Issue #25: Short Eyes by Curtis Mayfield
July 18, 2016
Released On September, 1977
Released By Curtom Records
In 1977, someone in Hollywood decided that it would be a good idea to adapt Miguel Pinero's play Short Eyes to a feature film. I have no idea if this turned out to be a good idea, a terrible idea, or somewhere in between. Up until two days ago while researching for this piece, I had no clue as to the film's plot. I have never once seen a single frame of Short Eyes — nor do I ever want to. But I've heard the movie a thousand times, and I can promise you that I'll hear Curtis Mayfield's brilliant score a thousand more times before it's all said and done. However the weight of this masterpiece, for me, isn't necessarily in the music itself. It's in the circumstance of Mayfield's career, the impact this album had on my life as a young producer, and the staggering amount of top shelf hip hop that became of this surprisingly obscure source material.
We're not uncovering anything new here in praising Curtis Mayfield. Everyone knows, or should know, the genius of the Chicagoan better known for his iconic Superfly score. For my money, Mayfield is on the short list for most talented artist of the "soul" era. His pristine catalog can sneak up on you, especially if you're not familiar with his early work as a singer-songwriter for his group The Impressions (which also featured a young Jerry Butler… Whoa!). He's most known for the numbers he put up during his prime as a solo artist. Most folks that begin collecting soul records receive a starter-kit that includes the aforementioned Superfly, Roots, or his 1970 debut Curtis. The point I'm trying to illustrate here is that despite Mayfield's catalog of undeniable classics, even among fans and vinyl enthusiasts, Short Eyes, which may actually be Mayfield's finest work, lives in relative obscurity. Prime example: It's not even listed on Mayfield's Wikipedia page. He's credited for his cameo as an actor in the film, but not for composing the fucking score! I'm guessing Short Eyes the film was not a box office smash. Add that to the fact that this album was late-style for Mayfield. On the heels of his success as a solo artist, he wholeheartedly embraced the role of executive producer while overseeing his own Curtom imprint (which also boasts a sneaky-pristine catalog of gems all crafted by Mayfield himself). By 1977, Mayfield was fully invested in the disco sound, as any prudent label chief would be at the time. So it comes as a bit of a shock to those of us digging in the crates for sample material that Mayfield was able to summon the soulful kitchen sink that he threw down for Short Eyes. This albums sounds everything like 1972 and nothing like 1977. So, with those two key factors in play we can sort of see why the LP was widely ignored for so long.
Which brings us back around to hip hop. Like any young DJ/beat-maker, I was an enthusiastic, idealistic 20 year old looking for all the original records used as samples for all of my favorite rap records. I had been collecting since about 15 years old, so by my early twenties my collection was at least somewhat well-informed. But it would soon grow exponentially as I needed more and more source material for making beats. In 2002, a group from my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia named D.M.P. (short for Durte Muzik Productions) released a single that would shake up the world of college radio on the east coast. It was called "Don't Want To Give That Up". It's a fantastic weed-anthem, but the group use women as a metaphor instead of blatantly professing their love for the stickiest of the icky. But what struck me the most about the record was the sample. I knew that the man singing on the fairly long intro was Curtis Mayfield, but I had never heard the original song before. This is pre-internet, pre-Shazam, so I've actually got to physically find this record in order to know where the song came from (for the record, I didn't actually come across a physical copy of the LP until about 7 years later). The chorus also featured Mayfield's angelic falsetto: "I don't plan to give that up / I can't give that up, to no one (don't wanna give that up)." The only reason I found out about it is because I later came to know personally Nottz, the producer of the record (and top-5, dead or alive beat-maker). If you're unfamiliar with Nottz, check out his discography. He's a god, and as a result wields tremendous influence over the production community. Almost instantly, which is a few months in 2002 music industry time, songs sampling Short Eyes popped up in bunches. In short order, Short Eyes was the "it" album for producers to sample. Originally, I was actually going to list a dozen of my favorite songs (c) 2002-2007 that sample from Short Eyes, but the sample police are real, so I'm not going to do that out of respect for the production fraternity. But just know that the list includes bangers from Jay-Z, Royce Da 5'9", D.M.P., Cassidy, Sunshine Anderson, 9th Wonder, Jadakiss, Edgar Allen Floe, and Big Pooh.
Amazing side note: Five of the songs I was going to list are produced by Nottz. He owns this record. Just like Quentin Tarantino did for John Travolta in 1994, Nottz single handedly resurrected a forgotten gem that seemingly died with disco.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
The simplicity of his musical prowess never ceases to amaze.
