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ESSAYIST MICHAEL A. GONZALES EXPLORES THE BRILLIANCE AND DRAMA BEHIND CURTIS MAYFIELD’S CELEBRATED SUPERFLY SOUNDTRACK IN UPCOMING WAX POETICS #38–December/January 2009/10

Featuring Interviews With: Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Pate, Phil Upchurch, Craig McCullen, Darius James, Barry Michael Cooper and Fred Williamson

Darkest of night, with the moon shining bright/There’s a set goin’ strong, lotta things goin’ on/The man of the hour has an air of great power/The dudes have envied him for so long/Ooooh, Superfly…

Curtis Mayfield, Superfly (1972)

1. Question: Explain how you became interested in writing about Curtis Mayfield and the Superfly soundtrack.

Michael A. Gonzales: With December 2009 being the tenth anniversary of Mayfield’s death, I started thinking last year of ways to pay tribute to the masterful musician. At first I thought about writing a sprawling story about his multifaceted career, but then I thought about what made me a Curtis Mayfield fan in the first place and the answer was, the Superfly soundtrack.

If I’m not mistaken, Superfly was the second album I owned, the first being the soundtrack to Shaft. At the time I was in fourth grade and I clearly remember the class bully playing classroom congas (i.e. banging on the desk) and singing, “I’m your momma, I’m your daddy, I’m your nigger in the alley.” I was nine years old, but the next day I asked my mom to buy me that record.

Growing-up in Harlem during the same period Gordon Parks Jr. directed Superfly, I saw the junkies and drug dealers, pimps and whores on a regular, but I never really understood their lives beneath the flamboyance until I heard Mayfield’s lyrics. A few weeks later, I saw the movie on 125th Street and together with that hypnotic soundtrack, it has been a part of my personal canon ever since.

2. Question: The Superfly soundtrack has been written about before. What makes your story different?

Michael A. Gonzales: One of the things about classic albums like Superfly is that fans and critics often write about them as though following the auteur theory of creation. In other words, rarely do we read about the sidemen or arrangers that helped shape this classic material.

For the article, I talked to Superfly guitarists Craig McMullen and Phil Upchurch as well as arranger Johnny Pate. One of my favorite quotes from Gangster Boogie is when McMullen explains, “They were his (Curtis’) songs, but everybody had a hand in making them better; we were a championship team and we all contributed in making them into great songs.” With this story, I wanted to demythologize aural auterism and concentrate on the reality of the process.

3. Question: You interviewed Curtis Mayfield in 1996. What was that like?

Michael A. Gonzales: Well, first let me say I was blessed to see Curtis perform in Central Park in July 1990, a month before the tragic accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. It was a beautiful New York afternoon and the park was packed. As a music critic, I’ve seen many concerts, but that was by far one of the most memorable.

Six years later, when I was writing for Vibe magazine, I became the resident old soul head. Everybody else wanted to write about the latest rappers while I wanted to interview Barry White or Gamble & Huff; so, when Mayfield’s box-set People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story was released in 1996, my editor asked if I would be interested in talking to Curtis.

At first I was hesitant, because I really didn’t want to see one of my heroes paralyzed; I thought it would be depressing. Well, it turned out to be one of the best interviews of my career. Curtis was upbeat and uplifting and I came away from our conversation beaming.

4. Question: One of the negative things you touch on in your story was a disagreement between Mayfield and arranger Johnny Pate about songwriting credits. What was that situation about?

Michael A. Gonzales: Until I started researching this story, I had no idea that this fight happened between these two great musicians. However, I came across an old Billboard story where Pate was complaining about not getting the proper credit for two instrumentals from Superfly: Junkie Chase and Think. Curtis claimed they were his compositions and Pate claimed they were his. Mayfield filed a lawsuit against Pate that was later dropped.

When I interviewed Curtis in 1996, I didn’t know about any of this, so it never came up during our conversation. On the other hand, Pate says simply that the credits on the album were wrong, but he just let it go. Although Mayfield and Pate had worked together on loads of material since meeting in 1963 when they collaborated on Major Lance’s “Monkey Time,” the two never worked together again after Superfly.

