Super Fly at 50: Columbus Guitarist Craig McMullen on Curtis Mayfield’s Landmark Album
Five decades since Super Fly was released, Craig McMullen reflects on his contributions to the timeless album.
Returning to college to study music at age 74 would be an admirable endeavor for anyone, but it’s particularly noteworthy given Craig McMullen’s resume. The Columbus guitarist, who’s finishing up his bachelor’s degree in jazz studies at Ohio State, has played alongside Aretha Franklin, jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and, most famously, soul legend Curtis Mayfield, including a stint in the early ’70s that landed McMullen on the iconic funk soundtrack to the 1972 film “Super Fly,” which celebrates its 50th anniversary in August.
“In the fall, I will have my 75th birthday and hopefully my diploma in my hands,” McMullen says during a recent video call from his Franklin Park home on the East Side, the same part of town where, in the 1950s, his father introduced him to the music of jazz greats like John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell.
McMullen spent his childhood summers in Detroit, where, at age 7, an uncle taught him to play the guitar. When McMullen turned 8, his parents paid for guitar lessons at the Downtown Lazarus department store, and by the time he entered East High School, McMullen and his classmates were winning jazz orchestra competitions at the state level.
After graduating, McMullen and two of his East buddies went to Massachusetts to attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music. “I didn’t like Boston because it was real prejudiced, and they had a lot of mafia killings,” says McMullen, flanked onscreen by two guitars. “I did it for a year, then I came back.”
In the late 1960s, McMullen worked as an electrician while gigging at Mount Vernon Avenue hot spot Club Jamaica and Main Street nightclubs Bottoms Up and Club Utopia. He played with R&B groups like the Royal Esquires and the Enchanted Five, which McMullen described as Columbus’ version of the Temptations. “We had tailor-made suits, the whole 9 yards,” says McMullen, a chatty, genial tale-teller who’s fond of the phrase “make a long story short.”
McMullen’s intro to Curtis Mayfield came courtesy of friend and touring drummer Andre Fischer, who briefly lived in Columbus. “We’d say, ‘Man, we’re going to play on the big stage together one day, so keep your promise: Whoever makes it first, bring the other guy on,’” McMullen says.
Fischer went on to drum with Chicago funk band Rufus and Chaka Khan (later marrying and divorcing singer Natalie Cole), but before that, he played with Mayfield in the Impressions, and when the band needed a guitarist, Fischer knew just who Mayfield should call. McMullen joined the Impressions in January 1970 at age 22 and played on two of Mayfield’s early solo albums, Curtis Live! and Roots.
The Super Fly sessions started with a phone call from Mayfield in 1971. “He said, ‘Look here, we’re going to go to New York and do this club scene for this movie that’s coming out,’” says McMullen, who had just lost his grandmother. “My family said, ‘You go to New York. Your grandmother would have wanted you to play.’ I was with my grandmother when I first heard myself on the radio in Columbus.”
The band recorded “Pusherman” in New York just before filming the “Super Fly” scene that features the musicians miming a performance of the same song in a nightclub. McMullen is onscreen only briefly, but he’s hard to miss in his bright yellow shirt, holding a shiny, red Gibson ES-355 guitar.
The band cut the rest of the Super Fly songs at RCA Studios in Chicago, where McMullen remembers Mayfield creating a relaxed atmosphere. “Curtis was never a high-pressure guy,” McMullen says.
At RCA, Mayfield’s band recorded live with a full orchestra, which inspired McMullen. “You hear this big orchestra, 20-something pieces, strings and everything, playing in your headphones, and man, that is like, ‘Whoa! Let me get busy!’”
The record’s first single, “Freddie’s Dead (Theme from Superfly),” came out in July 1972, before the full album and the movie, and hit No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song, which he later performed at the 1973 Grammy Awards, features McMullen’s guitar punctuating the string arrangements with percussive, wah-wah-soaked stabs. By September, the album was certified gold, with half a million units sold.
McMullen played with Mayfield for about three years and went on to record and perform with other notable artists. He played on Donald Byrd’s 1975 jazz-funk album, Places & Spaces, and on multiple records by R&B singer Leroy Hutson. He toured with Aretha Franklin for two years in the late ’70s, performing at the inauguration of Jimmy Carter and playing on the Queen of Soul’s 1977 album, Sweet Passion.
Today, McMullen says Super Fly stands out among his musical experiences. The record’s songs live on via samples in hip-hop tracks by Outkast, Snoop Dogg, the Notorious B.I.G. and others. And TV series like Blackish and Snowfall continue to air episodes featuring Super Fly hits. When they do, McMullen gets a check in the mail—“french fry money,” he says. “I do have enough money left over to buy one milkshake. Small, not large.”
But above all, the music from Super Fly means something, combining a social message with a timeless, funky sound. “It’s still relevant 50 years later,” he says. “Super Fly won’t die.”
This story is from the August 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.