The 1970s was a really exciting time for movies. Chinatown, The Conversation, Escape From Alcatraz, and the work of Martin Scorsese, amongst others, were gritty, male-centric, exhilarating art pieces devoid of a positive resolution, that often had to something to say about modern life. Short Eyes, a film about a white pedophile sent to jail (based on a play of the same name by Miguel Pinero, who was jailed in 1972) could not have been made today, where studio films are mostly escapism. It certainly wouldn’t have a funk soundtrack with songs about both love and a life wasted in prison. The movie was about reality, and Curtis Mayfield’s soundtrack absolutely reflected that. I listened to the album first without reading a film synopsis — the cover is not indicative of the theme. "Back Against The Wall" opens with the lyrics, “Sittin’ here waiting for tomorrow / I don't think it'll ever come / Well, just think that I'm a young dude/My whole life is almost gone.” I was immediately gutted — “Oh, that’s what this movie is about,” I thought. Unlike today’s blockbuster soundtracks featuring ten big bands, many of these songs seem organic to the story and you even get a brief glimpse into what life is like for the characters. While the touches of disco seem very of the time, there is also a lot to enjoy, like the tiny cracks in Mayfield’s voice, the fantastic backing vocals (I will be singing “I’m a fool, fool, fool” all week) and the funky rhythms; all of which make this an album worth revisiting beyond its movie beginnings.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
I had a few weird feelings when I saw that the album I'd be writing about this week is called Short Eyes. I'm thinking the intro to this newsletter will probably address the less-than-savory connotations of that phrase (certainly an attention-grabbing title for a '70s prison movie, I'll give it that), though, so I'll just move on to dealing with the music. I've never done too much digging into the work of The Impressions (though one of my best friends loves them), but I sure do love the Curtis Mayfield solo stuff I've heard. There's a lot more out there I haven't touched on, though, and Short Eyes is one of those albums. It dates from several years after the stuff I've heard, and came towards the end of Mayfield's time as a funk hitmaker, so the fact that it has a smoother, more contemplative vibe than Curtis and Superfly did certainly makes sense. It also makes this album a pleasant and absorbing listen on a sunny weekend morning. There's a pensive mood throughout many of these songs that is only underscored by Mayfield's use of lush string sections and downtempo moods. Of course, with the lyrics focusing as they do on day-to-day struggles and hard times, there's also an anxious undercurrent here, which I vibe with more strongly than I'd like. Songs like "Back Against The Wall" and "Short Eyes / Freak, Freak, Free, Free, Free" feel like trying to calm down and breathe deeply as you're on the verge of a panic attack. Of course, the album-ending duo of starstruck love song "Another Fool In Love" and elegiac instrumental "Father Confessor" calms things down and wraps the album up on a more placid note, which is a necessary thing in these trying times.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Funk gets the blues or: Blues gets the funk. It’s a Curtis Mayfield record. What else could be as quintessentially 1970s? Without having the full context of the film, I can at least say it stands on its own as a testament to the trials and tribulations of society and love. It’s a beautiful tapestry of passion and woe woven together with wah wahs, phasers, and strings. It’s got the soul of the blues, but the thing that makes it more interesting — and perhaps ironically so — is its lavish presentation. Which is to say that it is most definitely a product of the times, when swagger and sultriness seemed to permeate everything. However, that is by no means a detraction. Mayfield’s execution here exhibits why he is a paragon of arrangement and vibe. Impressively, the album is only eight tracks, fantastically focused and each one high caliber. Perhaps my favorite is the closer instrumental "Father Confessor," a pastoral theme that conjures a montage of romanticized imagery from the era. Looking for some sensitive soul of the highest grade? Look no further. (Footnote: "Need Someone To Love" finds reincarnation via Dean & Britta on their song “Ginger Snaps” from 2003’s L’Avventura.)
