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Curtis Mayfield

Like contemporaries JAMES BROWN and GEORGE CLINTON, Curtis presided over the evolution of post-1950s African-American popular music with a visionary talent and an intuitive sense of the music’s relationship to cultural, social and political identity. His influence on the development of soul, funk, hip hop and even reggae is incalculable, his back catalogue pretty much unimpeachable. As leader of Chicago soul pioneers The IMPRESSIONS, MAYFIELD proved not only that it was possible for black artists to successfully write and perform their own material, but that it was possible to do it with a sense of dignity and community.
Born June 3, 1942 in Chicago, Illinois, Curtis immersed himself in music from an early age. A self-taught guitarist and lyricist, MAYFIELD was strongly influenced by the sounds of the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers (a local group that included JERRY BUTLER). In 1957, Jerry asked Curtis to join a newly formed group, The Roosters, who would soon evolve into The IMPRESSIONS, under the management of Eddie Thomas. As a songwriter for the group, Curtis contributed to the group’s inaugural hit in 1958: `For Your Precious Love’, prior to BUTLER’s solo-bound departure. The IMPRESSIONS scored their second Top 20 hit in 1960 with `Gypsy Woman’; Curtis’s prolific writing career taking off via a new contract with ABC Paramount Records.
During the length of the 60s, their new leader Curtis penned a wealth of Top 20 hits, including `It’s All Right’, `Talking About My Baby’, `Keep On Pushing’, `Amen’, `People Get Ready’ and `We’re A Winner’, the lyrical content highlighting the man’s awareness of the civil rights movement and the increasing confidence and self-determination of the African-American community. The decade also saw the soul man writing for record labels such as Okeh and Veejay as well as Chicago-based artists including GENE CHANDLER and MAJOR LANCE.
This body of work inspired Curtis to set up his own label, Curtom (distributed through Buddah), releasing material by a number of successful acts, among them DONNY HATHAWAY.
Leaving The IMPRESSIONS to go solo in 1970, his critically-acclaimed debut set, CURTIS {*8}, was characterised by his trademark funky organic sounds blended with socially aware lyrics. As the optimism of the 60s gave way to the harsh realities of the 70s, MAYFIELD again anticipated the mood of the times with the searing funk realism of his hit single, `(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go’, telling it like it was but retaining his chilling vision of collective salvation. Edited from its 9-minute excursion of psychedelic soul, `Move On Up’, was a UK smash, while a full orchestra served to enhance other treasures such as `The Other Side Of Town’, `Miss Black America’, `Wild And Free’ and `Give It Up’.
Subsequently drawn from four nights at New York’s The Bitter End on a bitter January in ’71, double-LP CURTIS/LIVE! {*8} merged the present with his past as IMPRESSIONS dirges were presented next to the likes of `Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)’, interlude “Raps” and a cool cover of a future CARPENTERS piece, `We’ve Only Just Begun’. This concert set was followed by ROOTS (1971) {*8}, a funk-driven record which included the groove-laden, `Keep On Keeping On’, minor hit `Get Down’, `We Got To Have Peace’ and `Beautiful Brother Of Mine’.
His unadulterated falsetto, impeccable arrangements and elegant guitar playing inevitably found expression in the burgeoning Blaxploitation genre, a platform tailor made for MAYFIELD’s conscious soul. His definitive soundtrack to Gordon Parks, Jr.’s SUPER FLY (1972) {*10}, raised the bar in the wake of landmarks by both MELVIN VAN PEEBLES and ISAAC HAYES, vividly employing his gift for social commentary, while sweetening the lyrical realism with a devastating finesse.
Almost universally regarded as the most accomplished and enduring soundtrack of its era, the score was one of the few records of its kind to have retrospectively generated such serious kudos outside of the Blaxploitation ghetto. Unlike most artists’ soundtrack excursions, it also stood tall as the most critically – and most commercially successful – album in CURTIS MAYFIELD’s long and distinguished post-IMPRESSIONS career. Rather than illuminating the plot, MAYFIELD’s aim was to subvert what he interpreted as “a cocaine commercial”. Fine-tuning the breakthrough he’d made in the early 70s, he downsized his piercing vision of human malaise from the societal to the individual. The likes of `Freddie’s Dead’, `Pusherman’ and the hit title track delivered devastating character analyses under a deceptively laid-back, elegantly soulful veneer, in contrast to the preening, self-regarding throb of “Theme From Shaft”, Blaxploitation’s opening gambit from a year previous.
MAYFIELD’s triumph, in even starker contrast to the sensory overload of Blaxploitation and 70s funk in general, is in his lightness of touch. At their most effective, Johnny Pate’s arrangements – dictated by Curtis himself – were a model of funky, creative economy; on the opening `Little Child Runnin’ Wild’, the orchestration was applied sparingly and mercilessly, with the precision of a surgeon’s knife. As unflinching socio-political treatise and definitive statement of artistic intent, “Super Fly” is up there with MARVIN GAYE’s “What’s Going On” and STEVIE WONDER’s “Innervisions”. It was a towering achievement, and one which, in the realms of cinema at least, MAYFIELD subsequently struggled to match.
