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Curtis Mayfield was a revolutionary. A guitar was his weapon of choice; the singer’s gentle voice bristled with righteous dissent. Mayfield’s music lobbied black pride and self-determination, while probing every ripple of systemic racism and urban mismanagement. It’s a tragedy that his words seem so relevant, so vital in 2017. That we still have them to sooth strange times is something to be thankful for.
As a singer and creative center of the Impressions in the 1960s, Mayfield cut rousing civil rights songs you could build a movement on. Into the 1970s, the message became grimier—his tales from the inner city not always coming pre-packed with a positive outcome. But it was the documentary-precise lyrics matched with scintillating funk orchestration that made the whole thing so thrilling. In an alternate universe, Curtis drops the bleakness to cut more digestible songs about girls and stuff to help launch his star. But in this world, the gentle genius’s mind just didn’t grind like that.
Not that Mayfield couldn’t do it all. His arsenal is stacked with doo-wop toe tappers, soulful ballads, disco floor-fillers and yearning blues jams, all scattered across the body of work of an artist who embraced the 12-inch parameters of the LP. Curtis made cohesive, functioning albums. Many are classics, some are just very, very good. All are worth your attention. Here’s 10 of the smoothest, funkiest, straight-up most noble records in the Curtis Mayfield canon. Treasure them.
In what were the closing days of doo-wop, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden and Fred Cash put out a debut album of pretty vocals harmonies, rhythmic guitar playing and tammy-sweet melodies. Released in 1963, the record works more as a compilation release, leaning on a stack of singles The Impressions had dropped over the previous couple of years. (There’s contributions from brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks despite the pair splitting with the group the previous year). The campfire-warm sound of the Spanish-infused “Gypsy Woman” is an early sample of Mayfield’s delicately tuned falsetto, while the smooth “It’s All Right” has a right to claim the spot of the first Curtis classic.
The group’s dedication to doo-wop is reinforced by a cover of “Never Let Me Go,” a Top 10 R&B hit for Johnny Ace in 1954 and one of only two songs here not penned by Mayfield. His music would become more forward thinking—there’s stuff here that wouldn’t sound out of place if you cut it into the mid-1950s-set Back to the Future 2—but The Impressions is a fine Chapter One in Mayfield’s musical scripture.
The story goes that “We’re A Winner” came to Mayfield in a dream. A bolt of genius as his subconscious wandered a cerebral landscape. The song is in the conversation on The Impressions’ greatest ever numbers. But rather than a flash of accidental inspiration, it was in-keeping with the group’s mid-’60s ethos: socially engaged songs that could pop off at any party. Mayfield invited a crowd into the studio for its recording to bring a jamboree groove to the record. Even the title, “We’re A Winner”, gives the song a real feeling of unified solidarity. Mayfield speaks for everyone in the room when he sings, “We’re all movin’ on up.”
The album that bears the song’s name is more than just its title track. Helmed by long-time producer Johnny Pate, the broad brass swoon over love song “Let Me Tell The World” and the big band showstopper “Nothing Can Stop Me.” A few years deep and the group’s chemistry was fully realized, their intertwining vocals rarely as fluid as on “Moonlight Shadows.” It ends somewhat bizarrely with a cover of that classic ode to hot air ballooning “Up Up And Away,” but even that retains a goofy charm that works.
The Impressions exited the 1960s hard. The final track on their final album of the decade, “Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey),” hinted at the more blistering brand of soul-funk Mayfield would blaze in the opening shots of his solo career. But though his style was accelerating into the future, the group’s interlocking vocal lines remained a key component of their sound. They pass the mic like a hot potato on tracks like “Choice of Colors,” which examines race and self-identity, and “Soulful Love,” one the album’s romantic cuts. As a dividing line between the ’60s and ’70s, The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story connects Mayfield’s past and future in clear Technicolor.
