By Michael A. Gonzales

CurtomRecordsYou would think that a person who has their name misspelled as many times as I have would be more sensitive to getting other folk’s name right. However, when it comes to my new pal and unsung guitarist Craig McMullen, who played with Curtis Mayfield from 1970-1973, I keep mistakenly writing his surname as McCullen. What kind of writer would I be if I didn’t have an excuse. You see, ax-man extraordinaire McMullen and drummer Tyrone McCullen (Black men with Irish surnames) both played on my one of my favorite soundtracks Superfly. Yet, if you look at the under the Wikipeda entry, both of their surnames are listed as McCullen.

Of course, every journalist on the planet knows that Wikipeda is often wrong, but for some reason I keep getting surname dyslexia when it comes time to type out McMullen’s name. “I feel like I have some kind of mental block,” I told him yesterday after sending out a press release about my upcoming Wax Poetics article Gangster Boogie about the making of the Superfly soundtrack and I had messed up again. “But, don’t worry, I promise I won’t do it again.” Good naturedly, Craig simply laughed.

Curtis-mayfield-posterIntroduced to Mayfield by Rufus drummer Andre Fisher in 1970, McMullen was invited to audition for the windy city soul man. “I owned all his records, so I already knew the material,” recalls McMullen. “Although Mayfield was still singing with the Impressions at the time, he was on the verge of going solo and McMullen was more than ready take that journey with him.

Along with drummer Tyrone McCullen, percussionist Master Henry Gibson, bassist Joseph “Lucky” Scott, the five group members travelled the world and recorded Curtis/Live in New York City’s the Bitter End in 1971. “Basically, Curtis was a nice guy,” says McMullen, who studied at Berklee College of Music and began his career playing avant-garde jazz. “We had a few ups and downs, but what family members don’t.”

Between the live album and Superfly, the team recorded Roots (1971), which one writer described as, ” a visionary album and landmark creation every bit as compelling and as far-reaching in its musical and extra-musical goals as Marvin Gaye’s contemporary What’s Going On.” From his home in Ohio, McMullen explains, “We all played on that album; Tyrone McCullen played drums on a few tracks too.

cm1“Curtis was a great guitar player, so us playing together I always had to figure out ways of doing something different. When you’re a session musician, it’s expected that of you to play in more than one position so you don’t bump heads with the other guitar players.” In addition to the three year stint McMullen spent with Mayfield, where he perfected using wah-wah and fuzz in his work, he also played with Chairman of the Board, Aretha Franklin, The Sylvers, Bill Withers and Donna Summer.

“Being a studio musician, you got to think fast, because time is money. You have formulate your ideas quickly, because those who operate the quickest under pressure are considered the highlight studio players. If you want to be one, you got to act like one. Still, I played with Curtis the longest. His big saying was, ‘I want you to do your thing.’ And, I always tried to do my thing.”

Playing old soul detective back in September, I tracked McMullen down when I started writing Gangster Boogie and he was the very first interview that I conducted. In addition to being a dope guitar player, McMullen is also a natural born storyteller whose Superfly memories of recording that masterful album in Chicago and New York were sharp as a tack.

While there is not much footage of McMullen playing live, he can be seen in the Superfly scene where Mayfield and company performed the provocative “Pusherman” as main characters Priest and Eddie chill out while waiting for their coke connect. “That was the only track that Tyrone McCullen played on and the only one we recorded in New York City.” Thirty-seven years later, McMullen still thinks of the Superfly sessions as a special time. “I’ve played on a lot of albums, but Superfly was one of the best records I ever did. In fact, I think Superfly was one of the best records of all time.”

For more of Craig McMullen’s thoughts and observations on the making of the Superfly soundtrack, check out Gangster Boogie in Wax Poetics #38, on stands soon–Wax Poetics: http://www.waxpoetics.com

“Pusherman” Scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fxq2pCaW7Sk

Mayfield & McMullen on guitar, Midnight Special: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3yQpzdIw5I

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Alex Bugnon – keys .. Craig McMullen -gtr.. Norman Brown – gtr .. @ Columbus Jazz & Rib Fest .. July 2009