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It's Still All Right

Curtis
Curtis Mayfield, courtesy of Billy Howard

At the Ready: Curtis Mayfield continues to create despite a paralyzing accident six years ago.

A new CD set confirms the pop primacy of Curtis Mayfield

By Nicky Baxter

The old saw goes, you can't keep a good man down. Curtis Mayfield's life translates that cliché into a vibrant, uplifting illustration of one man's will to make it, to "keep on pushing," no matter what the odds.

One mid-August afternoon six years ago, at a concert in Brooklyn, singer, songwriter and guitarist Mayfield was struck by a lighting tower just as he was preparing to launch into his first number. The freak accident left him paralyzed from the neck down, but it did not crush Mayfield's will to create. He is now in the nascent stages of putting together a new album featuring that ineffably gorgeous voice--fragile yet fraught with passion and conviction.

Everyone from funk aficionados to unreconstructed soul classicists to beat-boys and -girls is eagerly anticipating the results. Rhino Records, however, couldn't wait. The label recently released a magnificent testimonial to Mayfield's stature as one of black music's--indeed, popular music's--most prodigiously gifted artists.

People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story brushes aside any and all doubts concerning Mayfield's prominence. The handsomely packaged three-CD set (which includes a finely wrought text, rare color and black-and-white photos, and a detailed discography) spans his whole career, kicking off with his tenure with the classic proto-gospel-soul group the Impressions and delving deep into his remarkable 1970s solo catalog, including his brief but brilliant stint as a film soundtrack writer and producer (most memorably for Superfly).

Unlike previously released Mayfield collections, the ambitions of People Get Ready! go well beyond the greatest-hits mentality; Rhino has aimed for comprehensiveness. This strategy means that the native Chicagoan's entire oeuvre is sampled, warts included. But we're talking about black pop's prophet of rage--and reconciliation. Even his artistic miscues make for intriguing listening.

In any event, those miscues were rare lapses. Although Mayfield's chart-topping hegemony had ended a decade before the 1990 tragedy, the commercial slide can be attributed at least in part to a fickle public's seemingly unquenchable thirst for the next big thing. Certainly by the time of hip-hop's ascendancy in the 1980s, Mayfield and his peers were considered old hat, valuable only in small doses.

In the early days of Mayfield's career, it was a different story altogether. Years before the brash spirit of the 1960s black-consciousness movement had finally inveigled its way past the arch-conservative gatekeepers of U.S.-African pop, the Mayfield-led Impressions were creating socially aware songs that wound up as unofficial soundtracks to the movement.

Early cuts like "It's All Right" (1963), "Keep on Pushing" and "Amen" (both from 1964) were light years away from the inanities of lost/found love then dominating the Top 40.

It's important to remember that while the Impressions were urging U.S.-born Africans to keep on pushing for civil rights, the Beatles were tralalaing "I Want to Hold Your Hand," and the Fab Four's "sinister" alter egos, the Rolling Stones, were riding Chuck Berry's jock so hard it was hilarious. Dylan was Mayfield's only competition--and he couldn't sing to save his life.

Blessed with an almost supernatural ability to reflect the times, Mayfield wrote songs steeped in the black gospel tradition. Indeed, he openly admits that "Keep on Pushing" was originally a church song with a slight but crucial alteration. The original stanza "God gave me strength" was changed to "I've got my strength."

The decision to secularize--or, perhaps more precisely, personalize--the tune's message of perseverance was, Mayfield has stated, a conscious attempt to emphasize the notion that spiritual and civil concerns were inseparable. Martin Luther King Jr. and his legion of followers certainly understood the connection--and King was criticized harshly for his troubles by old-guard conservatives who thought it imprudent to politicize the pulpit.

As the African Liberation Movement in the United States gradually shed its polite, suit-and-tie, bourgeois civility--along with its supposedly Bible-based dictate to turn the other cheek--so, too, did the music of Mayfield and the Impressions. The indefatigable optimism that galvanized armies of pro-integrationists to sit, march and sing for "equal rights" gave way to other methodologies at once more aggressive and sophisticated.

That transition is plainly evident in Mayfield's late '60s and early '70s output. If "People Get Ready" (a deft thematic updating of Sam Cooke's brilliantly prescient "A Change Is Gonna Come") was a metaphorical train bound for the promised land, "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go" signaled the symbolic derailment of that sweet dream.

By the time the latter track was released in 1970, Curtis Mayfield had abandoned the Impressions for a solo career. Curtis, the album from which this bitter, Dante-esque denouement is culled, introduced an earthier Mayfield, outfitted in post-Jimi Hendrix finery and reams of wah-wahed black power. Despite his fealty to inner-city street chic, the soul pioneer remained a hopeful romantic. For every strung-out "Stone Junkie" and embattled "Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)," there was a "Beautiful Brother of Mine" and "We Got to Have Peace." Ultimately, Mayfield was more MLK than MX.

More than either, Mayfield was an extraordinarily talented singer-songwriter. Tunes like the flamenco-flavored "Gypsy Woman" and the rapturous "The Makings of You" are about as close to poetry as pop gets.

Only the miraculous ballads of Neil Young and Smokey Robinson surpass Mayfield's; and certainly Mayfield was a far more versatile writer than Robinson. Can you imagine Robinson crooning "Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)," "Choice of Colors" or "Pusherman"? (Interestingly, all three singers sport helium-light falsettos for their love songs.)

Despite being "whitelisted" from pop music's singer-songwriter hall of fame, the fact is that Mayfield, no less than Young, Elvis Costello or Van Morrison, strongly warrants serious consideration as a man of words. This is not to suggest that everything Mayfield wrote is fit to print; but then again, Young's been known to falter, too.

Musically, Mayfield helped define not just the sound of Windy City soul, but black popular music as a whole. As one critic pointed out, Mayfield's application of swelling strings, French horns and similar instruments to augment his gospelized R&B bedrock foreshadowed the advent of "The Sound of Philadelphia," a style that came to dominate soul music during the 1970s.

Like the legendary but criminally overlooked Motown bass player Jamie Jamerson, Mayfield developed a highly distinctive style of playing that eschewed common conceptions of R&B guitar. Like Jamerson's, Mayfield's playing was highly syncopated yet deftly avoided cluttering a given song's arrangement. His elegant, liquid fretwork suggested a full harmonic background while adding melodic flavor. Perhaps more than any other stylistic device, the guitarist's utilization of hammer-on and pull-off effects produced an immediately identifiable Mayfield "sound."

Hendrix was perhaps Mayfield's most adept student. Play Hendrix's "Little Wing" (or the instrumental version of "Electric Ladyland" found on the posthumous European import Loose Ends) and "Gypsy Woman" (a 1961 Impressions hit) back-to-back to hear the connection. That Hendrix and his Band of Gypsys offered a faithful rendition of "Gypsy Woman" to the Woodstock nation that historic weekend in 1969 is, then, no real surprise.

There's more, much more to the Curtis Mayfield story than space allows. Let's just say that People Get Ready! should garner Mayfield some long-overdue reconsideration.

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of Metro

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