Curtis Mayfield

TrackAlbum
Do Do Wap Is Strong In HereShort Eyes OST
Freddie’'s DeadSuperfly OST
(Don’t Worry) If There’'s A Hell Below
We'’re All Going To Go
Curtis
The Makings Of YouCurtis
Move On UpCurtis
PushermanSuperfly OST
Right On For The DarknessBack To The World
SuperflySuperfly OST
UndergroundRoots
We Got To Have PeaceRoots

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: Ceri Taylor

“Beautiful Brother Of Mine” Curtis Mayfield is one of (soul) music’s great artists. If you include his work with The Impressions, the solo work covered here, his production work for other artists (The Staple Singers, The 5 Stairsteps and Linda Clifford to name but a few), the output of his Curtom label and his general presence as a musical messenger, he is a key figure in music history and certainly one of its most soulful.

Possibly because I’m a sucker for falsetto voices – and Curtis is quite possibly the king (with Smokey Robinson and Eddie Kendricks hot on his heels) – his soft genuine vocals ride the guitar based rhythms he creates in a peas and carrots-esque unstoppable combination. The two go so well together that the result has been imitated by many but never performed as well as Curtis – it is his signature sound.

To compile a list on Curtis Mayfield is no easy task considering his extensive recording career, I think I’ve got it locked down and another track changes my mind. I’d definitely say the early solo albums are the better ones but even the later ones have the occasional gem. In my opinion the best, most consistent and original albums are Curtis (1970), Roots (1971) and the Superfly (1972) soundtrack. All three are amazing listens with Mayfield covering about every aspect of life imaginable, war and peace, love and hate, heaven and hell – you name it, he has an answer and then performs that answer with exquisite soul.

His transition into the 70s seemed more fluid than most other artists of the time. The Impressions had a brilliant 60s sound but Curtis on his own is the epitome of 70s soul. The productions are slick, cool and progressive from their 60s counterparts. Conveniently releasing his first solo album in 1970, Curtis set the scene for the whole decade. It’s a fantastic album, lean and mean, has a couple of weaker tracks but pound for pound it is a great listen. Three of my selections alone come from this one, it could have been more but there are other albums and tracks that should not be ignored. After all, this was only Curtis’s first bite of the solo cherry, setting up the next few recordings.

If there was a way to distinguish your group work from your solo work then the opening track of Curtis is a demon of a differentiation. (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go (what a title!) blows the dust off the 60s and destroys everything in its path – hell bound horns, rumbling farty basslines (try it on a decent sound system – your house will vibrate) and profound slightly controversial lyrics. The thing I like about Curtis Mayfield is that nearly all of his songs have a point to make and lyrically spread a message – if you’re just tuning in musically you are missing out.

Following this is The Other Side Of Town, a great track just missing my top 10. Then comes The Makings Of You, Curtis’s ode to the lady folk – it’s everything you want to say but couldn’t think how to say it, it borders on saccharine but he is a master of production and sets the tone perfectly so that the sweet message isn’t too sugary.

There are some other great tracks here, but possibly this record contains Curtis Mayfield’s finest moment on wax, from its horn arrangements, bongo laced percussion and mellow message riding the rhythm, Move On Up is possibly his greatest achievement. Like Heard It Through The Grapevine it is overplayed but somehow always great. Personally I like the long album version as you get an instrumental breakdown and get to hear the individual elements of the record played out, but the short version packs the most punch.

It’s a little hard to find now but Rhino Records put out a release of Curtis with extra tracks in the early 2000s, Rhino 8122-79932-2, containing some demos and backing tracks from the original recordings – a great demo version of Power To The People as well as Ghetto Child (later Little Child Running Wild) and Underground, all appear on later albums.

Recorded soon after his solo debut, Roots, Curtis’s sophomore set, carried on the debut with an “if it ain’t broke” approach. If anything, the album is a little more solid – it just lacks real stand out tracks or at least doesn’t contain a Move On Up or Hell Below, but on the whole it’s very solid. Great tracks like Get Down, Beautiful Brother Of Mine and Now You’re Gone make it a varied and enjoyable listen; the whole album including demos and single edits can be found on YouTube. Two selections from this album have made my Toppermost: Underground, a strange cautionary tale laced with moody funk and keyboard stabs warning us of a bleak future and how we might possibly cope if we all lived underground – brilliant; my second selection, We Got To Have Peace (see above clip), has a more upbeat message and it carries on the Move On Up theme, riding a tight groove with uplifting string arrangements – it’s a well produced record.

These two albums solidified Curtis Mayfield’s place on the map, now reaching wider audiences, and like many soul stars of the time he was called upon to produce and score a film soundtrack. Superfly is a blaxploitation cinema gem but totally outgunned by the music accompanying it! I think Superfly is possibly one of the best soundtracks out there, ever. Again, the whole album is available on YouTube.

Other blaxploitation soundtracks, Trouble Man, Shaft and Foxy Brown, are all great but mainly rely on the title track and a couple of others to see them through; for me, Superfly is fantastic from start to finish and very complete. It is possibly only rivalled by some of the Beatles soundtracks, Prince’s Purple Rain or a Quentin Tarantino/Martin Scorsese soundtrack for a wholesome listening experience instead of just a backing track for a film.