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
There’s something criminal going on here, and it has nothing to do with the jail-cell plot of Short Eyes. It’s this: I love Curtis Mayfield and I now realize (thanks, Mr. Clyde) that I have only engaged with about half of his peak '70s output. When I say engaged, I really mean obsessed. "Junkie Chase," a 1:42 minute instrumental from Superfly, is ingrained in my very soul — that's how many times I played it on repeat back in the day. But Short Eyes? As big a deal as Miguel Piñero's play and the subsequent film were in '70s NYC, I never saw either or heard one song from the soundtrack. Mea culpa — but I also blame Rolling Stone and the rest of the rockist critical establishment, which led to absurdities like Short Eyes getting two stars in the first RS Record Guide in 1979. Absurd because this is a great album, and one that features all of the virtues of Mayfield's other great albums: sharp rhythms, nuanced lyrics, sweet singing, and brilliant arrangements. It also has the usual stinging guitar licks, here with a more incendiary tone than usual, befitting the gritty prison-drama subject matter. The guitar is so hot on this record that Ernie Isley likely lost some sleep when it came out. I will say that there are no instant impact songs here like "Keep On Pushing, Freddy's Dead, The Makings Of You," or "Mother's Son." But take some time with it and let the wonders unfold. If you want a bonus track, check out Freddy Fender and Curtis himself jamming out on "Break It Down" (the one non-original on the album) in a scene from the film, which also looks great. And before you despair, I'm happy to report that in the last RS Guide, from 2006, Short Eyes gets four stars. I couldn't agree more.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Added bonus — enjoy Curtis Mayfield in the role of Pappy. Totally serious here.
I’ve been enjoying listening to this lesser known soundtrack all week. Short Eyes doesn’t stray far from the very familiar songs and sounds of Superfly and Curtis’ other big hits. It’s still funky, but a little slower and soulful, more fluid, and less stereotypical cliche '70s sounding to my ears forty years later. I love that you hear Curtis' voice crack at times, something that would have been digitally “fixed” or spliced with another take in modern recordings. Lots of people have sampled from this soundtrack most notably Jadakis, Wale, Jay-Z, and Ashanti featuring Ja Rule. Did anyone else hear a little James Bond theme in the extended "Short Eyes / Freak, Freak, Free, Free, Free" jam? I’m trying to figure out if this is a nod or a rub. I can’t seem to find evidence either way. My hunch is Curtis might have been trying to say, "Hey, I could write the next Bond theme — have your people call my people!"
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
Hidden in the bottom drawer of my nightstand was a red, wide-ruled, spiral notebook. The five-year-old version of me had asked for it on a trip to the grocery store, and my mama, somewhat bemused, agreed perhaps because I refused to tell her its intended purpose. Shoved there under Mercer Mayer books and construction paper jewelry, my red notebook lived until bedtime. After she closed our storybook, tucked me in, left the door open a crack, I would quietly rifle out my notebook and a pen I’d stolen from her coat pocket, prop up a blank page on my knees, and daydream about music. Replaying songs from the radio, I would “write” the soundscape of the track in swoops and dips, little twirls and mountain peaks. To the untrained eye those pages were full of nonsense, but to me they held the other part of music, the emotions of listening. Standing in my kitchen cooking dinner this week, I put on the Mayfield soundtrack of Short Eyes and was taken back to that time in my life. Even more than Mayfield’s sweetly plaintive vocals and that sexy, talky guitar, I love the story that plays out through this album. Obviously a soundtrack in that a visual element would hinge this together, the more I listened, the more I built up that story for myself. So much is happening here — musical callbacks to the 1950s, flashes of what we would hear in the ‘80s, a thread of the Psycho theme, a hint of Steely Dan type sax, to name just a few — but it would be easy to miss if you weren’t paying attention, called it Blaxploitation sound, and left it at that. Admittedly, at first or second listen I was disappointed by how clearly I was missing out on the story. Lyrical clues like “My friends but all have cut me loose / on the outside playing safe” and “Stranger man took my only daughter… whored her for a quarter” made me pause, spatula in the air, oil spitting from the pan, as I looked at my friend with a serious WTF is happening expression on my face. Listening to the album later, though, building up the story in my mind with more nuance and detail on every repetition, I realized the greatest strength of this album, and what transcends the playlist feel that so many soundtracks have, are the emotions of listening, the story told through minimal and incomplete lyrics with that funky sound. The only difference between the younger me and the one writing this today is I’m able to use more than squiggles and swirls to express this story of sound.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Shouldn’t need to be said, but Curtis Mayfield is soul music.
