"Sisters, Niggers, Whiteys, Jews, Crackers... Don't worry. If there's a hell below, we're all gonna go" - The first line of the first song from Curtis.
Curtis by Curtis Mayfield
Recorded and released in 1970
This is not an album review, it's an album biography. Go to Amazon if you want a review.
Curtis motherfucking Mayfield, goddamn I can't even start a discussion of this man's work without drenching it in enthusiastic expletives. Curtis motherfucking Mayfield, and in Curtis we have probably his masterpiece, an album that redefined soul. The first album to demand respect as a single self-enclosed work; a combined personal, political and musical statement and one that blows the dance hall's doors off in the process. It was the culmination of a lot of trends that had been building in soul and black music for the preceeding years.
Curtis was the first album Mayfield released solo, but it wasn't his first record. Mayfield's first record was released in 1963 with his then group The Impressions, a vocal harmony three-piece who'd been together since 1957. He was 21 when that album came out, and like many of his peers (Isaac Hayes, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding) he matured within the music industry with little formal education. Mayfield was the group's falsetto and rapidly became their primary songwriter; this was at a time when writing your own material was somewhat anomalous. The Impressions proceeded to release two albums a year for the rest of the decade, and in the process become the foremost proponents of Chicago Soul. Nothing sharpens your creative tools like productivity. And since Memphis (Stax Records) and Detroit (Motown Records) were the biggest forces in Black music, this status in Chicago gave Mayfield an enormous amount of musical freedom. He filled this with the richness of Motown's arrangments, the bite of the South, and some of the most significantly political singles (Keep On Pushing, People Get Ready) to end up chanted by the then rising civil rights movement.
Still, The Impressions were a pop act, and in making full use of their vocal harmonies Mayfield was restricted to a certain pallet of sounds... As the 60's progressed the sound of the Impressions had thickened, becoming ever more orchestrated as it filled out with horns, strings and the driving beats and baselines of incipient funk. He'd developed a number of themes to add lyrical context in his music: gospel influenced religious conviction, urbanism from the underside of Chicago, a belief in the civil rights movement that gradually metamorphosed into Black Power as the movement's political leaders were assasinated. Nonetheless, any song had to retain space for the Impressions' soaring vocals to lie at its center... For someone who had been spending this length of time learning the art of orchestration, this pallet was becoming too small.
For rock music, before The Beatles' Rubber Soul and Revolver releases there was no concept of the album as a defined singular work. Popular music had been a series of singles released on radio for maximum impact, and then conveniently compartmentalised onto one vinyl disc for easy sale. For Soul, a tradition developing in parallel to rock, this business model took a longer time to die. In these, the birth years of Funk, Sly Stone had been hardening the sound of soul with thicker basslines and guitars on his Stand!, and Isaac Hayes (who's day job was writing the lion's share of Stax's output for other musicians) had been letting his orchestral skills spread out into the 15 minute jazz-influenced jams of Hot Buttered Soul, but these were the exceptions. The powerhouse that was Motown still believed in songs as the unit of sale.
Curtis blew this model clean out of the water. After Curtis, Marvin Gaye took the high ground with his boss, Motown's Berry Gordy, and forced the release of his What's Going On - the finest release ever to come out of the label, but one that was in the style Mayfield had developed. His stablemate Stevie Wonder jumped on the bandwagon Marvin had set rolling and produced Talking Book. Sly Stone virtually sidelined the rest of his act for his personal project There's a Riot Goin' On. From a music of singles and vocal group releases, the 70's saw these major personalities take ownership of their releases and put out albums that were unmistakeabley their own. In one brief move, soul swallowed much of the territory that Jazz had treated as sacrosanct. It began with Curtis.
- (Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go.
- The Other Side of Town
- The Makings of You
- We the People Who are Darker Than Blue
- Move On Up
- Miss Black America
- Wild and Free
- Give it Up
- *Power to The People
- *Ghetto Child
- *Readings in Astrology
- *Miss Black America
- *The Makings of You
- *Don't Worry If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go
- *Don't Worry If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go
* Indicates alternate versions added for the 2000 rerelease. Most of these songs featured in later albums but were initially rough cut during these sessions.