While OST follow-up, “Super Fly T.N.T.” (1973) furnished him with a cameo role and a co-composing credit (alongside OSIBISA), MAYFIELD really got stuck into film scoring in the mid-70s, creating musical backdrops for family orientated Afro-American fare like John Berry’s “Claudine” (1974), Sidney Poitier’s “Let’s Do It Again” (1975) and the soul musical “Sparkle” (1976). These three soundtracks were credited to gospel/soul alumni GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS, The STAPLE SINGERS and ARETHA FRANKLIN respectively.
Meanwhile, away from the bright lights of “Blaxploillywood”, 1973’s BACK TO THE WORLD {*6} was something of a cutesy-pie let-down by comparison with his celluloid exploits. Nevertheless, it reached Top 20 status, while attendant hits `Future Shock’, `If I Were Only A Child Again’ and `Can’t Say Nothin’’, extended its chart run by a few months.
Made for television, CURTIS IN CHICAGO (1973) {*7} – recorded live and featuring JERRY BUTLER, the original (and new!) IMPRESSIONS, GENE CHANDLER, Leroy Hutson, and many more – celebrated the works of a man and his buddies in big-band forum. Studio sets, SWEET EXORCIST (1974) {*6} – included final Top 40 hit, `Kung Fu’, GOT TO FIND A WAY (1974) {*6}, the ironically-titled THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE AMERICA TODAY (1975) {*7}, GIVE, GET, TAKE AND HAVE (1976) {*6} and NEVER SAY YOU CAN’T SURVIVE (1977) {*5}, had their moments, but these moments seemed out of touch with the day’s fixation with disco.
With his original motion picture soundtrack to brutal prison drama, SHORT EYES (1977) {*6}, however, the man further underlined his talent for expressing the realities of human existence other artists preferred to pass over. Arguably his finest post-Super Fly work, MAYFIELD also had an acting role. Coming as it did when music was going through a transitional time, the LP marked something of a last hurrah for what, after all, had been an incredible two decades at soul’s sharp end.
`Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here’, was one of the most striking openings to any MAYFIELD set and, in the grand tradition of both the man’s caustic 70s commentary and the much older tradition of the prison ballad, it was about as close to the bone as anything he’d written. On verse after devastating verse, that inimitable falsetto radiated a terrible beauty, telling it like Pappy sees it (“Ain’t no heaven, ain’t no heaven, this Devil level”) against a malevolent funk grind, delivering his revelations like an avenging angel. On `Back Against The Wall’, his tone wasn’t so much apocalyptic as despondent, lamenting the grim plight of a lifer, spiralling downwards into a slough of frenzied guitar soloing. `Short Eyes’ – `Freak, Freak, Free, Free, Free’ (medley), meanwhile, warned of the protagonist’s predatory threat and unflinchingly grim fate before morphing into a percussive instrumental coda. It was heavy stuff, and save for lighter moments like `Another Fool In Love’ or the falsetto slap-funk-n-tickle of `A Heavy Dude’ (prefiguring PRINCE, with Curtis literally stretching his voice to breaking point), it pretty much stayed that way till the end, signing off with the neo-Celtic folk influences and tortured guitar of `Father Confessor’.
After scoring a further Poitier effort, “A Piece Of The Action” (also 1977) – served to MAVIS STAPLES – and making an unlikely appearance in Robert Stigwood’s BEATLES film fiasco, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1978), MAYFIELD chose to concentrate on his regular recording career, only returning to movie work with the inevitable Various Artists Blaxploitation update, “The Return Of Superfly”, at the turn of the 90s.
When Curtom Records was eaten up by Warner Brothers, MAYFIELD’s eventually move into disco was not exactly heralded by all and sundry with the releases of DO IT ALL NIGHT (1978) {*4} and HEARTBEAT (1979) {*5}. The turn of the decade also saw him sticking with it on THE RIGHT COMBINATION (1980) {*4} – a duet set with disco diva Linda Clifford – and SOMETHING TO BELIEVE IN (1980) {*4}.
Released only in Germany, LOVE IS THE PLACE (1981) {*5} and HONESTY (1983) {*6}, re-established the man as a bona fide R&B/soul artist, and to many it sparked something of a resurge for his back catalogue. WE COME IN PEACE WITH A MESSAGE OF LOVE (1985) {*4}, the career-spanning update LIVE IN EUROPE (1987) {*6} and TAKE IT TO THE STREETS (1990) {*5}, looked to the future, while keeping with his hard-hitting socio-political approach. MAYFIELD also toured regularly, while reunion tours with The IMPRESSIONS saw him pit his songs with that of his old sparring partner, JERRY BUTLER.
The beginning of the 90s saw tragedy strike when in August 1990, MAYFIELD was hit by a lighting rig that had been dislodged by high winds during an open air concert in Brooklyn; he was paralyzed from the neck down. The next few years saw MAYFIELD elected into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and various lifetime achievement awards bestowed on him, so it was all the more remarkable when his comeback album, NEW WORLD ORDER {*6}, was released in 1996.
The recording process involved was time consuming, although the result was worth the wait, MAYFIELD achieving his best solo work since the early 70s. Produced by Daryl Simmons, Narada Michael Walden and Organized Noize, his strength and sensitivity was never better than on `Ms. Martha’, `Back To Living Again’ and `No One Knows About A Good Thing (You Don’t Have To Cry)’. Sadly, it would be Curtis’s swansong as the great man succumbed to cancer on Boxing Day, 1999. The warmth and soothing soul of the man would be sorely missed.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS / rev-up May2013

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