One really neat thing about Curtis Mayfield’s Short Eyes soundtrack: It changed the way I think about the guitar. I’m so used to thinking of the instrument as a symbol of power. It’s loud. It’s phallic. It shaped popular music in the twentieth century. Looking at pictures of Jimi Hendrix and his Strat, you’d think he was unstoppable. Summoning flames. Reinventing the national anthem. Completely badass. I can’t find online who played on this album, but "Back Against The Wall" inverts this idea. High in the mix, standing tall in front of a dreamy funk arrangement, bendy, emotive notes on full display — the guitar sounds lonely. Vulnerable. For so many people who aren’t Jimi Hendrix, that’s what it’s really like to play a guitar solo. You’re naked. If and when you screw up, everyone is going to know. It’s impossible to ignore the parallels with the plot of Short Eyes, a story about surviving in prison, where vulnerability is a cardinal sin. I have a hard time thinking that Mayfield meant to give Clark Davis the Peter and the Wolf treatment, where every instrument represents a character, but still — the story messes with power relationships plenty, and in this one, specific way, it feels like the soundtrack does the same. It makes me want to watch the movie. I’m in the Outer Banks with my extended family this week — maybe I’ll chum the waters by playing "Back Against The Wall" and see if anyone’s game.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
To be honest, I’m very surprised it took us this long to cover some soul here on Off Your Radar. It’s a genre that transcends age, sex, race, and class by offering something for everyone. I mean I’m a white, middle class Englishman, but if someone sticks on some Marvin or Stevie, it’s instantly going to put me in a good mood and get my feet tapping. Curtis Mayfield is another one who I could just listen to all day. His voice is so smooth, his production so tight, and his music just a joy to listen too. I’ve never seen the movie Short Eyes, of which this is the soundtrack too, and if I’m honest, I’d never heard of it before this week. But don’t let that put you off, for this record could easily serve as a greatest hits for Mayfield. Title track "Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here" is one of Mayfield’s better known tracks, and rightly so as it’s a funk/soul masterpiece. The rest of the record continues where its opening track left off, with quality track after quality track. Mayfield sounds on top form with his sweet falsetto providing the perfect accompaniment to his funked up guitar arrangements. The whole records combines blues-funk with soulful arrangements, its production outstanding for the '70s. If you can’t put on "Need Someone To Love" and instantly feel something, then I’m afraid we have nothing in common. As you can probably tell, I love this record. It’s a terrific body of work and gets my highest recommendation. Mayfield can sometimes get overlooked for some of the big heavy hitters of the soul and funk genre, but he was a tremendous musician with an outstanding back catalogue. In these crazy times, put a little soul on and soothe your heart.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
I listened to this album twice while doing other things. I enjoyed it. It sounded exactly like what I would expect a Curtis Mayfield album to sound like (based strictly on the bits of the Superfly soundtrack I’ve heard). Funky guitars, Marvin Gaye-esque vocals. And then I listened to it on a late night walk where all I was doing was putting one foot in front of the other while the music flowed into my ears from my earbuds. And everything about that particular listening experience was right. First, the lyrics matter. My ears sent a hurried message to my brain that things were not going to be proceeding according to plan when in the first song, "Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here," Mayfield sings, "I plan to stay a black motherfucker” just as smooth as all the rest of the lyrics. The rest of the listen was a revelation. What really knocked me out about this album was that, to jump into the cliche pool with both feet, it works on so many levels. I liked it a lot when I wasn’t listening to the lyrics and I liked it a lot (for some of the same reasons and a lot of different ones too) when I was. I’ve not seen the movie Short Eyes (for which this album serves as a soundtrack), but I wonder if it’s a study of prisons. Not just the ones that we can be incarcerated in, but also the ones that we find ourselves born into and the ones that we choose to lock ourselves into to avoid being alone and the ones that we are led into by the people we trust. Maybe it’s more thrillfest and less term paper than that, but you can almost feel Mr. Mayfield wanting to put the instruments down and have the discussion.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
So much of this record seems ornately impeccable. The dexterous guitar sound. The dazzling arrangements. They're all so fascinating and alluring, but being so perfect at times, they actually guide you to notice the beauty in the imperfect moments here, such as the vocal work from Mayfield. It's impressive how well he's disguised the vocal command on this record. You just write off his flawed falsetto as late career missteps or prideful ignorance, but that's not what's happening here. The cracks at specific notes, the falsetto giving out at multiple moments — these are planned. They push forward that feeling of despair and desperation and even create a feeling of discord and turmoil like on "A Heavy Dude." It is a soundtrack to a prison movie after all. It takes a great singer to master the falsetto, but it takes an accomplished musician to be able to contort that falsetto on command for dramatic effect repeatedly. Knowing Mayfield's reputation and body of work, nothing is going to be there unless it was meant to be there, even if it seems like an otherwise excusable blemish. Here, those vocal blemishes put more work into dictating the tone and framework of the record than any fancy guitar line or clever horn section could ever do. Knowing this just makes the case for studying Mayfield's entire discography that much stronger.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Everything’s Alright Forever by The Boo Radleys
Chosen By Drew Necci