Curtis Mayfield's sound track for Gordon Parks Jr.'s 1972 film Superfly, though, transcends the blaxploitation genre by light years. On its release, the album stayed at No. 1 on the charts for four weeks and sold more than two million copies; a quarter-century later it still crosses musical, racial and generational divides. It is, as Rhino Records' creative czar David Gorman writes in this lavishly designed double-CD's liner notes, "the Black Sgt. Pepper's."
Ironically, most of Mayfield's tunes made the film only in instrumental form. "Pusherman" and "Superfly" both showed up with the words intact, greatly illuminating the ways of Ron O'Neal's anti-hero drug dealer, Youngblood Priest. But a host of others did not. Still, Mayfield's trenchant lyrics and meticulous arrangements hold sufficient cultural weight and agitprop potential to promote the film's messages. "Freddie's Dead" vividly renders the ruthless life of the streets and then promotes a larger critique of black community ethics. "Give Me Your Love," with its delicate composition of piano and strings, paints a more redemptive portrait of inner-city relations. "No Thing on Me" locates Mayfield's stance of cool dignity in direct opposition to the dictates of the drug lord. In many ways, the album's breadth was more poignant and eloquent than the film it accompanied.
But this CD reissue expands on the memories. Most fans will be surprised by it, since the second disc contains all unreleased material. "Ghetto Child," a demo of "Little Child Runnin' Wild," is a dirty clone of the original with wild shouts in it and guitar parts that sting like a mixture of Sly Stone and Ernie Isley. A busy alternate mix of "Pusherman" revises the jive with an interesting accompaniment of horns (!) and that, along with a new version of "Junkie Chase," shows Mayfield as a visionary capable of myriad musical mutations and statements.
There are new songs, too. "Militant March" captures the political intransigence of the '70s in strident figures also reminiscent of Sly. And "The Underground," a dark, bass-driven piece, was pulled for use on Mayfield's Roots album, but easily fits in with the old favorites.
The second disc's surprises are rounded out with two radio spots by Mayfield and a 1995 interview with him about the album's making.
This is also a saddening retrospective; a stage-related accident in 1990 rendered Mayfield a quadriplegic. He returned to recording with last year's New World Order album, but chances are that Superfly will continue to grow in significance as a musical statement that needs no elaboration. It is a work whose cultural and social ramifications have yet to be fully realized. Forrest Green III writes about music and film for the Metro Times. He dedicates this piece to Dr. Nabeel Zuberi, "the academic propmaster." E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org