Guitarist Craig McMullen has played alongside Aretha Franklin, 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.”
Originally from Columbus, Ohio, McMullen’s father introduced him to the music of jazz greats like John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell as a child. He spent his childhood summers in Detroit, where, at age 7, his uncle Jesse Willis 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 friends went to Massachusetts to attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music, but eventually left the school after a year and returned to Columbus. 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.
McMullen’s intro to Curtis Mayfield came courtesy of friend and touring drummer Andre Fischer, who briefly lived in Columbus. (Fischer went on to drum with Chicago funk band Rufus and Chaka Khan) 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 groundbreaking early solo albums, Curtis Live! and Roots.
The Super Fly sessions started with a phone call from Mayfield in 1971. 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. At RCA, Mayfield’s band recorded live with a full orchestra, which inspired McMullen. 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.
Bio courtesy Joel Oliphant via Columbus Monthly.