Saturday, April 18, 2020

Curtis Mayfield - Super Fly

Curtis Mayfield on Dutch public television in 1972, the year the soundtrack for the movie Super Fly came out.

I first remember hearing the music of Curtis Mayfield on what was probably the worst day of his life.

In the late summer of 1990, he was about to take the stage at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn.  A gust of wind suddenly knocked over a scaffold where stage lighting was mounted, and the structure landed on him.

Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down.  I heard about it on the radio - New York City rock radio, in those days probably WNEW.  As the DJ heaped accolades on the man, I was shocked by the news.  

I also recall thinking, "I don't know who this is."

Then, perhaps in deference to the greatness of the musician (who I'd never heard on the station before, and who probably didn't technically fit the format), the DJ played a couple of Mayfield's songs. 

These included People Get Ready and Super Fly.  I'll admit I wasn't thrilled by People Get Ready, which Mayfield wrote in 1965 as a member of The Impressions.  

This is because Rod Stewart had done a nauseating cover version of the song in 1985, which white rock radio had played into oblivion.

But Super Fly?  Killer.

Mayfield's Life and Times

Curtis Mayfield was born June 3, 1942 in Chicago, one of five children.  His father left the family when Mayfield was five years old.  They moved from one public housing project to the next, finally settling in the massive Cabrini-Green Homes. 

He began singing in church at the age of seven.  His mother taught him to play piano, and at the age of 10, he received his first guitar.  

He dropped out of high school in his sophomore year, and joined The Roosters, a group that would soon become the popular soul group The Impressions.  Two years later, in 1958, the band had its first hit, For Your Precious Love, a song written by Jerry Butler. 

In 1961, at the age of 19, Mayfield wrote his first hit song for The Impressions, Gypsy Woman.  After that, he wrote a string of hit songs, including Keep on Pushing and People Get Ready, both of which became anthems of the Civil Rights movement.

The last major hit he wrote and performed with The Impressions, We're A Winner, was recorded in front of a live studio audience, and became one of the first popular songs to deal specifically with black pride.

Here's a live, slightly more militant version of it recorded at the Bitter End nightclub in New York City, January 1971:

Super Fly

Super Fly was Mayfield's fourth solo album, produced and released in 1972 by Mayfield's record label (co-owned with his manager Eddie Thomas), Curtom Records.

Curtom Records, formed in 1968, was one of the first record labels owned by a black recording artist.

Super Fly was the soundtrack to the Blaxploitation movie of the same name.  

The film, the story of a Harlem drug dealer and pimp named Youngblood Priest, was criticized for glamorizing and romanticizing the drug trade and the criminal element preying on people in black ghettos.

Meanwhile, Mayfield's music did the opposite, criticizing drug dealers and lamenting their effect on black neighborhoods.  The album out-earned the movie, selling over 12 million copies and earning Mayfield himself over $5 million dollars.  

The album also received wide critical acclaim, called "Mayfield's creative breakthrough," which "influenced everyone from soul singers to television-music composers for decades to come."

When questioned about the content of the movie, and similar Blaxploitation movies of the era, Mayfield said:

"I don't see why people are complaining about the subject of these films.  The way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the streets."

The cover of New World Order, Mayfield's final album, made after his accident, at his direction, and with him singing one line at a time.


Curtis Mayfield was married twice and had 10 children.  After his accident, he never regained the use of his limbs.  He continued to make music, however, and released his last album, New World Order, in 1996.

He was one of the first black recording artists to include social commentary in his music, influencing the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder, among others.

He received a Grammy Legend Award in 1994, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, the only Grammy wins of his career.  He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, but poor health kept him from appearing at the ceremony.

He died on December 26, 1999, from complications of Type II diabetes.  He was 57 years old.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Miles Davis Plays Around in Paris

Miles Davis, photographed in 1957, the year he went to Paris and recorded the soundtrack for the French film Ascenseur pour l'├ęchafaud.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Miles Davis - Tortured Genius

Miles Davis in his later years.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Gil Scott-Heron - The Revolution Will Not be Televised

Gil Scott-Heron, one of the fathers of hip-hop music.  He did not love rap music.  He said a lot of things about this.  One of the things he said was: "All the dreams you show up in are not your own."