An engaging and paradoxic (at least in uptight Western terms), intensely masculine falsetto; a canny feeling of the confluence of handsome R&B melody with the realities and myths of black life in the Seventies; the ‘fly and jivey street-wise sense of pop poesy and prophesy, plus the considerable arranging skills of Johnny Pate — all these conspired to make Curt Mayfield’s soundtrack of the film Super Fly one of the major pop albums of 1972. And all of these abilities, minus the presence of arranger Pate and any discernible film (there’s always the movie of the mind), are back again this year, neatly packaged in Back to the World. The interesting thing is that this new Mayfield album seems more like a film soundtrack than did Super Fly. The three excellent tracks on the first side average about six minutes each, while the inferior side two seems to consist more of filler and extended vehicles for large ensemble R&B arrangements.
Here’s my plot: Our hero is a black sergeant just come “Back to the World” (GI lingo for any place but Vietnam and also the title out of this record). In Nam he was both a high-living TooDoo coke dealer and a POW. Back on the South Side he goes to see his mom and checks out the folks getting cut on the street, and ma tells him that things ain’t changed — “In these city streets, everywhere you got to be careful/Where you move your feet and how you part your hair.” He goes out and tries to get some kind of honest gig but Nixon conspires to have the New York banks raise the prime lending rate so black vets can’t start businesses. In desperation he manages to obtain the official Super Fly cocaine franchise for Illinois. Generally pissed, he also forms a band from disaffected fellow vets and sings the fine title tune, as well as “Future Shock” (a percussive first cousin of “Pusherman” and “Super Fly”), about how done-in the present is — “The price of meat/Higher than dope on the street….”
Anyway his enterprise grows and he’s soon cutting into the huge dope profits of the Chicago police, who of course try to off him (the pimp-mobile chase scene) but succeed only in blinding him. Now really righteously pissed, Curt and the band sing “Right on for the Darkness,” eight solid minutes of bitterness, anger and self-confidence, a truely effective number about “a messy world of tears.” A famous promo man for a Major Label hears the tune while he’s looking to score, signs the band, releases “Right on for the Darkness” as a single, and it sells four million copies in six weeks. The original number’s excessive orchestral coda (arrangements this time by Richard Tufo) is of course edited out of the single.
Popular on Rolling Stone
On side two our hero meets a fine woman and takes the band on the road. In a Holiday Inn he rocks out on a tough and hectic number called “If I Were a Child Again,” a nostalgic bit of heat about the old days. In the same motel room he eats some organic mescaline and his woman; the combination of magic alkaloids and vaginal secretions direct from the source restores his sight, and he sings “Keep On Trippin'” and the band plays “Can’t Say Nothin’,” an extended arrangement for big R&B outfit and goofy words. Great mescaline!
What’s remarkable about Mayfield and this album seems to be nothing less than the cyclical emotions that make up the beats on the strong pulse of black life. Curtis covers a lot of sensory ground — bitterness, ambivalent feelings, ecstasy — and he sings as both participant and observer, always managing to dip his persona in edgy, get-back funk. And here’s my bitch, Curtis: The musicians who played on this cycle of songs aren’t listed — the contribution they make to an anthem of pure empathy and style like “Back to the World” shouldn’t go unnoticed.
This is a cookin’ record. Maybe this time he’ll get the Oscar nomination.