instrumental “Think” they are like breathers in the desperation that hounds Curtis’s masterpiece. Everything about Superfly is fraught with warning. Shaft isn’t just rhythm based pop, it includes a full orchestra, not Superfly, arranged by Curtis long time collaborator Johnny Pate, Curtis is a stark and desperate masterpiece, a mirror image of a world that is so hard to leave behind. Close your eyes and you are back in the streets, in the hood.
At 36 minutes in length, Curtis is relentless in his bleakness, it is astonishing how successful and how influential the album is. In the charts for years, there is nothing not great here. The first tier songs of the wages of sin, “Pusherman,” Freddie’s Dead (Theme From Superfly),” and “Superfly” are ripped from the world, not of the movie as such, but of the middle class observing the criminal class in the same portion of the neighborhood. Curtis himself, despite writing the songs with the screenplay in hand, didn’t write about Youngblood Priest as such, he wrote about the type of hustlers Curtis knew and observed. The result was truer to the black experience than the movie was. And while it was no more true than The Impressions, it was also less accommodating to a white audience, like James Brown before him, it was black music for black people: it viewed the retreat from the many to the one with a jaundiced eye; Curtis was wary.
It is wariness and not violence that gives Superfly so much tenseness, Curtis’s guitar sounds like lacerating whippings, the trumpet an intrusive sound, the bass and drums the center of a sinking universe. And with all of that Curtis offers two pieces of sublime hope, love and thought: the only two times when the music becomes gorgeous are the only two times when hope becomes eternal. “Give Me Your Love (Love Song)” is as lovely a ballad as Curtis ever wrote, and the instrumental “Think” (Curtis dubbed it his favorite on the album), a moving example of how to make it through. Youngblood might be a fly hustler, but he was also an idiot, stuck in a social maelstrom and trying hard to get out. By the end, when the man is proven to be just another petty criminal, his success is the success of a black man in a white society. At no time during Super Fly does Curtis treat Youngblood with respect, these songs being sent to black communities, and musically at least changing them (though the black communities responded to Youngblood the same way director Gordan Parks, Jr., did -as a black superman, he is the birth of gangster rap), is being not as agitprop, not as warning and heeds and worries (all of which came true by the end of the 1970s), but as a minimal funk breakdown of sound, Curtis deconstructs funk much more thoroughly than had happened so far, more than all the psychedelia workouts – Parliament were way over the top comparatively, Curtis was barebones soul.
The only truly accurate comparisons is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Released more than a year before Superfly, they are both highly political albums -low and soulful groove albums, Gaye had the songs but Mayfield caught the moment. Gaye sang what he saw as Op Ed, Curtis as short story writer, Gaye warned through words and Curtis through action. But nearly fifty years on, Curtis is the standard bearer for black funk, when you hear trap guys like Future you hear Curtis, not the Impressions and not Marvin Gaye. The lessons were missed but the sound lives on.