Going back to college to study music at 74 would be an admirable undertaking for anyone, but it’s especially remarkable given Craig McMullen’s resume. The Columbus guitarist, who is finishing his bachelor’s degree in jazz studies at Ohio State, has played alongside Aretha Franklin, jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd and, most importantly, soul legend Curtis Mayfield, including a shift to 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’ll have my 75th birthday and hopefully my degree in my hands,” McMullen said in a recent video call from his home in Franklin Park on the East Side, the same neighborhood from the city 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 was 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 high school-level jazz band competitions. the state.
After graduating, McMullen and two of his Eastern buddies traveled to Massachusetts to attend the prestigious Berklee School of Music. “I didn’t like Boston because there was real prejudice and there was a lot of Mafia murder,” McMullen says, flanked on screen by two guitars. “I did it for a year, then I came back.”
In the late 1960s, McMullen worked as an electrician while performing at the Mount Vernon Avenue Club Jamaica hot spot and Main Street Bottoms Up and Club Utopia nightclubs. He played with R&B bands like the Royal Esquires and the Enchanted Five, which McMullen described as Columbus’ version of the Temptations. “We had bespoke costumes, the whole 30 feet,” says McMullen, a talkative, genius storyteller who likes the phrase “make a long story short.”
McMullen’s introduction to Curtis Mayfield came courtesy of friend and touring drummer Andre Fischer, who briefly lived in Columbus. “We were like, ‘Man, we’re gonna play together on the big stage one day, so keep your promise: whoever gets it first, bring the other guy,'” McMullen said.
Fischer continued to play drums with Chicago funk band Rufus and Chaka Khan (who later married and divorced singer Natalie Cole), but before that he played with Mayfield in the Impressions, and when the band needed a guitarist, Fischer knew exactly 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 the sessions began with a phone call from Mayfield in 1971. “He said, ‘Look, 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 big -mother. “My family told me, ‘You’re going 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 shooting the “Super Fly” scene which features the musicians miming a performance of the same song in a nightclub. McMullen is only on screen briefly, but it’s hard to miss him in his bright yellow shirt, clutching a shiny red Gibson ES-355 guitar.
The group 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, twenty-something tunes, strings and everything, playing through your headphones, and man, it’s like, ‘Whoa! Leave it to me!’
The record’s first single, “Freddie’s Dead (Theme from Superfly)”, was released in July 1972, before the full album and film, and reached 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 punchy, wah-wah-infused hits. By September, the album was certified gold, with half a million units sold.
McMullen performed with Mayfield for approximately three years and subsequently recorded and performed with other notable artists. He played on Donald Byrd’s 1975 jazz-funk album, Places & Spaces, and on several records by R&B singer Leroy Hutson. He toured with Aretha Franklin for two years in the late 70s, performing at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and playing on Queen of Soul’s 1977 album, Sweet Passion.
Today, McMullen says Super Fly stands out among his musical experiences. The songs on the disc are released via samples of hip-hop tracks by Outkast, Snoop Dogg, The Notorious BIG and others. And TV shows like Blackish and Snowfall continue to air episodes featuring super fly shots. When they do, McMullen receives a check in the mail — “money for fries,” he says. “I have enough money left to buy a milkshake. Small, not big.
But above all, the music of 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 monthly columbus.