curtisWhen a state of emergency was declared in Baltimore in April 2015, some might have been forgiven for imagining they had entered a nightmarish time warp. But this would have betrayed a political perspective deficient in its awareness of snowballing social inequalities in the USA today. For African-Americans in particular, the barriers to social and economic equality remain intact. For them, the wealth gap remains, along with persistently high unemployment rates – twice the level of white unemployment – a statistic depressingly similar to that of 1971. Too many go home to impoverished environs, nearly six in ten living in segregated neighbourhoods. It is clear that the effort to attain social and economic equality has some way to go.

These statistics would have made disheartening, if familiar reading to the late Curtis Mayfield. As a driving force in black music from the early ’60s through the mid-’70s, he was a seasoned documentor of the struggle of black Americans through his music and lyrics, which blended fluid, at times lush, melodic funk/soul with measured social commentary. Before launching a highly successful solo career, Mayfield was a member and later leader of Chicago-based vocal group The Impressions. Of all the mid-60 R&B vocal group heavyweights, their music, despite significantly lighter radio rotation, is arguably the most enduring. While the likes of The Temptations only began to produce socially conscious records around 1968-69, Mayfield and The Impressions had been consistent in doing so since the departure of original lead vocalist Jerry Butler in 1962. Paralleling the Civil Rights movement, it took different forms, but was invariably dignified and gently righteous, whether urging black Americans to ‘Keep On Pushin’ in their struggles, landscaping utopian visions which mirrored the more famous dreams of more famous others (‘People Get Ready’) or lending encouragement during times of uncertainty and setback (‘It’s Alright’, ‘We’re A Winner’).

But it would be amiss of me to suggest that the music of The Impressions was a polemical belligerent brew. In fact, for the most part, it was as sweet as sweet soul music could be, the lion’s share of the songs occupying  themselves with that most perennial of concerns; finding, keeping or losing the girl. A shrewd move, guaranteeing an audience sizeable enough to ensure the other message found its way into as many homes as possible. Despite great success, and perhaps due to complications with record company distribution, their reputation seems to have declined over the years, certainly by comparison to their more conspicuous Detroit-based contemporaries. For example, Big Sixteen*, a magnificent 1965 compilation of their early ABC singles (curiously placed at No. 51 in consecutive NME Top 100 Polls of 1974 and 1985) seems to have disappeared without trace from Greatest Albums lists. It would be tempting to reassert its rightful place in the canon, but the album has long since been unavailable and its inclusion here would not be in keeping with our aim to favour those albums that tend to drop beneath the radar.

[*It took me a long time to track down Big Sixteen, finally doing so at the immortal vinyl Valhalla that was Beanos in Croydon around 1992, but not before I had been introduced to The Impressions’ music a few years earlier, through the purchase of their 1965 People Get Ready LP, which I acquired – after a somewhat briefer excursion – to the late lamented John Smiths’ Bookstore in Byres Road. A veritable goldmine that shop. It always seemed to have the good stuff]

Mayfield’s output was prolific, but unlike some of his peers, Marvin Gaye for instance, he has no single universally recognised classic album, although Superfly and There’s No Place Like America Today often vie for the accolade of his most accomplished long player. But almost everything he put his hand to between 1964 and 1976, turned to gold.

The Impressions’ This Is My Country (1968) was the first release on Mayfield’s own Curtom label. It remains their finest studio album, featuring Curtis’ trademark falsetto and skilful if unobtrusive guitar work [self-taught, he utilised open tunings to create a unique sound and claims to have slept with the instrument, so that when the muse was upon him, he could wake up in the middle of the night and write], showcased most eloquently here on the gorgeous ballad ‘I’m Loving Nothing’. By contrast ‘Stay Close To Me’ comes on like a Northern Soul floor-filler, recalling The Isleys’ This Old Heart Of Mine’,  and ‘Fool For You’ is hard-hitting brassy blues, characteristic of Ray Charles. Curtis is in control throughout and pulls the (heart) strings more confidently than ever on the achingly tender ’It’s So Unusual’ which also features some melancholic brass dispersed with dazzling effect following an unexpected momentary pause in the rhythm. ‘You Want Somebody Else’ is even better – the couplet “But my love is still true, for only you” may indeed sound banal but when Curtis drips the honey as sublimely as this, it reminds me why I was given a pair of ears in the first place.

The album is bookended by the two ‘message’ songs, first of all ‘They Don’t Know’ where with familiar restraint, Curtis laments the recent assassination of MLK:

“Another friend has gone / And I feel so insecure  / Brother if you feel this way  / You’re not by yourself  / We have lost another leader  / Lord how much must we endure  / If you feel this way  / You’re not by yourself”

It is street smart R&B, and although perhaps not all of the lyrics date very well (“Every brother is a leader /  Every sister is a breeder”) the song’s loose earthy arrangement, replete with organ, strings, guitar and horns is a winning combination.