5. Question: What inspired you while working on a detailed piece like Gangster Boogie?

Michael A. Gonzales: I’m a sucker for films about musicians. Flicks like Ray, 24-Hour Party People, Purple Rain, Grace of My Heart and Cadillac Records are my favorites; that’s what I had in mind when I was working on the Mayfield story. Of course, unlike movie bios I never change the facts or bend the truth, but I do try to be visually detailed in hopes that people will be able to see it in their heads. As far as I’m concerned, Gangster Boogie is my Curtis Mayfield movie, shot on location in New York City, Chicago and Atlanta.

6. Question: What were some of the highlights of writing Gangster Boogie?

Michael A. Gonzales: During the interview process, there were a few. One was tracking down guitarist Craig McMullen, who has such a cool person and has a wonderful personality. The other highlight was interviewing historian Robert Pruter, who wrote the incredible Chicago Soul (University of Illinois Press). Although his observations were cut from my story for space reasons, his book was a valuable resource that was like guided tour of the Chicago music scene from the 1950s to 1980.

7. It has been 37 years since the release of Superfly. Is the music as important as it was when it was first recorded?

Michael A. Gonzales: Like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or The Beatles’ Abbey Road, the Superfly soundtrack is a classic album whose material still sounds as fresh as it did in 1972. In the essay, celebrated guitarist Phil Upchurch says, “I always felt those songs will be relevant forever, because they are so strong.” Indeed, I couldn’t agree more.

The influence of Superfly can be heard in the music of TV on the Radio, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and Lee Daniels and the prose of prose of Nick Hornby and Ben Greenman. Thirty-seven years after its release, Superfly still resonates through the pop culture landscape.

Contact essayist Michael A. Gonzales at: gonzales.gonzo@gmail.com

Wax Poetics: http://www.waxpoetics.com

Critics on Superfly soundtrack

The Rolling Stone Greatest 500 Albums of All Time

Superfly, # 69

In the blaxploitation-soundtrack derby, Isaac Hayes’ Shaft came first — but that record had one great single and a lot of instrumental filler. Mayfield’s soundtrack to Superfly is an astonishing album, marrying lush string parts to funky bass grooves and lots of wah-wah guitar. On top is Mayfield’s knowing falsetto. Tracks such as “Pusherman” and “Freddie’s Dead” are almost unremittingly bleak, commenting on the movie’s glamorization of the drug-trade action and forecasting its inevitable results.

Nelson George, author of The Death of Rhythm and Blues

“I think Superfly is better than What’s Going On. I think it’s the best album of an amazing era in black music.”

Elvis Mitchell, Esquire

Pauline Kael wrote that The Godfather Part II was the first movie to say no in thunder. She could’ve said the same thing about Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack. A seductive and rhythmic counterpoint to the picture’s message about ripping off the Man — and what blaxploitation picture isn’t down with such a sentiment? — Mayfield’s score rebels against the movie’s insidious mythologizing of a predatory drug dealer named Priest. Mayfield led his band through a rough and bluesy rendition of the title song and seemed to understand the unspoken dynamic of the movies of the era: This might be the only chance African-Americans got to redress decades of second-class imagery on the big screen and speak to the issues of the day.

Robert Christgau, The Village Voice

I’m no respecter of soundtracks, but I can count–this offers seven new songs (as many as his previous LP) plus two self-sustaining instrumentals. It’s not epochal, but it comes close–maybe Mayfield writes tougher when the subject is imposed from outside than when he’s free to work out of his own spacious head. Like the standard-setting “Freddie’s Dead,” these songs speak for (and to) the ghetto’s victims rather than its achievers (cf. “The Other Side of Town,” on Curtis), transmitting bleak lyrics through uncompromisingly vivacious music. Message: both candor and rhythm are essential to our survival. A-

Entertainment Weekly voted Superfly #6 in their 100 Best Soundtracks

A textbook case of a soundtrack that artistically dwarfs the film that spawned it, Curtis Mayfield’s opus is a testament to the powers of a musician at the top of his game. Mayfield’s music imbued the blaxploitation quickie with a moral pulse, taking aim at the scourge of drugs in the inner city. It was one of Mayfield’s gifts that his songs could sound joyful and heartbroken at the same time, suggesting the complexities of the human experience. “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead,” the title track–Mayfield’s lyrical high-mindedness would have meant naught if the music weren’t as addictive as a drug itself.

