Ken Tucker reveals a songwriting genius that went far beyond ''Superfly''

By Ken Tucker
December 28, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Why Curtis Mayfield matters to music

Curtis Mayfield, who died on Sunday at the age of 57, was a musician who brought rock, soul, gospel, and the blues together in unprecedented combinations. All of the appreciations of his music that I’ve read have emphasized his biggest hit: the 1972 movie soundtrack “Superfly,” a rightly esteemed concept album that was a prime showcase for Mayfield’s dreamy, delicate, high-pitched vocals as well as his way with melodic riffs for guitar, keyboards, and brass. (Listen to the title song of “Superfly” — it’s the careening horns that provide the tune’s inescapable hook.)

But Mayfield also did innovative work before and after “Superfly.” As co-leader (with Jerry “The Iceman” Butler) of the Impressions, Mayfield made beautiful ’60s soul music in ballads such as “For Your Precious Love” and “Gypsy Woman,” as well as timely anthems like “People Get Ready” and “We’re A Winner.”

“Superfly,” which also included the radio hits “Freddy’s Dead” and “Pusherman,” led the public to think of Mayfield as a topical songwriter, but I think the latter part of his career — his 1970s work as a producer and songwriter for other artists as well as for his own solo career — is grievously undervalued for its beauty, variety, and inventiveness.

I’d call your attention to two albums in particular, both movie soundtracks, yet recordings that can stand apart from their respective films to yield endless pleasure. The first is 1974’s “Claudine,” which Mayfield scored for Gladys Knight and the Pips. The movie was a sturdy piece of inner-city romantic comedy starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones, and Mayfield filled the soundtrack with hip-shaking pop-soul tunes and gleaming ballads that brought forth some of Knight’s finest vocal performances. There are songs here in which Knight almost seems to be imitating Mayfield’s falsetto, and I don’t mean that as an insult — she does a wonderful job of capturing Mayfield’s vulnerability.

The other album is one of the great lost classics of the ’70s: “Sparkle.” This 1976 movie, a top-notch B-movie about the rise and fall of a Supremes-like soul group, got a Mayfield soundtrack sung primarily by Aretha Franklin. Mayfield and Franklin’s collaboration here is frequently stunning — beyond the songs she wrote for herself, Franklin has rarely had better original material to challenge and enhance her soul-gospel pipes.

Mayfield’s career was cut short in 1990, when a lighting tower fell on him during a concert in Brooklyn, N.Y., and left him a paraplegic. In recent years, samples of his music have floated through hip-hop tunes by Dr. Dre, Coolio, and Snoop Doggy Dogg. But it is for his own recordings and those two special movie soundtracks designed for Knight and Franklin that will stand as Mayfield’s legacy. Seek out this material; it’ll keep you warm this winter.