Revisiting Curtis Mayfield’s Classic Work on the Claudine Soundtrack
By Michael A. Gonzales
Singer/songwriter and producer Curtis Mayfield, who would’ve been 73 years-old yesterday (he died in 1999 at the age of fifty-seven) was as savvy in the boardroom as he was behind the mixing board. Beginning his storied career in Chicago, he was raised in the church, musically trained in choir and began strumming the guitar when he was a teenager. Dropping out of high school when he was fourteen, Mayfield formed the vocal group The Impressions with his buddy and future “ice man” Jerry Butler. In addition, Mayfield began writing and producing the group’s material as well as songs for other local artists including Major Lance and Gene Chandler.
Everything was everything until it was time to get the money. Although Mayfield did the bulk of the work, he was receiving the fewest dollars. Tired of seeing song profits lining the pockets of the music executives who had nothing to do with their creation, he started his own music publishing company. “Back then, few artists owned any parts of themselves,” Mayfield told me in 1996 from his home in Atlanta. “At an early age, I knew about the importance of publishing, but labels couldn’t believe I wanted to own at least 50% of my own stuff. I got a lot of doors slammed in my face.”
Paralyzed in 1990 in a freak accident in Brooklyn, he was confined to a hospital bed and wheelchair for the remainder of his life, but still recorded new music including New World Order (1997), and did interviews. “The labels were so used to paying folks ‘Black money,’ which was a Cadillac and $2,500 in fives, tens and twenties. I wanted more.” While Mayfield was a sweet voiced singer whose soaring falsetto inspired numerous artists including Phillip Bailey, Prince and Jeff Buckley, he was tough when he needed to be.
In Mayfield’s quest to “own as much of myself as possible,” he established Curtom Records in 1968 with business partner Eddie Thomas. Working out of a space formerly occupied by RCA Records located at One North Wacker Drive in Chicago, the talented music man secured distribution from Buddah Records and set-out to compete with Motown, Chess and Stax. Leaving the Impressions, with whom he had recorded the influential civil-rights era singles “People Get Ready” (1964) and “We’re a Winner” (1967), Mayfield signed a slew of talented artists including Leroy Hutson (who replaced him in the Impressions before going solo), The Five Stairsteps, Baby Huey and the Babysitters, Natural Four, Linda Clifford and Donny Hathaway, who also briefly served as one of the in-house arrangers and A&R director.
At the same time, Mayfield began putting out solo material beginning with the LPs Curtis (1970) and Roots (1971). His soul style, as heard clearly on “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” and “Underground,” was becoming looser and funkier. “There was a new freedom going on,” Mayfield said. “There was the flower people, FM radio and folks smoking herbs that allowed us to do other things with the music. I was listening to Bitches Brew (Miles Davis), and realized I too wanted to express myself differently.” In 1972, Mayfield’s new style of funk was launched into the stratosphere with the release of the Super Fly soundtrack. The story of a Harlem drug dealer (Priest) trying to make that inevitable last big score, both the film and the accompanying album were massive successes.
Prior to the “Blaxploitation” film movement, soundtracks were usually done by white composers using oversized studios for the orchestra. Isaac Hayes winning multiple awards, including an Oscar for Shaft, changed the game. “The studios finally realized they didn’t need a football field and Henry Mancini to do a soundtrack,” Mayfield said. With the now-classic singles “Freddie’s Dead” and “Super Fly,” the album’s streetwise lyricism, anti-drug stance and high-octane funk represented a landmark that introduced his work to a different audience without alienating loyal fans.
Two years later, Mayfield was approached by Third World Cinema/20th Century Fox to score the 1974 Diahann Carroll/James Earl Jones flick Claudine, a Harlem-based comedy-drama about a struggling mother (Carroll) of six kids who meets and falls in love with a charming garbage man named Roop (Jones). As a boy of ten, I recall watching some of the movie being shot on my old block (Jones’ apartment building was 601 W. 151 Street) and braved my way over to Carroll to ask for an autograph.
Although Mayfield could’ve easily recorded the soundtrack himself, instead he recruited his old friends Gladys Knight and the Pips. “Sometimes it’s important for a creative person to work with others to prove you’re not a fluke,” Mayfield said. “I met Gladys and the Pips back in 1958 here in Atlanta. Back when Atlanta was still a small town. Over the years, I watched their careers as they moved up the charts and they were always real nice. We started coming together when they signed with my distributors Buddah Records; the Claudine project happened to come in at the same time and here was a chance once again for me to do my thing.”
Reading the script allowed Mayfield to travel back and touch upon his own experiences growing-up in the infamous Cabrini-Green housing project. “Claudine was a whole different kind of movie,” he said. “The young people were living in the home without a father, the mother was on welfare; I’d gone through that in my own life, experienced it all. I could relate to the stories in Claudine much more than Super Fly, and as I read the script, songs like ‘Mr. Welfare’ just started coming to me.”
Writing the lyrics from the point of view of Claudine (“They just keep on saying I’m a lazy women, don’t love my children and I’m mentally unfit.), Mayfield got into the character’s mindset while Gladys’ interpretation was flawless. Two years later, Mayfield covered the song on the album Give, Get, Take and Have. In Rolling Stone in 1976, writer Ken Tucker wrote: “His remake of ‘Mr. Welfare Man’ is sensibly different from Gladys Knight’s version — Mayfield’s version centers on the rueful powerlessness that can make a man, desiring to support ‘a woman true and a baby too,’ feel strangled.”
Reportedly recording with Knight and the Pips over a long weekend in the Curtom Studios in Chicago, the first single was the wonderfully funky “On and On,” which also opened the movie. As the music played through the theater speakers, we watched as the unglamorized Carroll walked down the street with her children as they headed off to school and her to work as a maid in Riverdale. While the song has a boogie down disco vibe, it works well in that scene where we’re introduced to the domestic of our dreams and her brood.
Yet, while Mayfield could be as funky as James Brown when he wanted, he also had a tender side that he was never afraid to reveal. “To Be Invisible” was one of those moments, used for a scene between Roop and Claudine’s shy youngest son. “That was a nice solitude moment, and it was very sensitive and warm to see this happening,” Mayfield said. “But, it’s also very sad because of the circumstances. That’s where that song comes from.” That same year, Mayfield covered the song on his Sweet Exorcist album.
Taking it back to his Baptist boy roots, “Hold On” opened with a church organ that makes you shiver as Knight’s voice has the perfect duality of fragility and grit. In the movie, the song was used when Roop suddenly disappears on Father’s Day. Talking about the track years later, Mayfield said, “That was a song about a woman, who despite everything, is determined to hang on to her children and her man the best she could. Every woman in the world wants love and respect, and that’s what Claudine was holding on too.”
While Mayfield would spend the rest of the decade working on soundtracks, most notably the wonderful Sparkle (1976), the music for Claudine remains among his best.
About the author:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales writes the weekly column Vintage Vision for Ebony.com, blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com and Twitters @gonzomike.