Ryan Schreiber, Pitchfork (rated 9.8)

It’s only when you listen to Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 soundtrack to Superfly that you can truly get past the film’s dated cinematography and bad acting. As most folks with clues realize, Superfly is one of the most influential R&B recordings of the 1970s (the majority of Seattle Grunge Rockers cite this album as an inspiration), and while some of the slang terms are less effective adjectives than flashbacks to yesteryear, they’re true to their time. (Admit it; you’ve never been able to say ‘junkie’ with a straight face.)

Mayfield’s Superfly was probably the most important record for shaping the future of black music. This is one of the first releases to include to the trademark blaxploitation smooth-funk sound. Right from the record’s opening of bongos, Hammond organ and hi-hats giving way to a distant, wailing electric guitar, bass drum, and strings and horn sections, it’s obvious that this is the production that led to similar work by Issac Hayes and even James Brown. Four years ago, I found Isaac Hayes’ Shaft on vinyl for a buck in a thrift store and it became the ultimate “sex music” of my late-teen life. It’s got nothin’ on Superfly.

Samples and Covers/list from The Breaks.com

Superfly: (Curtom 1972)

* “Pusherman”

Cam’Ron ft Brotha’s “D Rugs”

Cookie Crew’s “Come on and Get Some”

Eminem’s “I’m Shady”

Ice T’s “I’m Your Pusher”

Zhigge’s “Zhigge Man”

* “Freddie’s Dead”

Audio Two’s “Many Styles”

Brand Nubian’s “Gang Bang”

Donell Jones’s “When I Was Down”

Dru Down’s “The Game”

Fishbone’s “Freddie’s Dead” (cover)

GangStarr’s “Gusto”

Hammer’s “That’s What He Said”

Master P’s “Kenny’s Dead”

May May’s “Ya Head is Dead”

Poison Clan’s “Low Life Mothers”

Poison Clan’s “Paper Chase”

Racionais MCs’s “Mano Na Porta Do Bar”

Robbie C’s “Death Lives In The Rock”

TMT’s “Fugitives on the Run”

UGK’s “Cocaine in the Back of the Ride”

* “Give Me Your Love”

Eminem’s “Open Mic”

Aaliyah’s “It’s Whatever”

Big Daddy Kane’s “Get Bizzy”

Digable Planets’s “Nickel Bags”

EPMD’s “Can’t Hear Nothing but the Music”

Inspectah Deck’s “Trouble Man”

Mary J. Blige’s “I’m the Only Woman”

Pete Rock – CL Smooth’s “Shine On Me”

Queen Latifah’s “Give Me Your Love”

Snoop Dogg’s “Bathtub”

* “Eddie, You Should Know Better”

Busta Rhymes ft Rah Digga’s “Betta Stay up in Your House”

Snoop Dogg’s “G’z Up, Hoes Down”

* “Superfly”

The Blow Monkeys (cover)

Beastie Boys’s “Egg Man”

Cookie Crew’s “Come on and Get Some”

Curtis Mayfield ft Ice T’s “Superfly 1990”

Divine Styler’s “Divinity Stylistics”

Geto Boys’s “Do it Like a G.O.”

