The advertisement went something like this: “8 FREE ALBUMS FOR A PENNY.” It came out of T.V. Guide, Parade Magazine, and important journals of the day.This part was simple, you really did receive eight records and for them you signed on to pay for more LPs at Record Club prices ($9.99 a pop plus tax and you had four months to get them). Today I can recite all eight of them, those first ones I got. They’re part of my DNA.
The last platter I liberated from shrinkwrap was Curtis Mayfield's Superfly. Came out winter ’72, some months before the film would run in theaters.The cover sported a yellow Super Fly logo with red trim. Next to that was Mayfield’s face, and standing next to his chin was Priest, wearing an immaculate white suit coat and white Italian zip-up boots, with arms crossed and holding a non-threatening pistol. (Priest [Ron O’Neal] is the film’s conflicted coke dealer, with a stable of vague black women dropping in and out—he’s in for the big score so he can get off these streets once and for all.) A bikini-clad sister with an Angela Davis Afro is splayed behind Priest.
The soundtrack, unlike any of its kind, stands on its own, and nowhere do we see the word “soundtrack.” Yes, the back cover shows stills from the film, but clearly Curtis won this first fight of many. It follows the gritty screenplay in its own way, but this is not music to back a movie, possibly the other way around. This was Mayfield's music, his label, and his vision. From the first song to the last, the album provokes conversation. It’s trashcan fires, tenements and crime, black on black. This is urban renewal, welcome to it.
The music has many fathers, Delta blues, country blues, street-corner doo-wop, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, fusion, Latin and Puerto Rican rhythms. And Chicago was the last stop on the Chitin’ Circuit and the last storied few like Muddy, Buddy, the Wolf, and others, went straight to Britain before they died to soak up a little respect. Mayfield had been the de-facto leader/writer of the Impressions, a Chi-Town hit machine. He'd been watching, he'd been waiting, and now he was ready to protect his dream on his terms, with a true snapshot of the Chicago ghetto. No made for T.V. Movie-of-the-Week shit, this was badass, and blowin’ free.
The songs begin shy, twisting slowly as the bass and drums lock down, with congas and timbales dancing between the grooves of the song … “Freddie’s Dead” was the single they released, an instant climber on the R&B and pop charts. Fat Freddie’s a character in the film who gets runover, but Curtis makes him every junkee that is your father away doin’ time, sister who at 15 is pregnant and on methadone, it’s you man if you don't heed the call.
His lyrics are clever, never preachy and just the definition of conviction. Yet Mayfield’s never publically pro-violence to find the solution, and often working with all colors to help solve problems of poverty, urban decay and drugs. While the AM and FM radios played this record because everyone knew this was Chicago's high-water mark, “Freddie’s Dead” was a rolling wave of sound, strings are mixed as high as the vocals, no one else could touch Curtis's falsetto—because it was the street-corner talking. His vision was complex; he was all business and saw the sunrise from the recording studio control room. He was pristine, doing the tell by candlelight, and muted horns build a huge a hook.
In the movie, Priest and his woman take a bath together, it’s tender and reminds the watcher that everyone wants love and in the end might do just about anything to hold on to it. Wah-wah pedals and Cry Baby’s are used heavy in the mix; they’re urban and have so aged well. The first time I listened to this album at 12 I wept, for what or who I’m not sure. But I knew I had to see that life, those streets, those people. Man, if you don’t own this record I urge you to buy one of the 20 best records I have ever owned.