Father Geek here, a true genius is gone, too soon, CURTIS MAYFIELD has died. The man who penned one of my favorite soundtracks and in so doing influenced an entire genre of film music is no longer with us. I was just about to sit down and write a tribute to the man when the following arrived at Geek Headquarters and it is soooo complete that, well here’s what Vern has to say about the man who did as much as anyone to bring soul out of the getto and on to our motion picture screens…
Curtis Mayfield 1942-1999
Hello harry my name is Vern and to be frankly honest I have been reading your sight only for a little bit. But I have an excuse because I was out of the picture for a while and only this year started to explore the internet. Anyway point is I Wrote this piece for my column VERN TELL’S IT LIKE IT IS, but if you are willing to run it on your sight that would be even better. I would be honored if you would allow me to Write a few words about a genius who passed on from our world last Sunday, Mr. Curtis Mayfield.
Now okay so I understand that the ain’t it cool news is NOT about music, it is about the films of Cinema, however harry PLEASE understand that Mr. Curtis Mayfield’s SUPERFLY soundtrack is almost universally considered one of the greatest movie soundtracks ever recorded. And that is why here on the ain’t it cool news I would like to pay tribute to Mr. Mayfield, a true Poet, a prophet and a musical genius whose social and cultural force did not leave the world of film unaffected in my opinion.
Curtis’s words have the ability to touch everyone from the average joe to an ex-con Writer such as yours truly. Mr. Mayfield’s themes of self improvement, black pride, empathy and hope in songs like “Move On Up”, “This Is My Country,” “Choice of Colors,” “If There’s a Hell Below,” “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” and “Some Mother’s Son” inspire and encourage even a no account old white like myself. However it is his major filmic type contribution, his soundtrack to superfly, which many whites most know him for.
Now when you think of the blaxploitation type genre, many people think of pimps and strutting and funny wah wah guitars. Although the wah wah funk is a style invented by Mr. Mayfield it wasn’t until one year after Isaac Hayes did the soundtrack to Shaft that Curtis was convinced to contribute to the world of Cinema. Mr. Mayfield had been around the block a few times in my opinion – The Impressions had their first hit in 1958 and Curtis went solo in 1970. It was 1972 that he entered the world of film scoring and at that time Mr. Mayfield stepped in and said hold on bud, I’ve got something to add here.
Watching early footage from the film (superfly), curtis worried that the photographing of fancy cars, foxy gals and really great hats would glamourize the cocaine game. And maybe that’s not such a surprise since some of the budget was actually funded by representatives of the prostitution and drug industries.
Mr. Mayfield set out to balance things out through his lyrics, but my man is not the type of dude to go for some simplistic “its wrong to sell drugs” type approach. Instead he depicts the drug game as “another junkie plan / pushing dope for the Man” (“Pusherman”) and asks “Don’t make no profit for the Man” (“No Thing On Me (Cocaine Song)”).
But to me Superfly’s real strength cinematically is not in its messages about dope pushing, its the way curtis shows empathy for the characters and shares that feeling with me and you. The audience. In the movie Ron O’Neal’s character Priest is trying to make one last big score so he can get out of the game and obviously many of us can relate to this. curtis understands that Priest is just “tryin’ to get over.”
The classic “Little Child Runnin Wild” which opens both the movie and album was a song Curtis already had ready, but it perfectly describes priest’s background and motivation. “Broken home / father gone / mama tired / so he’s all alone / kind of sad /kind of mad / ghetto child / thinkin’ he’s been had / in the back of his mind he’s sayin’ didn’t have to be here”
“Pusherman” is the song most associated with the movie, probaly because its percussion and bassline, without wah wahs, fits the pimp stereotype motherfuckers have of blaxploitation. The Curtis Mayfield Experience is seen lip synching this song in the movie. But the first single from the album is “Freddies Dead” and this is a better example of the depth and humanity and what not this music brought to superfly, even though the song only appears in the movie as an instrumental. Curtis took a supporting character whose death might have been forgettable and showed the true tragedy of the whole deal. In the liner notes for rhino’s 25th anniversary version of this album curtis says, “I had such a feeling for this character who wasn’t really a bad man. He just got caught up with the wrong people. And of all the people in Superfly, he was one of the two that died. It was important to me to speak on this man.”
The same thing happened with “Eddie You Should Know Better.” The words didn’t get into the movie but listening to the album you can hear curtis scold Priest’s partner from the point of view of his parents:
“We planned and worked hard / from the very start / tried to make him better / than all the rest / but the brother proved to be so much less…”
Don’t you wish more soundtrack albums today on the cusp of the 2 triple 0 would add something meaningful to the movie instead of just promote a bunch of rock bands from some label? Superfly seems even better compared to today’s so called soundtracks which seem to be stapled together at random from any band that is popular or has a name that sounds like an aol screen name, like Tank 189 or Stench 418. The songs usually aren’t about or even made for the movie, they’re just stuck in there like a product placement. This commercial type approach to soundtracks ignores the lesson of superfly, that the music can be a bestseller and still compliment and elevate the Film. Curtis sold 2 million copies of this album and both singles went gold as well, and he even got an award for selling more than 840,000 eight tracks. But hell man you didn’t see curtis pandering to what was popular at the time in order to accomplish this, because he is a real artist and stand up type dude.
I mean seriously guys, some so-called artists might have just whipped together a theme song and some funky instrumentals that would sell, but Curtis was a ghetto prophet. he knew how to express himself poetically and work for the movie at the same time. This is music that works to perfection both as film score and standalone album.
Unfortunately if you ask me the people behind most of today’s soundtracks are not Poets like curtis in my opinion. They are not artists, so they don’t understand why art is so important to folks like us. Curtis said it best himself in the song “Little Child Runnin’ Wild”:
“Can’t reason with the Pusherman. Finance is all he understands.”
Although he never focussed as much on cinema after Superfly, Curtis contributed to other films such as Claudine, Let’s Do It Again, Sparkle, and Short Eyes (which he also had a part in). He did a song with the Fishbone for the blaxploitation comedy I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and also did one with Ice-T for 1990’s Return of Superfly. Not sure if that ones any good though I mean would you rent it when it has that crazy haircut on the cover I mean fer cryin out loud.
That same year of 1990 some lights fell on Curtis while he was on stage and he was paralyzed. But hell man that can’t stop a dude like Curtis and he kept going for nearly a decade (ten years). He was once chosen the 25th greatest guitarist of all time but even without that instrument his songwriting power went on. The title track to his album New World Order was used as the opening to Spike Lee’s movie Get On the Bus. He also Wrote the jazzy theme to Eve’s Bayou, performed by a young lady by the name of Erykah Badu.
Curtis will always be remembered for his acute type observations, his simple eloquent wordings, his wellspring of hope and not to mention his virtuosic type musical skills. Why is it called soul? Because the music stirs it, and that beautiful voice touches it. Maybe some day Curtis’s work on superfly will inspire more great film scores – if not, it will still stand as just one of Mr. Mayfield’s great contributions to our culture.
Move on up curtis, we love you.
P.S. Harry if you decide to run this and would be willing to link my name or something to my sight http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Veranda/3556 I would preciate that man. Or if you don’t usually do that that’s fine too I understand man. thanks bud
Originally posted at Ain’t-It-Cool-News: http://www.aintitcool.com/node/4915
December 20th, 2014 at 10:50 am
Vern, going back and rereading all of your columns from the beginning. This is a beautiful one, brother.