Curtis Mayfield's soundtrack for the 1972 movie "Superfly" was a masterpiece of contemporary popular music, one whose grand shadow the singer-songwriter has never quite been able to escape. So lately he stopped trying.
Mayfield has contributed four songs to the soundtrack of the upcoming movie "Return of Superfly" (Capitol). Unfortunately, the best that can be said about the new album is that it occasions renewed fondness for the original.
"Return of Superfly" is bound to bring Mayfield more attention than he has enjoyed in years, which only deepens the tragedy of the paralyzing accident he suffered last month in Brooklyn. "Curtis was out there doing everything he could" to promote the new project, says filmmaker Sig Shore, producer of "Superfly" as well as the "Return."
While tuning his guitar onstage for an outdoor concert, Mayfield was struck by a light rack blown over by a gust of wind. Mayfield, 48, is now recuperating at the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta, paralyzed from the neck down. It's unclear whether the paralysis will be permanent, says John Abbey, president of Ichiban Records in Atlanta, which distributes Mayfield's Curtom label.
"He is in good spirits," Abbey says.
Mayfield's singing career spans more than 30 years, beginning with the great Chicago soul group the Impressions. In 1970, Mayfield went solo, immediately producing a few modest hit singles. Who could have imagined that the collection of songs he wrote, arranged and sang for a low-budget action movie -- with a drug pusher as hero -- would have such lasting resonance?
The "Superfly" soundtrack is a work of grace and passion, from its stirring opening moment -- the swirl of organ chords and conga strikes that leads you into "Little Child, Running Wild" -- through the seductive darkness of "Pusherman," the casual melancholy of "Freddie's Dead" and the triumphant optimism of "No Thing on Me." Time has done nothing to blunt the album's power.
Watching "Superfly" on videocassette today, you also realize how much of that film's success is due to Mayfield's music, particularly during two extraordinary sequences: the slow-motion bathtub love scene, accompanied by "Give Me Your Love," and director Gordon Parks Jr.'s still-photo montage of the street-level drug business, propelled by the backbeat of "Pusherman."
"Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly" were million-selling singles -- the last ones Mayfield would earn as a singer. (As a writer and producer, however, he was responsible for other movie soundtracks that generated gold singles: "Claudine" by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and "Let's Do It Again" by the Staple Singers.)
In the past couple of years, rapper Ice-T and the rock band Fishbone have remade songs from "Superfly." But their stripped-down "contemporary" renditions aren't nearly as satisfying as the combination of Mayfield's complicated orchestrations and gentle tenor.
Mayfield and his Curtom label weren't active for much of the '80s. But when he restarted it three years ago, one of the first orders of business was to reissue the "Superfly" soundtrack on CD, cassette and LP.
Earlier this year, Mayfield released his first album of new material in five years, "Take It to the Street." And though it wasn't a hit, "it kind of got him back into the system again," Abbey says. "People were calling for dates again."
Now comes "Return of Superfly" and its first single, "Superfly 1990," a vague reworking of a bass line and chord progression from the original soundtrack, but with a cold, synthesized touch. "Superfly 1990" and Mayfield's similarly spare "Showdown" are designed to appeal to the hip-hop generation. Indeed, Ice-T does a guest rap on "1990," and eight songs on the soundtrack come from a variety of today's toughest-talking rappers, such as Eazy-E and King Tee. Curtis Mayfield is simply out of place.
If the big-screen resurrection of "Superfly" seems like an effort to profit from the growing young audience for gritty "street" rap, then Mayfield seems to have been included simply to exploit the reputation of his 1972 soundtrack.
Mayfield's heart isn't in "Return of Superfly." His four songs lack the lyrical sophistication and vocal conviction of his earlier work. Instead of addressing the moral complexity of the film's pusher-hero, as he did with lines such as "a man of odd circumstance, a victim of ghetto demands," Mayfield simply recites the plot: "Took some time to make my body clean, and now I'm back on the street scene. Between a rock and a hard place. Still my past leaves a distaste."
Mayfield also contributes an old-fashioned but undistinctive ballad, "For the Love of You." But the soundtrack's low point is "Forbidden," a lambada number, believe it or not. "If you sizzle when you wiggle, it's lambada," Mayfield sings, presumably at gunpoint.
Ahh, the lambada. Seems like nostalgia already, doesn't it? But it was this very year that folks were predicting the sensuous Latin dance would sweep the country like nothing since disco. "Forbidden" shows up the soulless calculation behind the entire "Return of Superfly" project.