Mistress & DJ Madame E’s “Hypergroove”

Notorious BIG’s “Ready to Die Intro”

* “Little Child Runnin’ Wild”

Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”

http://blackadelicpop.blogspot.com

ESSAYIST MICHAEL A. GONZALES EXPLORES THE BRILLIANCE AND DRAMA BEHIND CURTIS MAYFIELD’S CELEBRATED SUPERFLY SOUNDTRACK IN UPCOMING WAX POETICS #38–December/January 2009/10

Featuring Interviews With: Curtis Mayfield, Johnny Pate, Phil Upchurch, Craig McCullen, Darius James, Barry Michael Cooper and Fred Williamson

Darkest of night, with the moon shining bright/There’s a set goin’ strong, lotta things goin’ on/The man of the hour has an air of great power/The dudes have envied him for so long/Ooooh, Superfly…

Curtis Mayfield, Superfly (1972)

1. Question: Explain how you became interested in writing about Curtis Mayfield and the Superfly soundtrack.

Michael A. Gonzales: With December 2009 being the tenth anniversary of Mayfield’s death, I started thinking last year of ways to pay tribute to the masterful musician. At first I thought about writing a sprawling story about his multifaceted career, but then I thought about what made me a Curtis Mayfield fan in the first place and the answer was, the Superfly soundtrack.

If I’m not mistaken, Superfly was the second album I owned, the first being the soundtrack to Shaft. At the time I was in fourth grade and I clearly remember the class bully playing classroom congas (i.e. banging on the desk) and singing, “I’m your momma, I’m your daddy, I’m your nigger in the alley.” I was nine years old, but the next day I asked my mom to buy me that record.

Growing-up in Harlem during the same period Gordon Parks Jr. directed Superfly, I saw the junkies and drug dealers, pimps and whores on a regular, but I never really understood their lives beneath the flamboyance until I heard Mayfield’s lyrics. A few weeks later, I saw the movie on 125th Street and together with that hypnotic soundtrack, it has been a part of my personal canon ever since.

2. Question: The Superfly soundtrack has been written about before. What makes your story different?

Michael A. Gonzales: One of the things about classic albums like Superfly is that fans and critics often write about them as though following the auteur theory of creation. In other words, rarely do we read about the sidemen or arrangers that helped shape this classic material.

For the article, I talked to Superfly guitarists Craig McMullen and Phil Upchurch as well as arranger Johnny Pate. One of my favorite quotes from Gangster Boogie is when McMullen explains, “They were his (Curtis’) songs, but everybody had a hand in making them better; we were a championship team and we all contributed in making them into great songs.” With this story, I wanted to demythologize aural auterism and concentrate on the reality of the process.

3. Question: You interviewed Curtis Mayfield in 1996. What was that like?

Michael A. Gonzales: Well, first let me say I was blessed to see Curtis perform in Central Park in July 1990, a month before the tragic accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. It was a beautiful New York afternoon and the park was packed. As a music critic, I’ve seen many concerts, but that was by far one of the most memorable.

Six years later, when I was writing for Vibe magazine, I became the resident old soul head. Everybody else wanted to write about the latest rappers while I wanted to interview Barry White or Gamble & Huff; so, when Mayfield’s box-set People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story was released in 1996, my editor asked if I would be interested in talking to Curtis.

At first I was hesitant, because I really didn’t want to see one of my heroes paralyzed; I thought it would be depressing. Well, it turned out to be one of the best interviews of my career. Curtis was upbeat and uplifting and I came away from our conversation beaming.

4. Question: One of the negative things you touch on in your story was a disagreement between Mayfield and arranger Johnny Pate about songwriting credits. What was that situation about?

Michael A. Gonzales: Until I started researching this story, I had no idea that this fight happened between these two great musicians. However, I came across an old Billboard story where Pate was complaining about not getting the proper credit for two instrumentals from Superfly: Junkie Chase and Think. Curtis claimed they were his compositions and Pate claimed they were his. Mayfield filed a lawsuit against Pate that was later dropped.

When I interviewed Curtis in 1996, I didn’t know about any of this, so it never came up during our conversation. On the other hand, Pate says simply that the credits on the album were wrong, but he just let it go. Although Mayfield and Pate had worked together on loads of material since meeting in 1963 when they collaborated on Major Lance’s “Monkey Time,” the two never worked together again after Superfly.

