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

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

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. Claudine offered refreshing insight into the humanity of those Black women, their children, and their struggles and joys. And the film’s soundtrack, written and produced by Curtis Mayfield and performed by Gladys Knight & the Pips, was a large part of its achievement.

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.

Claudine, Mayfield’s first soundtrack after Superfly, contained seven songs and clocked in at thirty minutes—a little longer than side B of Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul (1969), an exemplar of the trend in “album-oriented soul” at the time. Despite the record’s relative brevity, the film makes ample use of Mayfield’s music. One such example is the ballad “The Makings of You,” the film’s love theme, which sets the mood for Claudine and Roop’s first date. From the drama of Roop meeting Claudine’s kids—her daughter implores her “not to come home pregnant”—to the missed dinner reservation, the take-out fried chicken dinner, and the dinner guest (a mouse), nothing about that date suggests these two would make a good match.

“The Makings of You”

Yet the film’s deployment of the song, like the song itself, is an extended riff on Black love as existentialist desire. Knight sings plaintively, “Please stay right by my side / two can be one / the righteous way to go”—the lyrics reaching for a romantic ideal that Claudine and Roop, and so many Black couples, already know can’t be.

That conflict finds momentary resolution the following morning as they sit in Roop’s car shortly before dawn, and the ballad settles into one of the most romantic scenes in any Black film from the era. The moment is short-lived—how could it be otherwise?—yet those two minutes and twenty-five seconds, the running time of “The Makings of You,” are a lifetime for folks who have so little time for themselves, let alone for love.

Mayfield originally recorded “The Makings of You” on his solo debut, Curtis (1970), and it’s one of three songs on the Claudine soundtrack of which there exist renditions by the composer himself. “To Be Invisible” appears on Mayfield’s Sweet Exorcist, released the same year as Claudine, and in terms of musical production, it is closely aligned with the Knight version. Through it, Mayfield brings his considerable skill for interpreting the emotional state of Black America to bear on the film’s narrative. The song accompanies a scene in which one of Claudine’s young sons is feeling the weight of finding a space of his own in the tiny apartment that he shares with his mother and five siblings. Invisibility is one of the themes of the film, as Roop’s increased presence around the family puts Claudine’s support from the welfare state at risk, highlighting perceptions of the “absent Black father.”

The nuances of Claudine’s life—aid-to-dependent children, marriage, work, and the question of what Roop can contribute to the family—are seamlessly rendered in the song “Mr. Welfare Man,” which plays during a comic moment when the social worker first appears. During another visit from the social worker, Roop hides in a closet, as if his manhood and his job were contraband. The concept behind “Mr. Welfare Man” frames one of Carroll’s strongest monologues in the film, which occurs during a postcoital heart-to-heart between Claudine and Roop about the social and ultimately political challenges of their relationship. The synthesis of Carroll’s words and Mayfield’s lyrics offers a grand thesis on the ways that Black women are tethered to the welfare state (“I must divorce him, cut all my ties with him”), which feeds into distorted ideas about Black womanhood (“They just keep on saying I'm a lazy woman”). “Mr. Welfare Man” was so compelling that Mayfield revisited it on his 1976 album, Give, Get, Take and Have, on which the bouncy rhythms of the original give way to a darker funk that seems to capture the impact of the mid-1970s economic recession on Black families.

“Mr. Welfare Man” is juxtaposed with “Hold On,” a dirgelike secular spiritual uniquely suited to Knight’s vocal style. If “The Makings of You” is the film’s love theme, “Hold On” is Claudine’s theme (even more than the actual instrumental “Claudine Theme,” which also appears on the soundtrack album). “Hold On” is a reminder to Claudine—and so many Black women like her—of the stakes associated with keeping her family intact, and her own self-care, including her sexual desires, amid so many of the forces against her.

“Mr. Welfare Man”

With Mayfield at the helm, Claudine turned out to be one of Gladys Knight & the Pips’ strongest albums of the period, and “On and On” became a top-five pop single and house-party anthem. Two years and two Gladys Knight & the Pips albums later, “Make Yours a Happy Home” was also released as a single. Whatever the reason for the odd, off-cycle release, the song represented something beyond the film and the soundtrack. It’s featured in Claudine’s closing scene, which serves as a music video of sorts and stands as one of the most joyful moments in all of 1970s Black cinema. “Make Yours a Happy Home” may tie together the loose ends of a story of a struggling single mother who is swept off her feet by her knight—or, rather, garbageman—in shining armor, but it does more than that; it was a celebration of Black love and family at a time when they were under assault.

Both Knight and Mayfield continued to work occasionally in movies. Two years later, Knight would star in the film Pipe Dreams opposite her husband at the time, Barry Hankerson. The Pips joined Knight on the soundtrack, which was produced by her brother Bubba. Mayfield, of course, continued his stellar solo career, as well as writing and producing for film. His next soundtrack was for Let’s Do It Again (1975), the second in a trilogy of comedies starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. Unlike Gladys Knight & the Pips, whose star was ascending when Mayfield collaborated with them, the Staple Singers were on the other side of an unexpected period of crossover success, with iconic Stax recordings like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There” already behind them. With the collapse of Stax in 1975, they signed to Mayfield’s Curtom label, for whom their only release was the Let’s Do It Again soundtrack. The album, with the breakout title track, also marked their final moment of relevance as soul and R&B artists. Mayfield would go on to produce lead singer Mavis Staples’s third solo album, A Piece of the Action, which also doubled as the soundtrack for the third film of the Cosby/Poitier trilogy.

In 1976, after working exclusively with Atlantic producers Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin throughout her tenure at the label (aside from a one-off with Quincy Jones), Aretha Franklin went outside the family to work with Mayfield, who by then was a proven hitmaker. The result, the Sparkle soundtrack, was the last great soul album of her career. As Franklin’s vocals are not featured in the film, whose lead vocals were handled by Lonette McKee and seventeen-year-old Irene Cara, the album might more appropriately be described as “inspired by” Sparkle.

Taken as a whole, Mayfield’s soundtracks belong with the most important work of his career as a solo artist and producer. The albums helped establish the soundtrack as a viable artistic and commercial platform for soul artists, and in some cases—Prince’s Purple Rain and Whitney Houston’s The Bodyguard—the format yielded career-defining recordings. Mayfield maintained a high standard with each of these film projects, but there is something especially timeless about Carroll’s portrayal of Claudine Price, Mayfield’s production, and the singing of Gladys Knight & the Pips. Generations later, Claudine remains a near-perfect example of the impact of great storytelling and songwriting, rendered by a composer, a vocal group, and an actor at the peak of their powers.

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