The Conscience of Super Fly: How Curtis Mayfield’s Hard-Knock Life Inspired a Classic

The soul legend’s son reveals the method behind his father’s message

By Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria

Somewhere between New York and Chicago, late 1971. Sitting on an airplane, the Super Fly script in his lap, Dad couldn’t stop the music from coming.

“Wow, was I so excited,” he said. “I’d written a song just flying back home from New York. It took me hardly no time to prepare the songs and that’s how it began… I began writing immediately upon reading the script. I was making notes and coming up with the songs already. That was just a fantastic adventure for me.”

Reading the terse script, he felt drawn to the main character, Youngblood Priest. By name alone, Priest was an obvious archetype, a broadly drawn amalgamation of every drug dealer and pimp who stalked the ghettos. The main difference — Priest wanted out. Curtis said, “I didn’t put Priest down. He was just trying to get out. His deeds weren’t noble ones, but he was making money and he had intelligence. And he did survive. I mean all this was reality.”

Even closer to reality, my father felt, was Priest’s fall guy, Freddie. “Reading the script, I started feeling very deeply bad for Freddie,” he said. “Between his friends, his partners, and his woman, he was catching a hard time. ‘Freddie’s Dead’ came to me immediately. While you might not know a lot of pimps and drug dealers, we do meet quite a few Freddies.”

Dad crafted “Freddie’s Dead” on the Fender Rhodes piano he kept in his basement bedroom of the three-flat house — he said it only took him five minutes to write. He liked to work late into the night, long after we’d fallen asleep. In the morning, sometimes we’d see the aftermath of a songwriting session. As Tracy recalls, “I remember all this legal paper balled up everywhere on the floor. And I remember picking one up to read it and it just said ‘Freddie’s Dead’ on it. I was like, ‘Who’s Freddie? Who’s dead?’”

Dad had another song already written — “Ghetto Child” — which he tried to cut during the Roots sessions. It fit the Super Fly script perfectly. He renamed it “Little Child Runnin’ Wild,” and as he explained, “I started writing it three years ago. It never seemed to come out right, though. And then, all at once, while I was scoring the movie, everything fell into place.”

To score the rest of the film, Dad received rushes of the scenes and watched them on a Sony VO-1600—a huge, heavy, professional piece of equipment that was a precursor to the VCR. The rushes came on three-quarter-inch videocassettes, each one the size of a book, featuring a timeline running across the bottom of the screen so he could sync the music exactly where he wanted in each scene. He had the machine set up in a room he used as a home studio, and sometimes he’d let us watch the tape while he worked. Other times, my brothers and I would sneak in and watch the famous bathtub love scene while he was napping.

Though we were still young, we’d grown accustomed to watching Dad work in such an intimate setting. He made a point of including us in his professional life whenever possible, often letting us sit in the Curtom studio as he recorded. We learned quickly, however, that watching someone write a song isn’t nearly as exciting as listening to the finished product.

Dad was more than excited, though. On top of giving him a chance to score his first movie, the Super Fly script called for a cameo performance featuring “The Curtis Mayfield Experience,” which would mark his first time on the silver screen. Because of scheduling conflicts, the band had to shoot the scene for the movie before recording the album, so late in December 1971, Dad called Craig, Lucky, Henry, and Tyrone and said in typical last-minute fashion, “Hey, we’re going to go do this movie. We got to go to New York.”

Dad had written a song called “Pusherman” for the scene, but he hadn’t had a chance to work it out in the studio. Filmmaker Gordon Parks Jr. needed a finished song for the shot, though, so the band booked a session at Bell Sound Studios in New York to cut it. Craig recalls, “I think we went in at night, because we had to go do the movie thing the next day.” The band hadn’t heard any of the other songs my father had written, but if “Pusherman” was any indication, they were in for something special.

When they arrived on set, as Craig recalls, “That’s when we found out what movie making is all about. We’re just standing there, and they’re adjusting the lights. They’re trying to get all the entrances right and things.” The band mimed the song while the actors attempted to nail the scene, take after take. The next day, they did it again. As my father learned on the first Impressions’ tour, what once seems glamorous often becomes mundane when viewed up close. Movies were no different.

After wrapping The Impressions’ Times Have Changed, Dad received more rushes of the Super Fly film and didn’t like what he saw. He said, “Reading the script didn’t tell you ‘and then he took another hit of cocaine’ and then about a minute later ‘he took another hit.’ So when I saw it visually, I thought, ‘This is a cocaine infomercial.’”

Curtis Mayfield, 1971 | photo: Getty / Ron Howard

He was no prude, nor from what I heard was he a stranger to cocaine — I was told he’d begun experimenting with it by the time of Super Fly, and soon he would enter a period of heavier use. He had also lived the truth of the movie’s seedy scenes during his childhood in the White Eagle (a decaying hotel in Chicago where Curtis’ family lived in a single room).

