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The Impressions “Ridin’ High” Reviewed

It’s not as though Curtis Mayfield wasn’t Curtis Mayfield in 1965, or that One By One (here) was any form of unmitigated disaster -even as it proved that the Impressions could not function as a democracy. But it is as though, despite a handful of hugely successful songs, including the Gospel “Amen” and the inspired Civil Rights anthem “People Get Ready,”  Curtis Mayfield had not become what he would become. From the bands inception in 1958 all the way through 1965, he hadn’t made the final iteration to the superstar of the 1970s. But in 1966, on the Impressions seventh album, Ridin’ Hide, he began the transition.

There seems to have been a tug of war going on between Johnny Pate’s symphonic pop impressionism, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden dealt on the harmonies, and Curtis’s burgeoning interest in simplification. The result on Ridin’ High was an album that if not a hit was only not a hit because they forgot to include a hit single. On the road through a fairly successful career as a MOR urban pop band that heralded back to an earlier age while moving forward, Ridin’ High was Curtis sifting through his soul jones. The title track opens the album with a blast of horns, and the album theme, the search for love belies the title with one of Curtis’ smartest lyrical twists.

The first three songs here and all peak early Mayfield, soul that seems to be thinking as you listen to it, “Ridin’ High,” “No One Else” and  “Gotta Get Away” -three relationship songs that move between the shadows of Motown, a touch over orchestrated but with an undeniable power and on “No One Else” -a song so clearly Mayfield it functions as a blueprint for what he had been doing all those years. But may not have been the right man to produce it, it is worth noting that two years later the first thing Curtis did on his own label was fire Pate.

The entire album maintains that strength and also no more than that strength. Too much strings, it soaks the three times recorded “Need To Belong To Someone,” and when Pate took the trio back to One By One, on the the Everly Brothers “Let It Be Me,” it is only to show off the bands harmonies.

But Curtis’s ears were elsewhere, despite being a top soul guitarist Mayfield had his ears on his rhythm section. Elsewhere, James Brown was taking bass and drums where no man had gone before, Curtis used the rhythm sinkness instead of switching from major to minor keys. He used his rhythm section to signal a certain sadness that permeates the album and, he tunes his guitar to the black keys of a piano, this gives his sound both a sadness and also a definitive blackness.  He uses his falsetto to bring an ache to his material here, these are not Curtis social consciousness people get ready stuff but songs of a different form of lost and found, an unusually submissive philogyny: what a man needs, what he needs is political freedom and emotional restriction, and Curtis toggles between the two. Mayfield’s vision of love couldn’t be further away from hip hop 50 years later, his Christianity causes him to be enamored of marriage, of one woman,: Mayfield was married twice and had ten children.

Ridin’ High is a more or less flawless album, he could have done with a sure fire hit, and I think everyone was tiring of Johnny Pate’s production, but the songs are uniformly strong, the singing and especially the harmonies among the Impressions finest and as an expression of Mayfield’s consummate skills as a songwriter completely remarkable and true. It peaked at #4 on the black charts. In an age where people of color were considered a threat, Curtis was not a threat and yet not an Uncle Tom: he darted through societies holes to make his point time after time: a man needs love to be happy.

Grade: A-


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