It would be no stretch to say that more of today’s generation has heard Curtis Mayfield’s funk-a-fied “Superfly” than have actually seen the movie for which it was written. Though the film, made on a half-million-dollar budget, cleaned up at the box office, its legacy hasn’t quite lived on as well as Mayfield’s classic soundtrack, a legendary slab of orchestral soul and righteous funk that transcends genre and generation. It’s refreshingly organic, melodically gorgeous and altogether badass.
In the ’70s, Blaxploitation films were on the rise and soul stars of the time were frequently tapped to score them. Isaac Hayes was among the first, writing the unforgettable Shaft soundtrack. Then the likes of James Brown and Marvin Gaye followed with Black Caesar and Trouble Man, respectively. Still, it’s Mayfield’s Superfly that stands the test of time. More than mere kitsch, Superfly is an amazing set of songs that are actually quite thematically tight, sticking fairly faithfully to the film’s plot of a street hustler planning one last deal before going straight and starting a new life.
Me, I’ve never seen the film. Some say it’s a dated watch, more kitsch than classic. Some say it’s every bit as essential as Mayfield’s score. But all I know for sure is that no music fan, particularly those who enjoy ’70s soul, should be without this album. From the powerful opening of “Little Child Running Wild” to the closing title track, Curtis pulls out all the stops. Described as the “black Sgt. Pepper’s” by many fans and Rhino Records, who later reissued the album, Superfly is a kaleidoscopic landscape of melody.
“Little Child” immediately grabs your attention with its rattling conga drums, heavy bass and ascending violin screeches. Then the horns come in, and you know this album is as bad a mofo as Hayes’ Shaft, only with more songs to balance out the instrumental interludes. “Pusherman” is one of the best-known songs off the album, and one of the most simple as well. Consisting mainly of bass, percussion, minimal guitar chords and Mayfield’s high-speed delivery, the song is like a street life nursery rhyme:
Ain’t I clean
For the Man
Here I stand
The arguably hottest joint in the bunch is “Freddie’s Dead,” a single whose vocal version never quite made it into the film. The instrumental, however, is the title character’s theme for cruising in his pimped-out ride. The album did contain some instrumental selections, like the self-explanatory “Junkie Chase,” with its blaring horns, and the decidedly tenderer “Think.” Yet, the vocal songs still make the album what it is. “Give Me Your Love” is as sexy a booty jam as they come, “Eddie You Should Know Better” grooves and remains emotional at the same time, and “No Thing On Me” sees Mayfield preaching against the dangers of drugs over a near-gospel backing reminiscent of Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”
And then there’s “Superfly.” Oh, Superfly. What a fantastic song! That funky bassline, that tremolo guitar fade-in and out, and let’s not forget that unforgettable horn section hook. Every time I hear this song, I seem to go into a trance, drumming along to its conga beats. There’s nothing quite like it, and for this song alone, it would be worth buying the whole album. But that would short change the other six classic songs and two great interludes.
Maybe someday, I’ll rent Superfly and see how well the movie has aged along with the soundtrack. I still have my doubts. But at 32 years and counting, Mayfield’s accompanying album has become a monument on its own.
Similar Albums/Albums Influenced:
Curtis Mayfield – Curtis
Isaac Hayes – Shaft
James Brown – The Big Payback
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.