How Curtis Mayfield and Gladys Knight Created a Sound for Working-Class Black America

tags: African American history, music, popular culture, soul

Mark Anthony Neal is the James B. Duke Professor of African & African American Studies and the author of several books, including What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture and the forthcoming Black Ephemera: The Crisis and Challenge of the Black Musical Archive.

More than anything, Claudine felt like a reprieve; the film, directed by John Berry and released in 1974, gave audiences a compelling alternative depiction of Black life from those about Black drug lords and mafia dons fighting over real estate in the years before gentrification would make such battles even more cartoonish than the films themselves. In the early 1970s, the single Black mother—stereotyped as the “welfare queen,” the lazy woman living off the fat of the land—was already becoming the trope blamed for undoing the Black family and thus the Black community, and the mythical figure would later be cited by conservative politicians like Ronald Reagan as an excuse to roll back public assistance to the poor and working class. 

In what might be billed as an early Black rom-com, Diahann Carroll plays Claudine Price, a single mother of six who works as a domestic while also drawing from welfare. It’s on the job that she is initially wooed by Roop Marshall, a sanitation worker portrayed by James Earl Jones. Carroll took on the role shortly before production began, as the original actor slated for the role, her high school mate Diana Sands, bowed out after being diagnosed with cancer. Carroll went on to receive an Academy Award nomination, and she earned every bit of it by transforming herself from the kinds of middle-class aspirational characters she was most known for, especially due to the television series Julia, into the gritty, working-class Claudine. 

The film opens with the sound of Gladys Knight singing “On and On,” with an urgency that most single mothers understand, on top of images of Claudine struggling to get her kids dressed, fed, and ready for school—and to catch her bus, which she almost misses. In many ways the authenticity of Claudine pivots on the singing of Knight, whose own vocal earthiness made the character all the more real. Knight, simply, was the female voice of the Black working class in the 1970s. Even when she was at Motown, where her group was relegated to the second tier on the company’s Soul subsidiary label (read: Blackity-Black), Knight’s grounded persona stood in contrast to the frivolity of Diana Ross, the ethereality of Aretha Franklin, and the understatedness of Roberta Flack, to name just a few of her peers. The hit singles from the group’s definitive Motown album, If I Were Your Woman (1971)—“I Don’t Want to Do Wrong” and the title track—could have been slipped into the film without it missing a beat. Their singing resulted in a soulful soundtrack that elevated Claudine to something more than a portrait of so-called Black pathology.

Claudine was released less than two years after one of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ most successful pop songs and their Motown finale, “Neither One of Us,” and less than a year after their Buddah label debut, Imagination, which featured “Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me” and the iconic “Midnight Train to Georgia.” All three songs were written by singer-songwriter Jim Weatherly, and given the group’s tenure with Motown and the pop success of those singles, working with Mayfield might have been risky, since they had seemed to have found the formula for a sustainable crossover.

Mayfield was still in the early stages of a solo career. He had left the Impressions—one of the defining soul groups of the 1960s—in 1970 to establish himself and his record label, Curtom. His eponymous debut and its follow-up, Roots, were moderate successes, but everything changed for him—and arguably Black music—with the transcendent success of his work on Superfly. The film was released in 1972, a year after Gordon Parks and Isaac Hayes’s collaboration on the score and soundtrack for Shaft, which broke new ground for Black filmmakers and musicians; Hayes earned an Academy Award for his “Theme to Shaft.” Superfly went on to similar acclaim, earning four Grammy nominations.

More broadly, the emerging blaxploitation industry offered soul artists opportunities to score films, like Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones had done a generation earlier. For artists like Hayes, Mayfield, Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man), Willie Hutch (The Mack and Foxy Brown), and Donny Hathaway (Come Back, Charleston Blue), soundtrack albums allowed for a more expansive soundscape and the opportunity to reach broader audiences. Throughout the 1960s Mayfield found relative success writing and producing other artists, notably with former Impressions member Jerry Butler (“He Will Break Your Heart,” which later became a pop hit for Tony Orlando and Dawn), Major Lance (“Monkey Time”), Gene Chandler (“Nothing Can Stop Me”), and Walter Jackson (“It’s All Over”). It was no surprise that Mayfield had, by far, the most success with the soundtrack format, given his ability to write and produce for others.

Read entire article at The Criterion Collection

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