The album's first song kicks off with a fuzz laden bassline that drives straight out of the speakers... The initial lyrics a strange mixture of references to the Book of Revelations and a battle cry of racial epiphets. With this Mayfield establishes a narrative with himself front and center of the era's political and musical landscape. The music is blasting funk, basslines and congas filling out the bottom end, a horn section and strings adding grandeur, and Mayfield's own signature guitar style providing texture. It's a freeform piece with stream of consciousness lyrics, in which he directly lambasts Nixon, the judiciary, the police. He tells a story of febrile urban ghettos, where sexual, drug taking black communities live real vibrant lives as the political elite and its drones stare at their television sets. This was in direct parallel to the archetypes of the then growing Blaxploitation cinema: a time of urban neglect and rage in the aftermath of the political assasinations of their leaders in the 60's.
But that wasn't the sole point... If Mayfield had one abiding musical aim in this session it was to push himself when it comes to orchestration. The second song The Other Side Of Town kicks off with soaring harps, strings, and cymbals. A personal story of grinding poverty told over an incredibly full sound, this is every bit as intimate as Don't Worry is broad brush. In this he establishes the style for the rest of the album, if not the rest of his career: blasting funk to grab our attention followed by political, personal, moral pieces to hammer home the imagery of the inner city. One moment he presents them as a raging force prepared to sweep all before them, then they are the home of kitchen sink dramas of personal poverty. It's a template that would be copied.
I won't review each individual song, that would lose some of the flow of this carefully constructed album... But a discussion of Curtis without mention of Move On Up is ridiculous. Move On Up is the most perfectly constructed funk pop song I've ever heard. Clocking in at just under nine minutes, its sophistication makes it feel as succinct as The Kingsmen's Louie Louie. Here, he moves from rage to hope, Move On Up is a statement of reassurance: blast through the pain, there's better (for our people) on the other side. But it's the music that he brings home here, a driving syncopated conga rhythm, two false endings, and some of the best drumkit and saxophone solos heard this side of jazz. Here Mayfield interweaves all he has learned in the applied school of musical orchestration (he was never formally trained despite playing congas, bass, drums, saxophone, piano and of course guitar) and shows off a stunning set of chops. Its textures are rich, but he knows his mind well enough that its never saturated. He leaves each instrument enough space to fill itself out. Legend has it the orchestral backing band interjected "gosh, this is a terribly strange key to play in". Little did they know.
Curtis changed the game. The aforementioned Wonder and Gaye records paint on exactly the same canvas; mythologising urban black communities while projecting political issues that were utterly contemporary. Freed to project their own personality into every aspect of their recordings numerous musicians seized the new terrain with both hands. Isaac Hayes came surging out from behind Stax and became a figure on his own terms, the massive, bald, epitome of black masculinity. Al Green, after the now oldfashioned Green is Blues became the great loverman of Let's Stay Together.
In some ways this metamorphosis cost Mayfield, because despite the grandeur of his music and vision he simply lacked the physical presence to compete on this new playing field he'd created. He was a small, slim, bespectacled man... A falsetto for hell's sake. Can you really imagine this man with a petrol bomb in his hand? Initially he had so much creative momentum this didn't matter: in short order he blasted out 2 magnificent albums in Roots and the supreme orchestration of Superfly, but he couldn't compete with these larger than life personalities.
A creative drought kicked off. He continued to release records (those 2 albums a year leave you with good creative habits) but nothing approached his previous heights. In 1990 a lighting rig fell on him during an outdoor concert leaving him paralysed from the neck down... He continued to play... Diabetes led him to have his right leg amputated in 1995. He continued to play. In 1999 his body finally admitted what his mind wouldn't.
Curtis motherfucking Mayfield, the best there ever was.