When 'Super Fly' Ruled the Charts

A poster for 'Super Fly'
Photo Credit
Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images

When Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Super Fly began its month-long run at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart on Oct. 21, 1972, it was the culmination of an astounding creative journey for the singer and onetime leader of The Impressions. Rarely had a recording of music created for a film resonated so deeply with listeners in such a deeply divided societal moment, with racial disharmony and the results of economic disparity roiling through the U.S., particularly in major cities. Like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Sly & The Family Stone’s There's a Riot Goin' On before it, Super Fly presented essential truths of the times, filtered through the film’s tale of a drug dealer trying his best to get out of the game.

READ MORE: CURTIS MAYFIELD: Classic Soul 1976 Interview

The really special part is that Super Fly, the album, could stand on its own as a viable (and excellent) work of art. As Mayfield’s son Todd recounted in a 2016 retrospective essay on the album, “Dad couldn’t stop the music from coming.” Part of the ease with which Curtis Mayfield composed and recorded Super Fly’s tracks came from his recognition of the film’s setting and characters. “I didn’t have to leave my neighborhood to be surrounded by the things that Super Fly is about,” Curtis Mayfield is quoted as saying. “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 [that] they are a very visible part of the ghetto.”

Mayfield went into the sessions for Super Fly with a song he’d already written. “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” – originally titled “Ghetto Child” – wound up kicking off the album and setting the stage for the whole production.

READ MORE: Albums of Black History: Curtis Mayfield's Cinematic Soul

The album’s focus on groove and percussion can be heard on “Pusherman,” with insistent drumming and percussive instrumentation flowing through the entire song. It’s also notable for the contrast between the instruments and Mayfield’s subtle vocal, a soft falsetto that made you really listen, driving the story home with quiet intensity.

“Freddie’s Dead” laments the loss of “Fat Freddie,” a young man caught up in the drug scene who gets murdered in the film. The track was the lead single from Super Fly, and hit No. 4 on the pop chart.

Of course, the album’s title track may well be the record’s most indelible song. Not only did it drive home the story behind the music, the music itself has been sampled by everyone from the Beastie Boys to Nelly to The Notorious B.I.G.

Super Fly is not just one of the great R&B albums of the ‘70s, it’s one of the great records of the era, regardless of genre. Cue up a copy and behold the genius of Curtis Mayfield and the story that inspired him.

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(Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)
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