Thursday, 16 February 2017

Ten Reasons Why Curtis Mayfield Deserves His Place in the Pantheon

Ask most people about Curtis Mayfield and it's likely that there's only one track that they have in mind - 'Move on Up'. Now I don't want to knock this song at all - it's a monster and it is so well known for good reason. However, Mayfield had a career that lasted for almost 30 years and for the ten (ish) years covered here, he was on fire!

This list is noting some of the amazing tunes Curtis has given us that aren't 'Move On Up' - in other words, ten reasons why Curtis Mayfield should be a name at top of any list of great singer/songwriters, R&B artists, or rock'n'roll heroes full stop.

The Impressions - People Get Ready (1965)

One thing that is easy to overlook is the fact that Curtis Mayfield's career did not begin with his debut solo album. He had already had a full decade with one of Chicago's leading R&B vocal groups, The Impressions. This band launched not only Curtis' career but also Jerry Butler's and proved to be remarkably influential.

The word anthem was invented for songs like this, and this is illustrated by the looong list of cover versions that have been produced. It is uplifting and purposeful and alongside Sam Cooke's 'A Change is Gonna Come' it exemplifies the not only the mood but also the soul of the Civil Rights Movement. The close association of salvation with emancipation places it in the long tradition of African-American spirituals, but much like The Staples Singers, who also covered it, it never slips wholly into an other-worldliness - it keeps it's eyes firmly on the real life goals of equality and dignity.

The Impressions - We're A Winner (1968)

Maintaining the same emphasis - positivity, empowerment, pride and vitality. It's notable for a host of reasons, but it's an early indication of the direction that Mayfield's career and sound was going to go. The horns and high pitched guitars and falsetto vocals - even the chorus is looking forward to Curtis' most famous song.

The Impressions - Seven Years (1969)

While Curtis could write top-notch songs of social consciousness, we could just as well turn his hand to love, romance and heartbreak. 'Seven Years' from the brilliant 'Young Mod's Forgotten Story' traces the demise and breakdown of a long term relationship. To track such a story whilst maintaining a rhythm so upbeat shows the extent that Curtis was influenced by Motown.

Baby Huey & the Babysitters (1971) - Hard Times

Aside from the Curtis we know from his solo material and with The Impressions, what is not so generally recognised is his work with other artists. He was an accomplished writer, producer, as well as establishing a solidly successful label (at least for a time). Amongst the people that Curtis worked with was a younger Donny Hathaway, who was about to set out on an incredible if sadly short career of his own, Gladys Knight, Mavis Staples, Linda Clifford and the amazing Baby Huey. The latter's album is a monster, produced by Mayfield, and is a classic of psychedelic soul.

(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Gonna Go (1970)

Curtis' solo career burst into existence with Curtis, released on his own Curtom label in 1970. It included the perennial, Move On Up, but it opened with this, without doubt the heaviest piece that Curtis ever wrote. The lyrics are damning, but the music, while deep, is relentlessly upbeat. If we're all off to Hell, I hope that it sounds like this.

We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue (1970)

The same album produced this. No-one managed the same level of social commentary whilst still being so beautiful.

Pusherman (1972)

The relationship between Mayfield and the movie Superfly is pretty well documented so I am not going to repeat too much of it again here. Suffice it to say, Curtis' score elevates what was a pretty good, if flawed, blaxploitation movie to classic status. His choice to contrast the sympathetic portrayal of a drug dealer's plan to escape the ghetto with bitter social realism illustrates his genius.

(Also, I LOVE Soul Train)

If I Were Only A Child Again (1973)

Not much to say - just a great tune!

So In Love (1975)

Chilled out, soulful Curtis. A beautiful song about being deep in love. One of the awesome things about Curtis is that he never feels cheesy, or worse sweaty, in the way that Barry White or Isaac Hayes sometimes did. When he sings of love, it feels like love. It feels like spending time together, feeling good in each others' company.

Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here (1977)

Another soundtrack - another classic. Again, heavy as anything.

No comments:

Post a Comment