Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack for Super Fly, Gordon Parks Jr.’s 1972 debut feature and one of the most popular and best known films of the blaxploitation cycle of the early-to-mid 1970s, far artistically outclasses the film it accompanies, in terms of both narrative and thematic coherence. Unlike first-time director Parks, Mayfield was by then a nearly 20-year veteran of the music business, most of it spent as front man of The Impressions, who had a string of R&B and pop hits in the late ’50s and throughout the ’60s. As the Impressions’ chief songwriter, Mayfield’s compositions starting around the mid-’60s demonstrated increasing social awareness, with such songs as “Keep on Pushing” and “People Get Ready” being adopted as anthems for the civil rights movement. Later Impressions’ tracks such as “Choice of Colors,” “This is My Country,” and “We’re a Winner,” as well as Mayfield’s early ’70s solo songs such as “Move On Up” and “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” continued this politically conscious trend.
Super Fly represented the apotheosis of Mayfield’s lyrical concerns, as well as being the commercial and critical peak of his career, this third solo studio effort being his only album to reach the top of the Billboard 200 album chart. Working from the script that was handed to him after a 1971 New York concert by screenwriter Phillip Fenty and producer Sig Shore, Mayfield was immediately inspired, and was able to insert his own commentary and autobiographical details into his lyrics, as well as bringing the film’s characters to musical life. Recorded in just four days, Super Fly was a shining example of the more expansive, complex, and sophisticated R&B that was being released during that period by such artists as Marvin Gaye, James Brown, and especially Isaac Hayes, whose Oscar-winning 1971 score and theme song for Shaft featured the combination of lush orchestration and funky rhythms that would prove a direct influence on the music for Super Fly.
The album opens with “Little Child Runnin’ Wild,” which tells the story of its protagonist growing up in ghetto poverty and descending into drug addiction, against a musical backdrop of swirling strings, razor-sharp horn stabs, and mournful saxophone. The opening lines succinctly portray the isolation and depression of his childhood: “Broken home / Father gone / Mama tired / So he’s all alone / Kind of sad / Kind of mad / Ghetto child / Thinkin’ he’s been had.” The indifference of public officials to his plight and those of others like him is deeply felt: “Where is the mayor / Who’ll make all things fair / He lives outside / Our polluted air.” He eventually turns to the solace of drugs to make his painful existence bearable: “Painful rip / In my upper hip / I guess it’s time / To take another trip / Don’t care what nobody say / I got to take the pain away / It’s getting worser day by day / And all my life has been this way.”
The following track, “Pusherman” (which Mayfield and his band perform in the film), shifts the focus from the drug user to the drug supplier, presumably the film’s protagonist Priest, played by Ron O’Neal. Powered by the slinky, seductive rhythm section of bassist Joseph “Lucky” Scott and drummer Tyrone McCullen, the song opens with the pusherman promising to be everything his clients desire: “I’m your doctor / When in need, want some coke? / Have some weed, you know me / I’m your friend — your main boy / Thick and thin / I’m your pusherman.” His boasts turn to the material riches he’s gained from his drug dealing: “Ain’t I clean? / Bad machine, super cool / Super mean, feelin’ good /F or the man, super fly / Here I stand, secret stash / Heavy bread, baddest bitches / In the bed.” However, the first hint that this high life is not all it seems comes in his self-description during the bridge: “A man of odd circumstance/A victim of ghetto demands.” Later, the pusherman’s wishes to leave this life are more explicitly articulated: “Got a woman / I love desperately / Wanna give her somethin’ / Better than me / Been told I can’t be nothin’ else / Just a hustler in spite of myself / I know I can break it / This life just don’t make it.” These lines jibe with the main thrust of the film’s plot, which involves Priest attempting to put together one last score that’ll earn him enough money to leave the drug dealer life altogether.
“Freddie’s Dead (Theme From Superfly),” the album’s third track and highest charting single (#4 pop, #2 R&B), expresses a great deal of pathos for the sad life and tragic fate of Fat Freddie (played in the film by Charles McGregor), one of Priest’s dealers. A fairly minor character who dies early in the film (although his death has major consequences in the narrative), the song makes him a grandly tragic figure. Driven by hard-hitting drums and fuzz and wah-wah guitars, the song portrays Freddie as a weak, pathetic man manipulated by others: “Everybody’s misused him / Ripped him off and abused him / Another junkie plan / Pushin’ dope for the man / A terrible blow / But that’s how it goes.” Freddie’s sad story is presented as a cautionary tale: “If you wanna be a junkie, well / Remember Freddie’s dead.” These lyrics only exist on the soundtrack recording; an instrumental version is used frequently in the film.
The title song is the album’s final track, as well as its other hit single (#8 pop, #5 R&B). Its instantly memorable, melodic bass line, blaring horns, and wah-wah guitars form a potent backdrop for the bitingly critical portrayal of the song’s protagonist: “Super Fly / You’re gonna make your fortune by and by / But if you lose, don’t ask no questions why / The only game you know is do or die.” Although this song soundtracks the triumphant ending of the film, similar to the rest of the soundtrack, it’s much more unambiguously critical of the drug trade and its deleterious effects on the Black community. And so, 50 years after its release, Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly soundtrack remains a rich, incredibly absorbing musical text, far more memorable and accomplished than the film it’s connected to. Mayfield’s soaring falsetto vocals make a killer combination with the intricately orchestrated music, situating Super Fly the soundtrack album as a much more successful cinematic experience than Super Fly the film.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.