“I didn’t have to leave my neighborhood to be surrounded by the things that Super Fly is about,” he said. “It was easier than most scripts because it was about an environment that I knew. It’s not that the ghetto is thriving with pimps and pushermen, it’s just they are a very visible part of the ghetto. If you stand on the corner, you’re gonna notice the pimp, because he’s so bright. If he goes by twice, you’re gonna remember him and get to know him, while you might not remember somebody else who goes by five times. And you have to understand that half of every big city is the ghetto.”

Still, he wanted no part of a movie that glorified these things. Instead of backing down, he doubled down. He crafted his songs into character studies, each one becoming its own movie in miniature. In a way, he became the film’s conscience. “I did the music and lyrics to be a commentary, as though someone was speaking as the movie was going,” he said. “It was important for me to counter the visuals — to go in and explain it in a way that the kids would not read it as an infomercial for drugs.”

With the message in place, he needed the music to match, so he returned to the man who had done more for his music than anyone — Johnny Pate. Johnny still lived in New York, working as an A&R man, producer, and arranger for MGM Records. He got a call, and the soft, high voice on the other end said, “I can’t do it without you.” Johnny dropped his work and flew to Chicago.

photo: Getty / Gilles Petard

As usual, Curtis brought in cassettes with snippets of guitar licks and vocal ideas. For the first time though, when Johnny heard the songs, he felt little inspiration to write arrangements. “Most of [the songs had] very few chord changes, very few melodic lines,” he said. “‘Pusherman,’ ‘Superfly,’ ‘Freddie’s Dead,’ if you listen to these closely enough, Curtis was almost rapping through these things.” Johnny did get excited about “Eddie You Should Know Better” — “You’ve got chord structure, you’ve got beautiful chord changes, plus a great melody,” he said — but for the rest of the material, scoring two-chord songs didn’t leave a lot of room for a jazz cat with a full orchestra at his fingertips.

That simplification — the emphasis on rhythmic rather than chordal movement — had already pushed my father’s music into new realms. It did the same for Johnny’s arrangements. Despite the difficulties, or perhaps because of them, Johnny created unforgettable backdrops to the songs, jaw-dropping in brilliance and complexity. Harps, oboes, strings, horns, bells, and flutes do as much to paint a picture as the lyrics themselves.

The arrangements helped create an intricate tapestry of sound unlike anything Dad and Johnny had yet made together. Part of that intricacy came from the method of recording. “We had the chance to cut with a live orchestra,” Craig says. “The advantage of it is, if you have full orchestra, when you place your licks, you don’t have to worry about your licks bumping. You can hear everything that’s going to go down.”

Another part was how close my father, Craig, Henry, and Lucky had become from touring together. “As a guitar player, I wanted to make sure I had my stuff right,” Craig says.

“I played on every song. Curtis would drop out sometimes and just sing. He knew I could do that. I was the only guitar player on ‘Freddie’s Dead.’ Curtis was in the control booth and Phil Upchurch couldn’t be there, so I was the only one out there. So, I knew exactly where to put all the nuances, the little licks. The way we worked was that Curtis would play something and he relied on me and Lucky and Master Henry to put our parts onto his thing. He might have an idea, but in the end we was like a team, man. You don’t even have to say nothin’. We just do it. I already knew what he was getting ready to do, and I can counter with something else.”

Engineer Roger Anfinsen recalled working in a crammed studio with as many as forty musicians on some songs. Dad and the band were crowded in by harps, horns, strings, flutes, and other players, and background singers had to sing from the control booth. “This was the only time I worked in this fashion with Curtis,” Anfinsen said. “It seemed about capturing a certain electricity, a live energy.” They cut the songs in a mere three days, after which my father perfected his vocals. Then, everyone stepped back to admire the finished product.

The album ends with the title track, “Superfly” — a perfect character study of Priest and an encapsulation of the entire movie into three-and-a-half minutes. As far as infectious songs go, it is perhaps my father’s best. Johnny’s horns are somewhere between big-band swing and James Brown funk, the drums pound with the insistence of a hustler trying to score, the bass rumbles like a superfly hog, and the percussion adds a Latin flare with guiro and congas. When Curtis coos the chorus, the word “Superfly” rolls off his tongue, his inflection somewhere between delighted surprise and supreme cool.

