August 1972: Curtis Mayfield and SUPER FLY Heat Up Summer

Thursday, August 4, 2022

It was the steamy and red-hot summer of 1972 when director Gordon Parks Jr. and lead actor Ron O'Neal hit the streets of New York City to film the "Blaxploitation" classic, Super Fly. The harrowing tale of title character "Youngblood" Priest and his attempt to escape "the life" of drug dealing and street violence with one big score shook up America when it was released on big screens across the country August 4, 1972.

Packed with graphic images of sex, violence and drug use, viewers were polarized by the film. While some embraced the messages of taking advantage of the capitalistic system by any means necessary, others decried the depiction of drug dealers as glamorous inner-city superheroes. By the fall of 1972, Super Fly was the #1 movie in America.

There was little debate, however, about the movie's soundtrack. Composed and created by soul icon, Curtis Mayfield, the Super Fly soundtrack created its own separate narrative to the film. While the high-intensity action played out on screen, Mayfield's songs delivered far more sobering and clear-eyed messages about the perils of street life.

"One of the things that impressed me about the character Priest was, in spite of what he did for a living, was the fact that he wanted to get out,” the late Mayfield told writer Michael A. Gonzales (via Wax Poetics). “It all locked in when you found out he was a very small [fish] in a very large ocean. That allowed me to speak of this man lyrically as to how people who are fly really behave. I wanted to express things lyrically for what they really were.

“Director Gordon Parks Jr. understood that the music was as important as the dialogue. Not only that, but we also showed that you didn’t need a room the size of a football field to lay down the music; you didn’t have to be a Henry Mancini," Mayfield continued. "For the price of one, I could bring in two things: the scoring of the movie and of course the soundtrack with a major artist. That was something new for the [movie] business.” 

With the movie heating up screens across the country, songs from the soundtrack were burning up the radio airwaves and the charts. "Freddie's Dead (Theme from Super Fly)" climbed all the way to #4 on the Hot 100 for the week of November 4, 1972. The title track "Superfly" peaked at #8 on the same chart in January 1973.

“First of all, I didn’t know too many drug dealers," Mayfield said. "However, reading the script, I started feeling very deeply bad for Freddie. Between his friends, his partners, and his woman, he was catching a hard time. ‘Freddie’s Dead’ came to me immediately. While you might not know a lot of pimps and drug dealers, we do meet quite a few Freddies."

The Super Fly phenomenon carried the soundtrack all the way to #1 on the mainstream Billboard 200 chart for the week of October 21, 1972. It held the top spot for four weeks straight.