wax Poetics
Curtom/Buddah Records promotional photo of Curtis Mayfield on the set of Super Fly. Photo by Gilles Petard via Redfern/Getty.

Superfly at Fifty

The inside story of Curtis Mayfield’s masterpiece.

Excerpted from Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield, by Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria, courtesy of Chicago Review Press.

published online
By Travis Atria

New York, late 1971—For Curtis Mayfield, the beginning of the new decade was a time of great change. He had entered uncharted territory in every aspect of his life. He had quit his group, the Impressions, and moved far from his relationships with bandmates Fred Cash and Sam Gooden. He had founded his own label, Curtom, with longtime manager Eddie  Thomas (the “Tom” in Curtom), but now even his relationship with Eddie hung on a string. He split from my mother, moved into the basement apartment of a building he owned nearby, and grew close to people who didn’t have his best interests at heart. But at the same time, he had never been more successful. And he now lived and worked on his own terms. 

He had quit the Impressions in large part to spend more time at home working at Curtom, but with the wild success of his first three solo efforts—Curtis, Roots, and Curtis/Live!—he found himself touring as much as ever. After one of his last shows of the year, a gig at Lincoln Center in New York City, writer Phil Fenty and producer Sig Shore slipped backstage with a script in hand and a proposition. “We hope that you might be interested in scoring this movie,” they said as they handed him the script. My father almost fell out of his chair. He’d wanted to get into films for years—desperately so after Isaac Hayes’s smash hit Shaft—and it had finally come. 

The result would define him for the rest of his life.

Flying home, 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 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 was, 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.”

Director Gordon Parks Jr. and Curtis Mayfield on the set of Super Fly. Photo via Cache Agency.
Director Gordon Parks Jr. and Curtis Mayfield on the set of Super Fly. Photo via Cache Agency.

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 my brother 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?’”

Dad had another song already written—“Ghetto Child”—which he tried to cut during the Roots sessions. As he explained, “I started writing it 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.” Renamed “Little Child, Runnin’ Wild,” it became the leadoff track on the album.

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. 

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 his band 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 performs “Pusherman” in the film Super Fly, 1972. Photo via Cache Agency.
Curtis Mayfield performs “Pusherman” in the film Super Fly, 1972. Photo via Cache Agency.

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. Guitarist Craig McMullen 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.

After the taping, my father wanted to go home and finish the soundtrack, but a month of touring in Europe and writing a new album for the Impressions (with new lead singer Leroy Hutson) got in the way. By spring, he was finally back at work on the soundtrack and began to receive more rushes of the film. He 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 Superfly 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.” 

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.

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 a 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.” 

Another part was how close my father, Craig, Henry, and Lucky had become from touring together. “As a guitar player, I wanted to make sure I had my stuff right,” Craig says. “I played on every song. Curtis would drop out sometimes and just sing. He knew I could do that. I was the only guitar player on ‘Freddie’s Dead.’ Curtis was in the control booth and Phil Upchurch couldn’t be there, so I was the only one out there. So, I knew exactly where to put all the nuances, the little licks. The way we worked was that Curtis would play something and he relied on me and Lucky and Master Henry to put our parts onto his thing. He might have an idea, but in the end we was like a team, man. You don’t even have to say nothin’. We just do it. I already knew what he was getting ready to do, and I can counter with something else.”

Wax poetics

Engineer Roger Anfinsen recalled working in a crammed studio with as many as forty musicians on some songs. Dad and the band were crowded in by harps, horns, strings, flutes, and other players, and background singers had to sing from the control booth. “This was the only time I worked in this fashion with Curtis,” Anfinsen said. “It seemed about capturing a certain electricity, a live energy.” They cut the songs in a mere three days, after which my father perfected his vocals. 

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.

That didn’t mean he was safe, though. A black man making the money he made remained a conspicuous target, especially in a city with such strong Mafia ties. After fending off the Blackstone Rangers, Dad found himself in the shady clutches of Queen Booking again—the same company he bought into with Jerry a decade before and ultimately left because of the way the Mob took advantage of black artists. Now, Queen offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse—a six-month contract to book a tour of white-college dates. The deal was short-lived, though, since Queen never followed through. Dad soon switched to William Morris, one of the biggest bookers around, and they scheduled more than eighty white-college shows. He hadn’t given up on getting over to white crowds in America the way he did in Europe. 

Though he navigated that treacherous world of gangsters and mobsters without losing control of himself or his money, he couldn’t always navigate personal relationships with such finesse. While preparing Super Fly for release, Dad and Johnny got into an argument over the album’s two instrumental tracks, causing an irreparable rift in their relationship. 

The first of those tracks, “Junkie Chase,” is a classic piece of blaxploitation music—all orchestral hits, rumbling bass, and wah-wah guitar. The second, “Think,” features a guitar part that would surely have made Hendrix take notice. Both songs owe quite a bit to their orchestral arrangements, and Johnny wanted cowriting credit on them. My father refused to give it to him. Curtis the friend might have appreciated Johnny’s contributions; Curtis the businessman didn’t share credit—not with Carl Davis, not with Fred and Sam, and not with Johnny. When the final product hit stores, the album sleeve read, “Successfully arranged and orchestrated from the original dictations of Curtis Mayfield by Johnny Pate.” 