On the closing title track, the call to action is rousing. One can feel chests simultaneously bursting with pride and righteous indignation:

“Some people think we don’t have the right  / To say it’s my country  / Before they give in, they’d rather fuss and fight  / Than say it’s my country  / I’ve paid three hundred years or more  / Of slave driving, sweat, and welts on my back  / This is my country”

Along with People Get Ready, This Is My Country is The Impressions’ crowning glory. Times were changing fast and less than two years later, Mayfield had left the group, embarking on a solo career that would take him in new directions and bring him unprecedented success. On his first solo outing Curtis (1970) he delivers the record he always wanted to make, a self-penned socio-political concept album (don’t worry, this isn’t prog rock!), a clear precursor to What’s Going On. An edited version of its most celebrated track, the nine minute uptown funk classic ‘Move On Up’, was a huge success in the UK, but strangely failed to chart back home, its aspirational message ignored by the public, who paradoxically lapped up the equally lengthy, blitzkrieg of pent-up venom that was the album’s opener, ‘Don’t Worry If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go’. And how about that opening line?

“Sisters! Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers! Don’t worry, If there’s a Hell below, we’re all gonna go!”

proclaims Mayfield over amplified fuzz-funk guitar and echo-laden infernal screaming, as he anticipates the tempest brewing in American inner cities, reproaching those responsible for the fragile state of race relations. This theme is explored more subtly on ‘The Other Side Of Town’ where Mayfield’s innate sensitivity to the plight of the downtrodden is laid bare:

“I’m from the other side of town  / Out of bounds  / To anybody who don’t live around  / I never learned to share  / Or how to care  / I never had no teachings  / About being fair”

But here and elsewhere on the album, the augmentation of harp and harpsichord lends to the proceedings a sweeping expansive sound which is simply irresistible. And the closer, ‘Give It Up’, Mayfield’s heartbreaking confessional, would melt the hardest of hearts

“All concern and the trusts that never happened with us  / The walk of embraces and the love of our faces  / It never happened you see and I’m so sorry”

On Curtis, Mayfield blends in everything from full orchestrations, exquisite balladry to experimental funk, ably abetted by arrangers Riely Hampton and Gary Slabo. He would go onto even greater success with his soundtrack for Blaxploitation classic Superfly,  but Curtis was his album, the one where he flaunted his talent most liberally.

And what of his influence? Well, it wasn’t only black teenagers in Chicago who were taken with The Impressions’ gospel and blues-tinged harmonising, and their influence was not restricted to young R&B wannabes. They made regular visits to play the Kingston dance halls, and their influence is clearly discernible in the rocksteady sound of late 1960s Jamaican music. A production line of eager JA vocal groups would record cover versions of Mayfield-penned classics. Among them, a young Bob Marley would have been listening intently and it is no exaggeration to say that without Mayfield, Cash and Gooden, then there would have been no Marley, Tosh and Livingston. At the very least, it is indisputable that The Wailers’ sound would have evolved into something quite radically different. Later reggae acts such as The Congos would add a third vocalist (Watty Burnett) in a bid to replicate The Impressions’ sound. Further afield, a young Belfast boy christened Ivan was similarly smitten; one doesn’t need to look very far to hear how The Impressions shaped his sound (try Crazy Love from Moondance or Gypsy Queen from His Band & The Street Choir for starters). Mayfield’s socially conscious lyrics undoubtedly cleared the path for eighties / nineties urban hip-hop / rap acts concerned more with the brutal realities of inner-city life. His legacy in soul music endures today, the voice of Pharrell Williams for example, a carefully studied imitation.

However, his legacy is also a social one. In response to criticism of the subject matter of his music for Superfly, Mayfield famously quipped “I don’t see why people are complaining about the subject of these films. The way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the streets. The music and movies of today are the conditions that exist. You change music and movies by changing the conditions. His compassion for people caught up in poverty was matched by his hope for a brighter future for all. As Gaetana Caldwell-Smith in her Obituary in ‘Socialist Action’ notes: “Mayfield inspired three generations of musicians to infuse their work with his idea of the meaning of soul. He wrote and composed with the aim toward getting people to think about themselves in relation to the world around them, to make this planet a better place for everyone.  He had personal obstacles to overcome, his own crosses to carry: raised by his mother and pastor grandmother in poverty, he became hard-nosed enough as a record producer to ensure he retained songwriting and production credits in a world where most other artists were being ripped off by record companies. More significantly, in his later life Curtis had been a quadriplegic since 1990, after being felled by a lighting rig which collapsed on him at a concert in New York, crushing his spine. But in addition to being a beacon for black Americans he became an inspiration to the disabled as well. After his accident, he remarkably found he could still sing, using gravity’s pull on his chest and lungs as he lay flat. His death in 1999, at the age of 57 was attributed to complications related to diabetes as a result of his accident. Music lost one of its greatest voices, poor black Americans one of their greatest champions. At his funeral, The Rev. Fred Taylor of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said, “Curtis Mayfield’s music told us that despite all odds, we are here and we will continue to fight until we become equal partners in the social fabric of this country.” Baltimore, Chicago, America and the world today need a few more prophets and peacemakers like him. But there will only ever be one Curtis Mayfield. (JJ)


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