Perhaps counterintuitively, writing to a script and telling other characters’ stories allowed Dad to craft his most autobiographical lyrics ever. He wasn’t just writing about Priest and Freddie; he wasn’t just writing about junkies and pushers; he was writing about himself and his childhood. He was writing about the things he’d seen growing up in the White Eagle, the things he’d experienced living in one of the most segregated cities in the North and traveling through the South during the darkest hours of Jim Crow. His autobiography shines through in lines like:

Hard to understand / What a hell of a man / This cat of the slum had a mind / Wasn’t dumb… / His mind was his own / But the man lived alone… / Can’t be like the rest / Is the most he’ll confess

He also recognized his adult life in the film rushes. In one scene, a street gang approaches Priest and tries to extort money in exchange for protection. My father had just lived through that exact trouble. One day, he walked into Curtom and found the Blackstone Rangers, one of Chicago’s most notorious gangs, lurking in his office. They demanded money. Just like when the promoter in Atlantic City waved a gun in his face, my father remained cool. He had steel of his own in his desk drawer — a silver revolver with a white handle. He often kept it close in case a situation got out of hand. At home, he tucked it under his mattress or stashed it in the drawer next to his bed. Sometimes he’d even bring it on family outings for safety. One day, he showed it to me — “You see that?” he said. “Don’t touch it.”

Still, he wanted no part of the Blackstone Rangers. He cut a deal. “I’m not giving you any money,” I recall him saying, “but I’ll play a concert in Chicago and you can take the money and help the neighborhood.” They never bothered him again.

That didn’t mean he was safe, though. A black man making the money he made remained a conspicuous target, especially in a city with such strong Mafia ties. After fending off the Blackstone Rangers, Dad found himself in the shady clutches of Queen Booking again — the same company he bought into with Jerry a decade before and ultimately left because of the way the Mob took advantage of black artists. Now, Queen offered him a deal he couldn’t refuse — a six-month contract to book a tour of white-college dates. The deal was short-lived, though, since Queen never followed through. Dad soon switched to William Morris, one of the biggest bookers around, and they scheduled more than eighty white-college shows. He hadn’t given up on getting over to white crowds in America the way he did in Europe.

Though he navigated that treacherous world of gangsters and mobsters without losing control of himself or his money, he couldn’t always navigate personal relationships with such finesse. While preparing Super Fly for release, Dad and Johnny got into an argument over the album’s two instrumental tracks, causing an irreparable rift in their relationship.

The first of those tracks, “Junkie Chase,” is a classic piece of blaxploitation music — all orchestral hits, rumbling bass, and wah-wah guitar. The second, “Think,” features a guitar part that would surely have made Hendrix take notice. Both songs owe quite a bit to their orchestral arrangements, and Johnny wanted cowriting credit on them. My father refused to give it to him. Curtis the friend might have appreciated Johnny’s contributions; Curtis the businessman didn’t share credit — not with Carl Davis, not with Fred and Sam, and not with Johnny. When the final product hit stores, the album sleeve read, “Successfully arranged and orchestrated from the original dictations of Curtis Mayfield by Johnny Pate.”

Johnny Pate

Johnny refused to back down. “I orchestrated and arranged the score to Super Fly, but Curtis Mayfield got all the credit,” he told a reporter a month after the album’s release. “Everybody is ego tripping and taking credit for things they didn’t do.” By December, Dad filed a lawsuit in New York’s US District Court to declare himself the sole author and publisher of “Junkie Chase” and “Think.” He also went after one million dollars’ worth of damages for alleged defamation of character. His lawyer, Lew Harris, told Jet magazine, “We aren’t denying that Johnny Pate performed a very useful service in the arranging of the songs, but he was an author for hire; he was paid for his service.” In the same article, Johnny said, “I am entitled to half of the composing rights for those two tunes, because I wrote the melodic line for both.”

In Craig’s eyes, Johnny had a point. “Curtis couldn’t write music down,” he says. “So, he wasn’t going to orally translate those harmonies or those hits. You can listen to it and tell this is some big-band arranger putting this down. So, really, after all the things those two had done like brothers in the past, it shouldn’t have been a problem. That was just a poor way of doing something, as far as I’m concerned.”

That was how my father had always done business, though, and that was how he’d keep doing it. Even near the end of his life, in an interview for the album’s twenty-fifth anniversary, he framed the debate on his terms. “Most arrangers that I have used in the past will come in with their own contributions, but I was always careful to make changes and be assured that the music was still mine and there was no conflict in the music that was arranged against the basic rhythm pattern in the song itself,” he said.

“There’s a Curtis Mayfield song that really has no singing or lyrics, which is called ‘Think’ from the Super Fly album that I especially appreciate when I listen to it. My art and my creativities were totally something that was of my own heart and mind. I could never let anybody dictate to me what I should write and how I would write it.” Sharing writing credit would have meant sharing revenues, and Curtis had toiled his whole career to avoid that. As a result, he and Johnny would never work together again.

Excerpted from Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield by Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria. Published by Chicago Review Press. Available now from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other fine retailers.

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