Johnny refused to back down. “I orchestrated and arranged the score to Superfly, but Curtis Mayfield got all the credit,” he told a reporter a month after the album’s release. “Everybody is ego tripping and taking credit for things they didn’t do.” By December, Dad filed a lawsuit in New York’s US District Court to declare himself the sole author and publisher of “Junkie Chase” and “Think.” He also went after one million dollars’ worth of damages for alleged defamation of character. His lawyer, Lew Harris, told Jet magazine, “We aren’t denying that Johnny Pate performed a very useful service in the arranging of the songs, but he was an author for hire; he was paid for his service.” In the same article, Johnny said, “I am entitled to half of the composing rights for those two tunes, because I wrote the melodic line for both.”

Publicity poster for a Curtis Mayfield concert, 1973. Image via John Kisch Archive/Getty Images.
Publicity poster for a Curtis Mayfield concert, 1973. Image via John Kisch Archive/Getty Images.

In Craig’s eyes, Johnny had a point. “Curtis couldn’t write music down,” he says. “So, he wasn’t going to orally translate those harmonies or those hits. You can listen to it and tell this is some big-band arranger putting this down. So, really, after all the things those two had done like brothers in the past, it shouldn’t have been a problem. That was just a poor way of doing something, as far as I’m concerned.” 

That was how my father had always done business, though, and that was how he’d keep doing it. Even near the end of his life, in an interview for the album’s twenty-fifth anniversary, he framed the debate on his terms. “Most arrangers that I have used in the past will come in with their own contributions, but I was always careful to make changes and be assured that the music was still mine and there was no conflict in the music that was arranged against the basic rhythm pattern in the song itself,” he said. “There’s a Curtis Mayfield song that really has no singing or lyrics, which is called ‘Think’ from the Superfly album that I especially appreciate when I listen to it. My art and my creativities were totally something that was of my own heart and mind. I could never let anybody dictate to me what I should write and how I would write it.” Sharing writing credit would have meant sharing revenues, and Curtis had toiled his whole career to avoid that. As a result, he and Johnny would never work together again.

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.

Fenty also had producer Sig Shore on his side. He said, “Sig was ideal for this. He knew the market. He knew how to get things done. He knew how to hustle, how to put together an independent project with no money.” Shore received money from two black dentists that lived in his neighborhood. Gordon Parks Sr. also pitched in roughly $5,000. “It was really a struggle from the very beginning,” Shore said. 

One struggle was overcome easily—casting the lead role. Fenty went to his friend Ron O’Neal, who was trained as a Shakespearian stage actor. It went without saying that Super Fly was not Shakespeare, but O’Neal felt a connection to Priest. He had grown up in a one-bedroom apartment on the West Side of New York and recognized himself in the script the same way my father did. “He really understood what that part was all about,” Shore said. 

They overcame another struggle with help from an unexpected place. In need of a superfly hog—the sweet street-hustler car they felt a character like Priest would drive— Adams serendipitously ran into a real-life pimp with just such a ride. “I can remember sitting in the shoe-shine parlor in the Theresa Towers, and a gentleman pulled up with this black Cadillac El Dorado with these big headlights,” Adams recalled. “This gentleman walked in, and he was slick as he wanted to be. A guy by the name of KC. He sat down next to me on the rack, I’m getting my shoes shined, you know, so I go, ‘Hey, man, that’s a bad ride. We thinkin’ about doing a movie, and I’d like to maybe let them look at your car to use in the movie.’ So, he gave me his number. It took me three weeks to get in touch with him. Consequently, when we finally talked, he said, ‘Man, ain’t no niggas makin’ no movies. You jeffin’ me?’” 

After Adams convinced him, KC let them use his car, which features heavily in the film. Fenty decided he wanted more than just the car, though. “We said, ‘Let’s put KC in the picture,’ because KC was wonderful,” Fenty said. “When we ran out of money, KC would just, [snaps fingers], ‘Buy ’em some food.’ He would buy food, he had his own wardrobe, and he knew what to say.”

Even so, production difficulties haunted the actors and crew. “When you shoot a picture like this, you’re very flexible,” Fenty said. “If you can’t get in someplace, or if you get thrown off of a corner, you can’t just fold it and wait for tomorrow. You got to find something else you can get.” Adams recalled, “We didn’t have anything but raw bones and guts. We didn’t have the luxury of saying, ‘We can shoot this scene over.’” They didn’t have the luxury of a professional wardrobe, either, so most of what the actors wore onscreen came from their own closets, or from Adams’s bevy of fly vines. 