The closing of the 1960s symbolically ended an era of peace, love and flower power. And so music became more brutally raw and ill-omened. The shimmering positivity of The Impressions was tossed on Mayfield’s 1970 debut solo release Curtis. Picture fans’ faces when they first dropped the needle on the record and heard the dissonant sounds of “(Don't Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” The drums are busy, the guitars are nasty and the bass is turned way (and I mean wayyy) up. Not too many solo careers have even been ushered in by such a distinct opening gambit.
All over Curtis are the new-age solo artist’s ground-level depictions of misgoverned urban housing areas and white America’s apathy. “Ghetto blues showed on the news,” he signs on the swooning but mournful “The Other Side of Town.” “All is aware, but what the hell do they care?” Social awareness and criticism of the system cut with red-hot grooves would be the Mayfield formula. Of the eight tracks on album number one, zero fall below standards.
Mayfield calls for racial unity between America’s people of color on “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” while the strings and brass swell on closer “Give it Up”—a sign of Curtis’s growing powers as a composer. The album’s centerpiece, though, is “Move On Up”, his most famous song present here in its original nine-minute form. The rapped bongos, the falsetto, that horn riff! This was a new epoch for Mayfield. He made his hiatus from The Impressions permanent just months after the release of Curtis.
Even after the seismic stylistic shifts of Curtis, Mayfield’s second solo record was a challenge to his most ardent disciples. Roots is bolder, brasher and more sonically testing. The fuzzy guitar lines, huge brass section, furiously twacked percussion and heavy bassline form a dissonant concoction on opener “Get Down.” It takes a special kind of genius to keep all this madness funky.
Mayfield connects past and present with the left hook, right cross combination of socially engaged Impressions throwback “Keep On Keepin’ On” and grisly funk of “Underground.” His message of love and unity has rarely been as unalloyed as on “We’ve Got To Have Peace” (“The soldiers who are dead and gone / If only we could bring back one,” he sings cuttingly), while “Now You're Gone” is Mayfield’s greatest straight-up blues jam. A classic women-done-me-wrong anthem, it’s no surprise that genre deity Buddy Guy would later take it on. With Mayfield experimenting so brashly, Roots is a jagged-edged diamond within his 24-carat canon.
His job was to put together some music for a low-budget Harlem drug flick with a cast of mostly unknowns and script way too short for purpose. What Mayfield forged was the definitive depiction of the concrete-cold streets of uptown New York. The soundtrack to Super Fly is a rum-punch of a funk record. The story of a streetwise drug pusher trying to get out of the game was extra cool when set to Mayfield’s grooves. But the album goes deeper than the movie, laying out his own bitter vision of the urban sprawl setting. This is the kind of music you need when a nation of millions holds you back
Supremely focused by Super Fly’s lean plot, Mayfield stares down the cruel truths. On the fuzzy guitar and dramatic horn and string stabs of classic opener “Little Child Runnin’ Wild”, he tells the bitter story of an impoverished boy being let down by the system. “Pusherman”—one of Curtis’s funkiest numbers ever—offers a profound profile of a dealer, or “victim of ghetto demands.” “Freddy’s Dead” empathizes with a prominent character in Super Fly—a lowly hustler killed while trying to evade police, symbolically perishing in his attempt to escape from The Man. Mayfield’s crosshairs are never aimed at the soldiers on the streets. Instead, he shakes his head at the choices they’ve been forced to endure.
“Give Me Your Love” is a slithering loverman jam, while the instrumental “Junkie Chase” is a snazzy sprint through Harlem’s boulevards. An alternative taste pick for one of Mayfield’s best songs ever is “Eddie You Should Know Better.” “Think of the tears and fears you bring to your folks back home,” he wearily croons, the good angel on Eddie’s shoulder. The message is uncompromising—the delivery, deeply wounding. Super Fly is Mayfield’s finest album. It sits in the top tier of 1970s politically charged classics that you can’t turn away from.
Mayfield always brought the funk, but on Back To The World he hits us with a double dose. Mayfield’s axe was rarely as nasty as on the scuzzy sci-fi freak-out “Future Shock.” A smoothly strummed lick underpins the smoky R&B of “Right On For The Darkness,” while “Can’t Say Nothin’” is a barbwire workout, the band backed by some James Brown-esque horn hits. Mayfield has rarely sounded as loose. He must have been having fun.
