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Curtis Mayfield’s “Curtis” Reviewed

It is 1970 and Curtis Mayfield’s eleventh album was simultaneously his first  solo album, the other ten released with The Impressions. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated two years priors and Malcolm X had been taken down in 1965. Of the twin towers of black America, Martin was Christian and a pacifist, X followed Islam and at first certainly espoused violence. Of the two, Mayfield followed Martin: his first public performance was with the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers at the age of seven. Curtis’ father had left the family when Curtis was five, and his mother and Grandmother moved to the projects in Chicago. In the 1940s. He was raised in the Church, the embodiment of Tomas Doncker and Yusef Komunyakaa ‘s “The New Day” where the black migrants took their church to the inner city with them.

It was through the Church that Curtis first met Impressions’ singer Sam Gooden, though through High School that he formed his first secular band. With the Impressions, both of these sides of Curtis: the good Christian and the seculist, battled it out. But whatever was happening, “People Get Ready” (a song so great Bob Marley covered it) was the voice of peaceful protest in the name of Jesus. Curtis isn’t far from that aesthetic, when he sings “respect for the steeple, power to the people” he is performing an act of love for Christianity and a love of democracy, but also in the dying embers of the hippies and a new decade (soon to be dubbed the “me generation”), Mayfield was about the civil rights movement as a movement also towards God. The message here was so out of step with post-MLK black America that there was a reduction from the white community who didn’t consider these words strong enough:

I know we’ve all got problems
That’s why I’m here to say
Keep peace with me and I with you
Let me love in my own way

Mayfield refused Jim Crow, refused segregation, denied separate but equal, he embraced universal love and Curtis, though a political album, was as far from the Black Panthers as you can get. The sound, very composed and arranged Gospel funk and mainstream black soul, that wasn’t trucking in The Temptations, Isaac Hayes, Sly Stone psychedelic guitar jams stepchild of James Brown, embraced dance on the fringes while deep in the inside was 1960s old fashioned love and peace. Civil rights were being co-opted by radicalism and Mayfield wasn’t radical unless you consider Jesus a radical (which you might).

Mayfield hadn’t left the Impressions when Curtis was initially released, he was looking for a place to perform guitar and bass groove numbers away from the Impressions more post-Mill Brothers legacy. As we’ve come to realize by now, Mayfield was a businessman willing to compromise for market share, so, despite the huge changes in black music, he decided to hedge his bets, and even included The Impressions on “Miss Black America” while still owning his own label Curtom Records (this was the second release after This Is My Country, reviewed here).

Sometimes dubbed the black Sgt. Pepper, it wasn’t that really. The songs were all of a certain sensibility, brass and bass songs where a harp here or there didn’t move it into the orchestrated Impressions world, it didn’t really crossover, even “Move On Up,” which stiffed in the States, was a song in a powerful groove while being the sort of cultural relativism that you would hope for. When white rock critics considered this not aggressive enough a vision of Black America, they claimed he didn’t grasp what was happening in black America: Rolling Stone wrote at the time “Lyrically, his songs are a whole lot more rhyme than reason; which isn’t so uncommon, except that he tries to deal with some pretty serious and complex subjects by stringing together phrases that end with the same sound — whether they make sense together or not.” This is to misread Curtis nearly entirely, he understood without necessarily agreeing with black politicians.

The songs are very tight, even when over seven minutes in length they never meander. Using his falsetto to delirious effects, and his rhythm based lead guitar as a coloring and as an anchor, decrying and offering suggestions, for black America, Curtis is never less than genius. What was missing was how not militant Curtis was, he didn’t want to overthrow the government, he wanted to live in a fair and decent society under the cross of Jesus. Mayfield added the strains of revolution throughout the land and placed them in a world of reason and equality. Black wasn’t exotic, erotic, it wasn’t the other: it was completely normal and being held back through base racism.

There are at least four Mayfield masterpieces here, the two singles “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” and “Move On Up,” the sign of the times “We The People Who Are Bluer Than Black,”  as well as a perfect Impressions song, “The Makings Of You,” and one of the classic, somewhat lost in the Mayfield shuffle “Wild And Free”. Though, really, every song is great, with only “Miss Black America”,” featuring background harmonies by Sam and Fred that you hadn’t realized you’d missed, sounding dated today.

Not unlike John Lennon, Mayfield had a vision of how people truly are, the person behind the person, and he sang about these people for these people.  On Curtis he performs an emotional hybrid that took everything he had learnt and replaced it inside the world of black soul. It embraced itself not as the other but the norm, the average, the true experience of America.

Grade: A



1 Comment

  1. Annette Renaud on February 3, 2022 at 9:28 pm

    …we still need your motivational and poetic words Brotha!❤️🖤💚&😢😢😢

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