Another three of my selections are from this soundtrack – the pimped out title track, full of horn stabs, swagger and style – Superfly is hip, cool and deadly. Personally I think it goes toe-to-toe with Pusherman which is equally hip and funky, but I find the production tighter and the guitar riff in the middle of the record irresistible. The tracks here are great and I struggled with which ones to select, No Thing On Me, Give Me Your Love and Eddie You Should Know Better barely missing the cut. My final selection from this album is Freddie’s Dead, Mayfield’s biggest hit on the US R&B Charts. It’s a great record, full of warning, full of funk and probably shows off everything Curtis does best.

Things never got back to the heightened production values of those early albums but there are certainly later records to be enjoyed, they just (for me) aren’t as consistent and have some ‘skippable’ tracks. Songs like Billy Jack from (There’s No Place Like) America Today, You’re So Good To Me from Heartbeat, Just Want To Be With You from Never Say You Can’t Survive and Never Stop Loving Me from Something To Believe In are all worthy listens.

For me though, my final choices come from two albums not yet mentioned. First up, Right On For The Darkness from Back To The World. This track is my personal favourite. Its opening guitar riff, dark and moody rolling bass and brilliant lyrics have everything I want in a record. Plus it’s long with some epic movie-like string arrangements, punctuated by sections of just pure minimalist groove all leading to a well produced string section finale. Had this appeared on one of the earlier solo albums it would have strengthened them no end, instead I feel it slightly carries this album.

Finally, a bit of a curve ball and purely a track I’ve personally always enjoyed, comes from the Short Eyes soundtrack; it’s no Superfly but I’ve always had a soft spot for the funky, gritty and nasty Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here. Set around the prison story of the movie (in which Curtis appears) the track has him at his most blatant and out-of-character. Probably not for everyone, but I lean towards the funk so I think it’s a hot little record.

The end of Curtis Mayfield’s story is a bit of a grim one and it’s easy to find information so I won’t elaborate here, but in terms of the music he is easily one of my favourite artists and a soul legend. Other than checking out the first three albums I would suggest (should you require more) a box set released by Charly, Curtis Mayfield Soul Legacy, spanning four CDs and splitting tracks into categories; Inspirational Themes, Love Songs, Cautionary Tales, Film and Dance, and it is probably the best way to get a decent sample of his work. It also includes most of The Impressions’ greatest tracks and is only missing a few key records. Other than that, Rhino has just recently re-released the Original Album Series box set containing the first five solo albums – this sadly does not include Superfly as it’s a soundtrack but is totally worth it for the material you get, including Curtis Live! if that is your sort of thing.

Whatever your music taste I would suggest checking out Curtis and Superfly; from experience most fans of rock, folk, and of course, soul, agree that Curtis Mayfield really does deserve to be called a legend.

Curtis Mayfield official website

Toppermost #140 The Impressions

Curtis Mayfield biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #116

3 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Nov 4, 2013

    Another great piece from Ceri which will dictate today’s listening. Mayfield is one of the great guitarists, and Robbie Robertson recounts getting Bob Dylan to listen to him for both the sense of space and recording quality. He has said Mayfield was a major influence on him, and on the sense of space in Band songs. Mayfield played for the song not the solo, with those melodic trills then the “gentle funk” sound of the 70s. In Rolling Stone’s “Top 100” Guitarists (he’s #34, not that numbers matter) he says he played in an open F sharp tuning and that however good they were, no guitarists could pick up his guitar and play it. I guess that would also go back to the early days in Chicago. Guitarists would stand at the front and watch the hands. But no one could cop his licks.

    I agree that most later albums are less consistent, though I’d except “There’s No Place Like America Today” from 1975, one of his best. “Billy Jack’ is mentioned, but add (at least) “So in Love.” The other later must-have one is “Dirty Laundry” from “Honesty” in 1983, the first track I chose thinking about ten. A great social conscience song. It gets on the compilations/best of’s, and also lends its title to two 2000s compilation CDs of “The Soul of Black Country”.

    The other one from “Curtis” is We People Who Are Darker Than Blue, which carries on from The Impressions’ Choice of Colours, just a year earlier, though the extended live middle bit doesn’t bear listening too many times in a row.

    The last album, New World Order, was recorded after the stage accident that paralysed him from the neck down, and recorded a line at a time. I find it too sad an event to listen much, but he does reprise We People Who Are Darker Than Blue beautifully. The title track New World Order is great, classic Curtis Mayfield. Mario Thompson on guitar perfectly creates a Curtis sound. I’d have it in my ten. It ends with the sound of a newborn baby’s cry.

    When is someone going to do Major Lance? Some of Curtis’s best early writing and production.

  2. Alex Lifson
    Nov 4, 2013

    Like Peter, I would have New World Order in my top ten. Move On Up is my all-time favourite. I built an entire gym playlist based off this song for my Ipod. Although I was aware of him previously, a chance to see him open up for Frank Zappa and the Petit Wazoo Orchestra, around the time he released Superfly, pretty much cemented his greatness to me. Great essay Ceri.

  3. Ceri Taylor
    Nov 13, 2013

    Thank you both for your comments.

    New World Order is a great record but for me it wouldn’t be in a top 10, I suppose I like real classic Mayfield and not the later stuff. Still any album of Curtis’s is worth a listen.

    We People Who Are Darker Than Blue was so close, as was The Other Side Of Town (both from the first album) however I felt other titles were more key to the toppermost.

    Billy Jack and So in Love are great and so is the album from which they came, There’s No Place Like America Today (Hard Times is also on this record), but as his previous work was so great it makes these look a little less powerful – even though they are great – the side effect of being so darn good I suppose!

    Hey, I even like Toot An’ Toot An’ Toot, this is where ten keeps us all under control!!

    Thanks again, I feel an Impressions list coming on.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

↓