“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