Superfly is a film I’ve never seen. Nor have the soundtrack to. One of the oddest omissions in my collection. The reason having the album never seemed a priority to own is because my father had the 2 CD special edition in the early aughts. A set complete with radio spots for the album from Curtis himself. And it was played to death. So there was a lot of exposure to the music from this 1972 classic soundtrack for the Gordon Parks Jr’s drug scene related epic staring Ron O’Neal as the dealer Priest-so as I understand a character planning on retirement after a final “sweet” drug deal.
Apparently Mayfield wasn’t particularly pleased by Parks’ movie after seeing a screening during the film scoring process. He was said to have described it as an “infomercial for cocaine”. Being the socially conscious man that Mayfield was? He decided to write a series of songs that not only ran thematically counter to the film. But also added depth based on different perspectives of Superfly‘s seemingly pro crime themes. The film itself can be debated. But what cannot be so easily is how Mayfield fleshed out one particular “flunky” pusher from the film in one of its classics called “Freddie’s Dead”.
Tyrone McCullen’s ultra funky drums start of the song accompanying Mayfield’s lead melody on a punchy fuzz guitar,with a layer of wah wah in the back round. As the song comes into itself,that bluesy melody the song starts out of with the countering orchestral strings,dreamy glockenspiel and big band horn charts accentuating the melody. All along with Henry Gibson’s percussion. Especially as the song jumps up a chord on the chorus. As the song progress,muted horns and psychedelic guitars and all, a bridge with a bass/string/percussion delay goes into extended chorus fading out the song.
“Freddie’s Dead” is one of those masterpieces of early 70’s cinematic funk for what became known as the “blacksploitation” genre of cinema at the time. It was famously covered by the ska/funk band Fishbone 16 years after the original due to its iconic status. Heard only as an instrumental in the movie, it gives a seemingly minor character an identity of people having “misused him,ripped him off and abused him”. Curtis then advises “Freddie’s on the corner now,so you wanna be a junkie wow,remember Freddie’s dead” in a beautiful example of funk working cinematically to help heal society’s ills.
One thing I’ll say about Curtis Mayfield’s sound is how distinctive his compositions and arrangements were. He love to structure his generally very funky uptempo songs in very much the folk/gospel/blues form. That would a lot of verse/verse type songs whose choruses don’t differ greatly from the songs melodic content. At the start of the 80’s, most music was geared very much towards singers. So melodic choruses were usually distinctly different from the rest of the song. So how would Curtis,still an active recording artist in the 80’s,cope with the era’s emphasis on traditional pop song structure?
Being aware of music around him as he likely was, Curtis probably noticed how funk of the 80’s was about a stripped down sound. There was the boogie and electro funk sounds-the boogie sound used by folks like Marvin Gaye for their comebacks at the time. Then their was the emerging Minneapolis sound,which created string and horn parts using synthesizers and/or guitar lines. Since groups like the Gap Band also got into this groove, Curtis Mayfield sought to find a way to alter the framework of his music while keeping his songwriting stamp intact. Among the results were his 1983 song “Summer Hot”.
A rocking 4/4 drum beat comes in with some clanking percussion opening up the groove. After a few lines of this naked rhythm,the main theme of the song rolls right in. It’s built on a sustained polyphonic synthesizer orchestration with a snaky synth bass weaving into it. Some tight Caribbean style horn charts play each instrumental statement made by the synthesizers. The horns play less of the role while Curtis is singing. On the bridge of the song, the song strips back down to the drums/percussion Marvin Gaye style with Curtis’s vocal chanting. The orchestral synth leads back into the choral refrain right into fade out.
To be honest, I really didn’t have any conception of what Curtis Mayfield’s music would sound like during the early 80’s. This song helped me to realize the answer: his sound really didn’t change at all. Structurally this song isn’t at all dissimilar to “If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go” from his debut 13 years earlier. Aside from the sunny vacation themed imagery of the lyrics, the differences in the songs are the then modern electronic touches that keep it instrumentally contemporary. The fact that is absolutely sounds like a Curtis Mayfield song showcases just how well his musical sound was able to update itself.
