Super Fly at 50 Still Sounds Mighty Cool

“Fly”, other than an insect that can be annoying, means “unusual and exceptional, particularly when it comes to fashion,” Songfacts explains. “Super Fly” is even better. It refers to the flashy clothes cocaine dealer Youngblood Priest was wearing in the 1972 U.S. blaxploitation neo-noir crime drama picture of the same name, starring Ron O’Neal as the aforementioned pusherman. Super Fly is also the title of the soundtrack, which was released today 50 years ago as the third studio album by Curtis Mayfield, an artist I’ve loved for many years.

To say it upfront, other than a couple of clips, I haven’t watched the picture. Based on what I’ve read, it seems to take a rather ambiguous stance when it comes to drug dealers. While Mayfield wrote the score for the film, his socially aware lyrics look more critical, though he also appeared to have some sympathy for the main character Priest who yearns to go straight, despite the fortune he makes from dealing drugs.

Along with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, Super Fly is considered a pioneering soul concept album, addressing poverty, crime and drug use in America’s inner cities of the early ’70s. Notably, just like they did with Gaye’s album, record executives didn’t think Mayfield’s soundtrack would fly. It turned out they were wrong again. Not only was Super Fly a near-immediate hit, but it also holds the distinction to be among a handful of soundtracks that out-grossed the companion movie.

For those of you who know me, it won’t come as a big surprise that my main interest in Super Fly is the music. And there’s some pretty cool funk as well as psychedelic and progressive soul on this album. Let’s take a closer look at some of the tracks, which were all written by Mayfield.

The album opens with Little Child Runnin’ Wild. The groove immediately draws you in. All it takes are a few words to paint a powerful picture. An excerpt: Little child/Runnin’ wild/Watch a while/You see he never smiles//Broken home/Father gone/Mama tired/So he’s all alone…

The title of Pusherman is self-explanatory. Songfacts notes Mayfield takes an observer’s view on this song, refraining from judgment and showing the pusherman from the perspective of a potential client. To a kid on the street, the drug dealer shows up everywhere, and can take on many forms: mother, father, doctor, friend. Said Mayfield: “The first thing I wanted to do was not condone what was going down, but understand it, and speak in terms of how one can keep from getting locked into these things which youngsters and a lot of people see all around them.” And there’s of course more of that seductive wah-wah guitar-driven funky groove!

Freddie’s Dead became the album’s first single. It peaked at no. 2 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart and reached no. 4 on the mainstream Hot 100. So much for smart forecasts by record executives!

I’m three clips into this review, and I haven’t even touched any track from Side two – speaking in vinyl terms here! Okay, let’s give a listen to Give Me Your Love (Love Song), the first song on Side two. I will say stylistically, there’s not much variation in the music. Since I dig Mayfield’s groove that’s not a problem for me!

Obviously, this post wouldn’t be complete without the amazing title track. Super Fly was also released separately as the album’s second single in October 1972. It became another U.S. hit for Mayfield. It came close to the first single’s chart success, climbing to no. 8 and no. 3 on Billboard’s mainstream and R&B charts, respectively. Super Fly’s lead character appealed to Mayfield because he had a vivid backstory and was not just a stock drug dealer, Songfacts explains. In the song, Mayfield examines how he’s really doing what we all are: trying to get over...“We couldn’t be so proud of him dealing coke or using coke, but at least the man had a mind and he wasn’t just some ugly dead something in the streets after it was all over,” Mayfield told Q magazine. “He got out.”

Super Fly was well received by music critics. Even Robert Christgau gave it an A- in a contemporary review for The Village Voice at the time, praising Mayfield’s songwriting. Jeez, what was wrong with him? The album became Mayfield’s only no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and his highest-charting record in the UK where it reached no. 26, though interestingly, none of the singles charted there. Within only two months, Super Fly got Gold status in the U.S., meaning it had reached 0.5 million sold units, as certified by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Super Fly was ranked at no. 69 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the magazine’s most recent 2020 revision, it remained within the top 100, coming in at no. 76. In 2019, the album was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” In addition, the title track is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”

Last but not least, here’s a Spotify link to the album.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; RIAA website; YouTube; Spotify

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What I’ve Been Listening to: Sheila E./Iconic: Message 4 America

Last week, I watched Ringo Starr’s Big Birthday Party and thought the highlight of the one-hour virtual event was Sheila E. and her sizzling performance of Come TogetherRevolution. It turned out E. had previously recorded the medley for her most recent eighth studio album Iconic: Message 4 America released in August 2017. A couple of nights ago, I found myself listening to this covers album and liked what I heard – a lot!