Beneath the bass is more trenchant social criticism. The swooning strings of the upbeat title track finds Mayfield decrying the struggles that faced returning Vietnam vets. Over those hard “Future Shock” guitars he calls on the public to hold those who would cause environmental damage to account (“We got to stop all men, from messing up the land”), while more jaunty numbers like “If I Were Only a Child Again” offer a sweet hit of personal nostalgia. Without the same diamond-sharp focus, Back To The World isn’t quite as good as it’s predecessor Super Fly. But, released right in the middle of Mayfield’s golden period, it’s another great record to add to the stack.
There’s No Place Like America Today is a calculated deconstruction of the con that is “The American Dream.” It’s a scathing, necessary denouncement of the wide distance between the pamphlet U.S. and the reality facing poorer communities. Opener “Billy Jack” finds Mayfield pondering devastating gun violence. Over the mid-tempo, cool-hand funk of “Hard Times”—a Mayfield composition originally recorded dazzlingly by Baby Huey—he looks into the “cold, cold eyes” of those struggling in a loveless town. It’s impossible to summarize 1970s American woes in a single album. Mayfield gave it a shot anyway.
Channeling these deep-thinking messages, America Today replaces the burly string sections, massive brass and prominent percussion slaps of Mayfield’s earlier solo work with far more restrained arrangements that emphasized his soft voice and intrinsic guitar playing. The roomier sonic landscape allows Mayfield to stretch out. On “Billy Jack” he leads his band with soft strums before a catchy horn riff punctuates the melody. The super smooth horns, doo-wop backing vocals and undiluted depiction of intimacy offer rare respite on “So In Love,” but this is one of Mayfield’s most poignant politically engaged pieces. And probably the most underrated LP in his blessed discography.
Give, Get, Take and Have grooves at its own pace. The fiery fury Mayfield channeled on Curtis, Roots and Super Fly is set to one side. Instead, this is one of his more velvety solo efforts. Saxophone licks breeze in and out; the bongos are more delicately caressed. It’s a laid back, easy to listen to piece—as soothing as a plush blanket and hot whiskey on a winter’s night.
With tracks like the catchy “This Love is Sweet” and warm, bluesy ballad “Only You Babe,” Give, Get, Take and Have is mostly on conditions of the heart. “P.S. I Love You” is one of Mayfield’s greatest love songs—a gently caressed harp underpinning a sweet and candid depiction of a long-term relationship. He does, though, reach into the past, bringing a barbed guitar line and some blaxpoitation horn stabs to his cover of Gladys Knight and The Pips’ poverty-tackling classic “Mr. Welfare Man.”
The story’s ending is swarmed with tragedy. Mayfield, who spent his life fighting systemic racism and social injustice with a guitar as his saber, was forced into a physical battle he never could have foreseen. In 1990, a freak onstage accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. Six years later, his final album became a portrait of the human spirit—that no physical confinement could stop this artist creating new music. To record New World Order, Mayfield would lay flat on the ground to help fill his lungs with the necessary oxygen to sing, which he painstakingly did one line at a time.
Despite what must have been incredible discomfort, Mayfield rolls back the years. “Another victim born out here in the hood,” he sings on the title track in fine voice. “And based on statistics it really ain’t all good.” He looks inwards on the peppy portrayal of unlikely optimism “Back to Livin’ Again,” even sneaking in a throwback “right on” that rubs out two decades and a lot of hard miles. I’d be lying if I said this was a classic Mayfield release. The more synthetic production techniques stifle the guitar and drums, the arrangements failing to carry the same punch as those smokin’ 1970s grooves. But it’s the meaning of New World Order that feels so vital. Mayfield died three years after its release. That it gave him a final act of creative catharsis is something to be grateful for.
Dean Van Nguyen is a music journalist and cultural critic for Pitchfork, The Guardian, Bandcamp Daily and Jacobin, among others. His first book, Iron Age: The Art of Ghostface Killah, was released in 2019.