5. Question: What inspired you while working on a detailed piece like Gangster Boogie?

Michael A. Gonzales: I’m a sucker for films about musicians. Flicks like Ray, 24-Hour Party People, Purple Rain, Grace of My Heart and Cadillac Records are my favorites; that’s what I had in mind when I was working on the Mayfield story. Of course, unlike movie bios I never change the facts or bend the truth, but I do try to be visually detailed in hopes that people will be able to see it in their heads. As far as I’m concerned, Gangster Boogie is my Curtis Mayfield movie, shot on location in New York City, Chicago and Atlanta.

6. Question: What were some of the highlights of writing Gangster Boogie?

Michael A. Gonzales: During the interview process, there were a few. One was tracking down guitarist Craig McMullen, who has such a cool person and has a wonderful personality. The other highlight was interviewing historian Robert Pruter, who wrote the incredible Chicago Soul (University of Illinois Press). Although his observations were cut from my story for space reasons, his book was a valuable resource that was like guided tour of the Chicago music scene from the 1950s to 1980.

7. It has been 37 years since the release of Superfly. Is the music as important as it was when it was first recorded?

Michael A. Gonzales: Like the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds or The Beatles’ Abbey Road, the Superfly soundtrack is a classic album whose material still sounds as fresh as it did in 1972. In the essay, celebrated guitarist Phil Upchurch says, “I always felt those songs will be relevant forever, because they are so strong.” Indeed, I couldn’t agree more.

The influence of Superfly can be heard in the music of TV on the Radio, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z, the films of Quentin Tarantino, and Lee Daniels and the prose of prose of Nick Hornby and Ben Greenman. Thirty-seven years after its release, Superfly still resonates through the pop culture landscape.

Contact essayist Michael A. Gonzales at: gonzales.gonzo@gmail.com

Wax Poetics: http://www.waxpoetics.com

Critics on Superfly soundtrack

The Rolling Stone Greatest 500 Albums of All Time

Superfly, # 69

In the blaxploitation-soundtrack derby, Isaac Hayes’ Shaft came first — but that record had one great single and a lot of instrumental filler. Mayfield’s soundtrack to Superfly is an astonishing album, marrying lush string parts to funky bass grooves and lots of wah-wah guitar. On top is Mayfield’s knowing falsetto. Tracks such as “Pusherman” and “Freddie’s Dead” are almost unremittingly bleak, commenting on the movie’s glamorization of the drug-trade action and forecasting its inevitable results.

Nelson George, author of The Death of Rhythm and Blues

“I think Superfly is better than What’s Going On. I think it’s the best album of an amazing era in black music.”

Elvis Mitchell, Esquire

Pauline Kael wrote that The Godfather Part II was the first movie to say no in thunder. She could’ve said the same thing about Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly soundtrack. A seductive and rhythmic counterpoint to the picture’s message about ripping off the Man — and what blaxploitation picture isn’t down with such a sentiment? — Mayfield’s score rebels against the movie’s insidious mythologizing of a predatory drug dealer named Priest. Mayfield led his band through a rough and bluesy rendition of the title song and seemed to understand the unspoken dynamic of the movies of the era: This might be the only chance African-Americans got to redress decades of second-class imagery on the big screen and speak to the issues of the day.