After Warner Brothers agreed to back the film, they held a sneak preview in Westwood, a predominately white California neighborhood. Reviews came back tepid at best, and Warner Brothers threatened to back out. They were, after all, taking a chance on backing such a movie. Shore wheedled, saying, “What the hell did you expect in that theatre? This is a white-bread town.” As he recalled, “The next picture they screened it with was with Shaft at the Fox Theatre in Philadelphia. Of everybody that came out, they were all raves.”

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.”

Curtis Mayfield during an in-store appearance, September 1972. Photo via Cache Agency.
Curtis Mayfield during an in-store appearance, September 1972. Photo via Cache Agency.

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 I 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.

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 songs like “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. They’d fallen hard for Super Fly the album, but a furor erupted over Super Fly the movie. The Times of London said, “You could find more black power in a coffee bean.” Vernon Jarrett, a black reporter for the Chicago Tribune, called it a “sickening and dangerous screen venture.” Tony Brown, dean of Howard University’s School of Communication, said in a Newsweek cover story, “The blaxploitation films are a phenomenon of self-hate. Look at the image of Superfly. Going to see yourself as a drug dealer when you’re oppressed is sick. Not only are blacks identifying with him, they’re paying for the identification. It’s sort of like a Jew paying to get into Auschwitz.”

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.

Critics also couldn’t stop a generation of kids who lived through the realities on the screen from absorbing every nuance. A decade later, they’d dig through their parents’ records and chop up beats they found from Curtis, James Brown, the Isley Brothers, and others, to create a new art form—hip-hop. 

While James Brown was arguably the most influential of the group, an especially strong link exists between Super Fly and hip-hop. The movie’s gritty depiction of street life, the way Ron O’Neal swaggers through every scene as if he owns the entire world, the gratuitous martial arts scenes, and Curtis’s slick, streetwise songs—these elements are imprinted on KRS-One’s Criminal Minded, Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Nas’s Illmatic, the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle, among dozens of others. 

As Public Enemy’s Chuck D said, “When hip-hop became the thing, of course you’re going to reach back to what influenced you, what touched you in the past. The words from Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions just meant everything. The rhythms and the pacing we might not have incorporated as much as maybe something more percussive and aggressive like a James Brown, but there was something in Curtis Mayfield’s stance that we used.” 

The film inspired more than just a young generation of musicians. Armond White, film critic for the NY Press, said, “I remember in the theatre in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1972—the climax was when [Priest] told the cop off. He says, ‘If I so much as choke on a chicken bone’ what would happen, and the entire theatre, including myself, we leaped to our feet, and we stood, and screamed, and applauded, and clapped our hands, and stomped our feet. It connected psychically with people at a perfect place and time to provide that kind of catharsis.”

Michael Gonzales, noted R&B and hip-hop journalist, had similar memories. “The first time I saw Superfly was at the Lowe’s Victoria on 125th Street,” he wrote. “Next door to the Apollo, the theater was a hundred feet away from the pigeon-eyed view of the movie’s opening shot. Filled with young folks who couldn’t wait to enter into that playa playa netherworld of hustlers, scramblers, dames, and gamblers, folks were psyched. As the reel started rolling, music spilled from the speakers and the audience hummed along, mouthed the words, or sang aloud to the soundtrack.” Gonzales also credited the “neo-psychedelic red logo” on the “Freddie’s Dead” single with inspiring “a million graffiti artists.”

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 Superfly as a dope movie. But it’s just as easy to see it as an anti-drug 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 Superfly 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.”

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 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 forty years later, and will likely be relevant in another forty years. Whatever the reason, critical opinion and cultural impact have set Super Fly apart from the competition—and it was damn stiff competition, too.

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, Superfly.” After fourteen 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

Curtis had everything he’d always wanted: money, fame, family, a movie score, the most popular album in the country, his own label, complete control over his career, all the material comforts and conveniences possible, and as always, a generous share of women. He was only thirty years old. Yet, Eddie’s warning that he was going to burn himself out was coming true. “I’m working 24 hours a day,” he said. “This business involves mind and imagination. You can’t sit back and enjoy ‘normal’ activity—it always involves work.”

He had an unbelievable amount of creativity left within him, a deep well of songs that replenished at the same astonishing rate it always had. That well was in no danger of running dry, but he didn’t know how long fans would keep coming back to it. In two years, he’d recorded six albums between himself and the Impressions. The four he made for himself—Curtis, Curtis/Live, Roots, and Super Fly—surpassed anything he’d done with the Impressions in terms of commercial success. If this wasn’t the peak, how much higher could he climb? As he sang in “Superfly,” “How long can a good thing last?” These thoughts crept into his mind.

“You never want to reach the peak,” he said, “because after all, when you’ve gone all the way up, the only way to go is down.”

Excerpted from Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield, by Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria, courtesy of Chicago Review Press.

Travis Atria is an author and musician from Gainesville, Florida. He wrote the cover feature on Marvin Gaye for Issue 1. His most recent book is Better Days Will Come Again: The Life of Arthur Briggs, Jazz Genius of Harlem, Paris, and a Nazi Prison Camp. See more at www.travisatria.com.

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