At the Movies with Curtis Mayfield

 

There’s this li’l section here in your friendly neighborhood record shop we call “The movie is so bad, but the music is so good!” Its hard to find soundtrack albums which fit the bill, but sort of a fun project — the other challenge is that folks buy up the best ones right away because, after all, the music is so good.

Obvious examples would be movies like More American Graffiti: the unwanted sequel’s soundtrack was filled with sixties favorites. Other examples would be when an artist creates an original score which ages more gracefully than the album itself. Perhaps the best example of this is also an extraordinarily rare record: nobody on Earth wants to see She’s the One again, but countless Tom Petty fans would love to track down an elusive copy of the LP.

And The Big Chill, which was a completely unrewarding movie to anyone who wasn’t a baby boomer, but enjoyed the first wave of Motown’s licensing of its extensive catalog, making the soundtrack a sort of ‘essential 60s’ collection. It did so well a second volume was introduced the following year.

And Super Fly— probably the best example of a soundtrack album far superior to the film itself. In fact, it’s one of few films to make less money than its accompanying record.

Curtis Mayfield recorded more than twenty-five albums after leaving the Impressions, but his name is synonymous with the seventies soundtrack based largely on this classic record. Curtis Mayfield’s score for the 1972 movie fits better with the socially conscious albums by Curtis’ contemporaries Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder than the rest of the blaxsploitation genre. Super Fly is entirely different from albums like Isaac Hayes’ Shaft and James Brown’s Black Caesar.

In songs like “Pusherman” and “No Thing on Me” Curtis criticizes the glorification of dealers and pimps in films like Super Fly. and presents a more accurate picture of drug abuse. This is exactly what critics of the movie (like the NAACP) were asking to see. Super Fly is one of the best anti-drug albums ever made.

superfly

Also, the songs are some of the best Curtis ever wrote. “Pusherman” and “Give me your Love (Love Song)” are completely original arrangements only Curtis could have created — and the title track is one of his funkiest moments on record.

And its phenomenal success provided Curtis the opportunity to score several more films in the coming years.

The overwhelmingly ironic 1971 album Bill Cosby Talks to Kids About Drugs aside, there were few explicit anti-drug messages to be found in record stores in the early 70s, especially in the soul section. This is especially unfortunate because of the enormous societal toll drug traffic took from those in the inner cities. Curtis’ portrayal of dope fiends and dealers (especially in “Freddy’s Dead”) present a cautionary tale which presaged the crack epidemic of a decade later.

After finishing an excellent follow-up album of new material (Back to the World), Curtis turned to his next film project: the soundtrack for Claudine, a family drama which fit the demands of organizations like the NAACP, who wished to see more African-American films outside the blaxsploitation genre. The songs on Curtis’ soundtrack for Claudine were performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips, hot off the success of their top-selling album Imagination, from which came “Midnight Train to Georgia” and three other hit singles.

The movie Claudine carried heavy social messages about the African-American community, but Curtis translated few of these into his songs for the score, focusing instead on the film’s love story between a single mother played by singer Diahann Carroll and a garbageman played by James Earl Jones. The songs are more in the style of his later-period music with the Impressions than the heavy funk infused soul of Super Fly, but the song “On and On” was a top 10 single in that style.

The theme of self-reliance Curtis introduced in “No Thing on Me” from the Super Fly soundtrack was carried into Claudine by actor Lawrence Hilton Jacobs (whose own records we featured in a post about the music of Welcome Back Kotter), who opposes his mother’s abuse of the welfare system and questions whether it has had a regressive effect on his community.

claudine soundtrack

Curtis again brought guests into the studio to perform the songs for his next soundtrack album, Let’s Do It Again. This time it was the Staple Singers, who had just signed onto his Curtom label after the Stax bankruptcy. The legendary gospel-turned-sou. group proved to be a perfect fit to Curtis’ sound, and the soundtrack’s title tune was a hit single.

Let’s Do It Again is the middle film in a trilogy of Sydney Poitier/Bill Cosby comedies set around zany schemes. The first, Uptown Saturday Night, had been scored by soul saxophonist Tom Scott, and Curtis would come back with Mavis Staples to produce the music for the third, A Piece of the Action.

let's do it again

Let’s Do It Again finds the pair rigging boxing matches by hypnotizing an underdog fighter played by Jimmie Walker, who starred as J.J. on TV’s Good Times., and had recently released his debut comedy album (which we posted last week).

It’s a pretty good comedy, but folks aren’t really scrambling to find classic Cosby these days. Curtis’ soundtrack, however, is well worth the work to hunt down a copy.

His score for the last film in the series was released as a Mavis Staples solo album. We couldn’t find a copy for this post, but you can enjoy the theme (plus watch the one and only Sidney Poitier dance) in its closing scene:

(*We’ve said it before, it’s all about Sidney Poitier)

sparkleThe 1976 period piece Sparkle starred Irene Cara (pre-Fame) in a Supremes-based story about singing sisters. The film received few positive reviews and would be entirely forgotten if it weren’t for Curtis’ soundtrack, which has Aretha Franklin singing all the leads instead of Cara.

Sparkle provided Aretha with her last hit single of the seventies, but it falls short of Curtis’ collaborations with Mavis Staples or Gladys Knight.

The last movie score Curtis produced until he returned to Hollywood to provide a few songs for The Return of Super Fly in 1990) was for Short Eyes, a prison drama based on Miguel Piñero’s award winning play. Unlike Super Fly, nothing is glorified in this harsh and realistic portrayal of prison life, which Piñero penned while serving in Sing Sing for armed robbery.

short eyes

 

The story, which culminates in the beating death of a pedophile, has been praised for its presentation of prison hierarchy and race relations. Curtis’ album is equally gritty. He’d opened his first solo album with “Don’t Worry, If there’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go,” and here starts off with a song which includes the line, “Ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven, ain’t no Heaven.” Short Eyes is our favorite Curtis Mayfield album. Highlights include some of his very best guitar work in the hopeless lament “Back Against the Wall” (where he sounds like Funkadelic’s Eddie Hazel) and his brand of innovative high-production funk in “Freak Freak Freak, Free Free Free.”

The opening track, “Doo Doo Wap (is Strong in Here)” was one of Curtis’ last charting hits, and would belong on any “Best of Curtis Mayfield” collection, if such a thing exists.

Short Eyes hit shelves in the waning years of the American prisoners’ rights movement, which had previously seen some attention in popular music. Bob Dylan had a largely forgotten hit single (peaking at #33 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart) in 1972 with a song lauding prison writer and Black Panther activist George Jackson. His death — shot in the back during an escape attempt — led to prison protests around the country, notably the Attica uprising in upstate New York which began three weeks after Jackson’s death on September 9th, 1971.

The Attica uprising and its violent aftermath were the subject of many records in the coming years, including songs by John Lennon (“Attica State”), Paul Simon (“Virgil”) and 10cc (“Rubber Bullets”). Gil Scott-Heron referenced Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s culpability in “We Beg Your Pardon” and Charles Mingus implored listeners to “Remember Rockefeller at Attica” on Changes One.

Much of the prisoners’ movement came to a screeching halt with the Supreme Court’s Houchins v. KQED Inc ruling in 1978, which established there existed no “right of access” when it came to the incarcerated. This effectively shut off the movement’s ability to reach the masses via the media, and interest in the rights of the incarcerated waned just as, unfortunately, the war on drugs swelled to epic proportions. We can’t help to think of the tragic cycle described by Curtis in “Freddy’s Dead.” After asking, “Why can’t we brothers protect one another,” he describes another “Freddy on the corner now.”

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