Filed under 1980's, Boogie Funk, Curtis Mayfield, drums, elecro funk, horns, naked funk, percussion, synth bass, synth brass, synth funk, synthesizers, Uncategorized
For much of my life? I have,as is the case with many,known former Drifters leading man Ben E. King for one song. The song was of course “Stand By Me”. It was re-purposed so many times over the years. Including the 1986 Rob Reiner/Stephen King film of the same name. On the other hand? That narrowness of perception on my part led me to neglect some very important music King made during the 60’s and beyond.
Having recorded for a variety of labels in the 60’s,many spin-off’s of a parent,King began recording for that main label Atlantic in the mid 70’s. By then the label was both iconic and legendary for it’s rich history in bringing soul music and it’s many tributaries to the American public-with artists such as Ray Charles. At this point? The focus of King’s music was changing. And it was very strongly reflected in the title song to his 1975 release Supernatural Thing.
This is one one of those songs that just starts it’s groove right off the bat. It’s a slow tempo drum with conga accented dance rhythm. With that is a higher pitched rhythm guitar-with a liquid high bass line playing the bluesiest of changes. Right in the middle? A subtle organ basically extends deeply on the bass. After King’s main vocals receive the call and response treatment from the female backup vocalists? There’s a repeated,jazzy swing drumming on the bridge before the song fades on the main theme.
With Ben E. King’s sad recent passing at the age of 76? This song came up in my conversations with Rique. Never heard it before though. One thing I noticed about this song is that it adds a light Latin percussion flavor to what basically amounts to the same sort of cleanly produced “united funk” one might hear with James Brown on “The Payback” or Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead”. Especially with the higher pitched bass playing the blues. Only unfortunate thing for me personally is that I never heard this song while the man was alive. Still it’s a very very strong groove from the funk era and showcases another side of this artist.
One of the important things I’ve learned about Curtis Mayfield over the years is the extent of which his social consciousness evolved. This was also an important factor in America’s silent generation as a whole-extending across the nations color and economic lines. Starting out as mainly the composer/guitarist for The Impressions,Curtis soon became the bands lead singer as well. He became something of a windy city whiz kid-writing and producing for other acts as well. This not only changed the entire trajectory of his musical career. But re-focused the thematic priorities of himself,Sam Gooden and Fred Cash as well.
Throughout the 1960’s,this Chicago powerhouse vocal trio continually churned out songs such as “Keep On Pushing”,”Amen” and of course “People Get Ready”-all anthems of the civil rights movement and released between the march on Washington and the murder of Malcolm X. With later songs such as “We’re A Winner”? It was clear the confidence of the civil rights movement was evolving into the black power movement-for America and The Impressions. In 1969,following the murders of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy a year before? Donny Hathaway co-produced the bands 1969 album The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story,which included another powerful song in “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)”.
First thing heard on this song is an enthusiastic,youthful applause before a thundering drum roll inaugurates the calling outcry of the Memphis soul style horn section that does a call and response dance with Curtis’s gurgling wah wah guitar. Throughout the main body of the song? The rolling beat is accented by a JB style mid pitched rhythm guitar. Before the horn sections emerge again,there’s a brief low blues guitar as well. On the chorus of the song,a sustained gospel style organ comes in to keep pushing the main melody of the song forward. Towards the end of the song,before the chorus closes out the song,the vocals of The Impressions completely recede while Curtis does a full Albert King style amplified blues solo.
In all honesty? Today is the first day that I’ve ever actually heard this song. Sometimes however? A first impression (pun more intended than I was hoping it to be) can say a thousand words. On two very important levels? This song speaks to two viewpoints of the cultural changes in race relations at that time. Musically the song is just about at the perfect intersection between the contemporary funk explosions of James Brown and the Chicago style urban blues that was coming out of the Chess label only a decade earlier. Lyrically it’s a similar situation. On one hand Curtis is very earnest in schooling the young that the power structure of America will be weakened as “we’re killing up our leaders” and “we all know it’s wrong”. By the end of the song he muses “if your cut you’re gonna bleed/might I get a little deeper/human life is from the semen seed”. This song musically and lyrically speaks so deeply into the primal nature of racial violence? It deserves to be understood in 2015 as much as in the late 60’s.
Filed under 1960's, black power, Blues, Bobby Kennedy, Chess Records, Chicago, civil rights, Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash, Funk, funk guitar, horns, James Brown, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Sam Gooden, The Impressions, wah wah