For E.’s background, I’m borrowing from a previous August 2017 post about my favorite drummers. Born Sheila Escovedo, E. was influenced and inspired by her musical family. Since the late 60s, her Mexican-American father Pete Escovedo, a percussionist, was influential in the Latin music scene, touring with Santana from 1967 to 1970. Her uncles were musicians as well, and her godfather was none other than Tito Puente.

At the age of 5, E. gave her first live performance. By her early 20s, she had already played with the likes of George DukeMarvin Gaye and Herbie Hancock. In 1978, she met Prince who became an important mentor and with whom she worked various times. In 1984, E. started a solo career. She also worked with many other artists, including Ringo Starr, performing with his All-Starr Band in 2001, 2003 and 2006.

As reported by Rolling Stone, it was Donald Trump’s denunciation of Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” during his official campaign launch announcement in 2015, along with the death of Prince in April 2016, which prompted E. to record Iconic, an album featuring remakes of social justice anthems. In addition to selecting songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, E. got help from multiple guests, most notably Starr and Freddie Stone, co-founder, guitarist and vocalist of Sly and the Family Stone. Her father and two other family members were among the other guests.

“So for the Iconic project, you know, the state that the country is in… I’m doing these songs based on the lyrical content, which, when I grew up in the ’60s and the ’70s, these songs were pretty amazing,” E. told Billboard. “They’re relevant. So I wanted to do “Come Together,” The Beatles song with Ringo Starr, which we did, and the only one that wasn’t written [that long] ago was “America.” But it means something…So it was just important to what’s happening in our country.” America is a tune about the state of the U.S. during the Reagan Administration, which Prince had written for his 1985 studio album Around the World in a Day.

Let’s get to some music. Since I previously featured Come TogetherRevolution here, I’m skipping it and go directly to Everyday People. Written by Sly Stone, the tune was originally released as a single by Sly and the Family Stone in November 1968. It was also included on the band’s fourth studio album Stand! from May 1969. As noted above, Freddie Stone joins E. on vocals. He also plays guitar.

Inner City BluesTrouble Man is a cool medley of two songs Marvin Gaye performed. Inner City Blues, co-written by Gaye and James Nyx, Jr., appeared on What’s Going On, Gaye’s 11th studio album from May 1971. Trouble Man is the title track of Gaye’s follow-on studio record that came out in December 1972. It was written by him. On the album’s recording, E. is joined on vocals by saxophonist Eddie Mininfield.

With so many great covers on Iconic, it’s hard to select which ones to call out. One of the funkiest undoubtedly is the James Brown Medley, which melds together five tunes: Talkin’ Loud And Sayin’ Nothing, co-written by Brown and Bobby Bird (There It Is, June 1972); Mama Don’t Take No Mess, co-written by Brown, John Starks and Fred Wesley (Hell, June 1974); Soul Power, written by Brown (single, March 1971); Get Involved, co-written by Brown, Bird and Ron Lenhoff (Revolution of the Mind: Live at the Apollo, Volume III, December 1971); and Super Bad, written by Brown (Super Bad, 1971). For this recording, E. is joined by Bootsy Collins on vocals, who also provides bass and guitar. Collins played with Brown in the early ’70s and later with Parliament-Funkadelic. Let’s hit it!

Next up: A beautiful version of Blackbird. Per Songfacts, Paul McCartney wrote the song about the civil rights struggle for African Americans after he had read the U.S. federal courts had forced racial desegregation in the school system of Little Rock, Ark. Blackbird was first recorded for The White Album that appeared in November 1968. E.’s rendition transforms the acoustic guitar tune to a mellow piano-driven ballad. The lovely cello part is played by studio musician Jodi Burnett.

The last tune I’d like to call out is the Curtis Mayfield classic Pusherman. It appeared on Mayfield’s third solo album Super Fly from July 1972. The great guitar part on E.’s version is played by Mychael Gabriel, a musician, songwriter, performer, audio engineer, mixer, producer, who began his career as a 16-year-old, doing record engineering for E.

Iconic: Message 4 America may “only” be a covers album, but I think the excellent song selection and E.’s renditions make listening to it worthwhile.

Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Billboard; Songfacts; Discogs; YouTube