Robert Christgau, The Village Voice

I’m no respecter of soundtracks, but I can count–this offers seven new songs (as many as his previous LP) plus two self-sustaining instrumentals. It’s not epochal, but it comes close–maybe Mayfield writes tougher when the subject is imposed from outside than when he’s free to work out of his own spacious head. Like the standard-setting “Freddie’s Dead,” these songs speak for (and to) the ghetto’s victims rather than its achievers (cf. “The Other Side of Town,” on Curtis), transmitting bleak lyrics through uncompromisingly vivacious music. Message: both candor and rhythm are essential to our survival. A-

Entertainment Weekly voted Superfly #6 in their 100 Best Soundtracks

A textbook case of a soundtrack that artistically dwarfs the film that spawned it, Curtis Mayfield’s opus is a testament to the powers of a musician at the top of his game. Mayfield’s music imbued the blaxploitation quickie with a moral pulse, taking aim at the scourge of drugs in the inner city. It was one of Mayfield’s gifts that his songs could sound joyful and heartbroken at the same time, suggesting the complexities of the human experience. “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead,” the title track–Mayfield’s lyrical high-mindedness would have meant naught if the music weren’t as addictive as a drug itself.

Ryan Schreiber, Pitchfork (rated 9.8)

It’s only when you listen to Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 soundtrack to Superfly that you can truly get past the film’s dated cinematography and bad acting. As most folks with clues realize, Superfly is one of the most influential R&B recordings of the 1970s (the majority of Seattle Grunge Rockers cite this album as an inspiration), and while some of the slang terms are less effective adjectives than flashbacks to yesteryear, they’re true to their time. (Admit it; you’ve never been able to say ‘junkie’ with a straight face.)

Mayfield’s Superfly was probably the most important record for shaping the future of black music. This is one of the first releases to include to the trademark blaxploitation smooth-funk sound. Right from the record’s opening of bongos, Hammond organ and hi-hats giving way to a distant, wailing electric guitar, bass drum, and strings and horn sections, it’s obvious that this is the production that led to similar work by Issac Hayes and even James Brown. Four years ago, I found Isaac Hayes’ Shaft on vinyl for a buck in a thrift store and it became the ultimate “sex music” of my late-teen life. It’s got nothin’ on Superfly.

Samples and Covers/list from The Breaks.com

Superfly: (Curtom 1972)

* “Pusherman”

Cam’Ron ft Brotha’s “D Rugs”

Cookie Crew’s “Come on and Get Some”

Eminem’s “I’m Shady”

Ice T’s “I’m Your Pusher”

Zhigge’s “Zhigge Man”

* “Freddie’s Dead”

Audio Two’s “Many Styles”

Brand Nubian’s “Gang Bang”

Donell Jones’s “When I Was Down”

Dru Down’s “The Game”

Fishbone’s “Freddie’s Dead” (cover)

GangStarr’s “Gusto”

Hammer’s “That’s What He Said”

Master P’s “Kenny’s Dead”

May May’s “Ya Head is Dead”

Poison Clan’s “Low Life Mothers”

Poison Clan’s “Paper Chase”

Racionais MCs’s “Mano Na Porta Do Bar”

Robbie C’s “Death Lives In The Rock”

TMT’s “Fugitives on the Run”

UGK’s “Cocaine in the Back of the Ride”

* “Give Me Your Love”

Eminem’s “Open Mic”

Aaliyah’s “It’s Whatever”

Big Daddy Kane’s “Get Bizzy”

Digable Planets’s “Nickel Bags”

EPMD’s “Can’t Hear Nothing but the Music”

Inspectah Deck’s “Trouble Man”

Mary J. Blige’s “I’m the Only Woman”

Pete Rock – CL Smooth’s “Shine On Me”

Queen Latifah’s “Give Me Your Love”

Snoop Dogg’s “Bathtub”

* “Eddie, You Should Know Better”

Busta Rhymes ft Rah Digga’s “Betta Stay up in Your House”

Snoop Dogg’s “G’z Up, Hoes Down”

* “Superfly”

The Blow Monkeys (cover)

Beastie Boys’s “Egg Man”

Cookie Crew’s “Come on and Get Some”

Curtis Mayfield ft Ice T’s “Superfly 1990”

Divine Styler’s “Divinity Stylistics”

Geto Boys’s “Do it Like a G.O.”

Mistress & DJ Madame E’s “Hypergroove”

Notorious BIG’s “Ready to Die Intro”

* “Little Child Runnin’ Wild”

Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”

http://blackadelicpop.blogspot.com

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