One Track Mind: Curtis Mayfield, "Freddie's Dead" (1972)

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As the 1960s turned into the 1970s, soul — like rock — got tougher and edgier. In 1971 alone, Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Goin’ On, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces Of A Man raised the stakes in R&B that was serious, far-reaching and influential to several generations. Others like the Temptations, Donny Hathaway, Isaac Hayes, James Brown and later on, Stevie Wonder, also raised social consciousness or at the least moved away from strictly topics of love. Their music likewise got deeper, more complex and turbulent.

Curtis Mayfield was in the middle of it all. As the main man in the Impressions during the prior decade, he was already moving in that direction with the group, having penned hits like “People Get Ready,” “We’re A Winner” and “Keep On Pushing.” He put himself firmly in the vanguard of this movement toward harder and politically charged soul with his first solo post-Impressions album Curtis, but his opus came two years later in 1972 with his soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Superfly.

It was hard to believe that his frank depictions of inner city life revealed an understanding of social strife as deep as his mastery of sophisticated production techniques. For this themed soul album, Mayfield composing pen had never been mightier. And the centerpiece song of this great work is “Freddie’s Dead.”

This track is where all of Mayfield’s strengths, of which there were many, coincided at their peaks. He builds the music from an insistent, funky riff, that’s delivered in unison by a fuzz guitar, bass and flute. The strange, contrasting timbre this creates is the hook you can’t get out of your mind even if you tried. He also intelligently leverages a string orchestra with his now-familiar use of harps, laying it gently on top of the tough groove.

At one point, he even calls in a plunged trombone, an Ellingtonian twist that fits right in with the more contemporary wah-wah guitars and urban rhythms.

Mayfield didn’t just create the track, he sang it, too, and that’s where yet another part of his genius shined. Maybe he was no Gaye, but his high-register voice that easily slipped in and out of falsetto sung with conviction and sincerity was just as emblematic of soul as Marvin’s was. The lyrics he sang of a man who wasted away his life by being a junkie was weighty already, but then Mayfield expands the personal story to society at large when he opines:

We’re all built up with progress
But sometimes I must confess
We can deal with rockets and dreams
But reality? What does it mean?
Ain’t nothing said
‘Cause Freddie’s dead

The song made it up to No. 4 on the U.S. pop chart and No. 2 on on the R&B chart. Curtis Mayfield was pushing out the boundaries of soul music, but America was ready to follow him. Even if you take all the elaborate production out of this song, you still have a great song.

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S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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  • Kit O’Toole

    Very true–this is a standout in Mayfield’s already impressive body of work. I like how he turned the “blaxploitation” concept on its head by inserting socially conscious lyrics which blew apart the glamorized images of the pimp and drug dealers prevalent in films like “Superfly.” Nice work!

    • S. Victor Aaron

      Thanks, Kit. I just had to queue up this tune again, it’s such a masterful piece of work by Mr. Mayfield.

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