Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Curtis Mayfield



Curtis (1970)


(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Gonna 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   

Along with Sly & The Family Stone and the "psychedelic" era Temptations, up there at the very forefront of black social consciousness artists was Curtis Mayfield. Before Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On", this album really shouted it out - loud and proud. Curtis knew somethin' bad was goin' down, brothers and sisters, and he used his exhilarating falsetto and supa-funky backing to let us know.
                                                  
The opener (Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go is an eight minute remarkable piece of melodious, funky protest music. It cooks, big time. "We're gonna go..Lord what we gonna do..."

The Other Side Of Town may have a nice string-dominated backing, but it is a dark song about depression and living on the wrong side of the tracks. The future is bleak. Against the backdrop of such a beautiful, soulful backing, Curtis gets his bitter message across. The Makings Of You sees Curtis in a more relaxed frame of mind, a romantic, beautifully orchestrated ballad.

We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue is another in the dark vein, but the spirits are also lifted by the well-known and much-covered strains of Move On Up. 

Miss Black America is a touching song about the aspirations of his young daughter to be seen as black and beautiful. Sounds awful that she would even have to think that today, but it represented real progress in the early 1970s to have such a competition. 

Wild And Free is not the best track on here, over-orchestrated, to be honest. It does, however contain the memorable line "respect for the steeple, power to the people". 

Give It Up is a horn-driven soul number to finish and raises the mood a bit. Nice bass underpinning it.

 

One can't help but think that the cornerstones of HellThe Other Side Of Town and Darker Than Blue are the ones upon which this album and its message rests.

A seminal album in the history of black music, but not one that always gets mentioned.

This remastered release has the best sound I have heard so far for this album. It has always been a bit tinny, what with all the orchestration. This redresses the balance and brings a subtle bass into the sound, thankfully.




Roots (1971)


Get Down/Keep On Keeping On/Underground/We Got To Have Peace/Beautiful Brother Of Mine/Now You're Gone/Love To Keep You In My Mind  
                
After an excellent debut album in 1970's CurtisCurtis Mayfield followed it up with an album that many consider is his What's Going On - a visionary mixture of sweet soul, funky rhythm and social message. It was one of a fine batch of similar, conscious soul albums of the period. It is not all political sensibility, however, as Mayfield always liked a pure love song too. The album is up there with the afore-mentioned Marvin Gaye album and the contemporary output from The TemptationsThe Undisputed Truth and Bill Withers in the ranks of the great early seventies "aware" soul albums.

Mayfield looks marvellously incongruous on the cover, posing in a typically seventies suit by what appears to be a mock-up of an African hut. Maybe it is a real one. The back cover shows him on modern stone steps outside a modern house, so the message he is trying to convey is clear and a pertinent one, however.

Get Down is a full on piece of funky groove to open the album with, Mayfield's typical congas providing an infectious backing, together with a rumbling bass, panting female vocals and funky guitar over Mayfield's slightly deeper voice that he uses for the funkier numbers. It has echoes of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On about it in its backing, although it is funkier and faster. 

Keep On Keeping On carries an inspirational message from an artist who never went too long on his albums without giving out solid wisdom for life. It is a beautiful song, both lyrically and musically. It is a fine piece of early seventies credible soul. Check out the superbly funky ending part too. Wonderful wah-wah guitar sounds that almost sound like native Australian music.

 

Underground is a marvellous slice of urban funk, similar to Don't Worry If There's a Hell Below..., packed full of portent and preacher-like sermonising about what will happen if we get it wrong. All this backed by some searing, rock-influenced electric guitar, those congas once more and a pounding, fatback drum funky beat. 

We Got To Have Peace is just glorious - upbeat, soulful but poppy, energetic and inspirational. One of Curtis's best ever tracks, for me. 

Beautiful Brother Of Mine brings back the funk big time on a cookin', insistent number with some great bass, drums and backing vocals. Solid, pumping stuff. Lush strings merge with serious funk to help achieve Mayfield's  intention of taking soul music to a different level. Once again, the electric guitar on the track is sublime.

Now You're Gone is the first of two more laid-back love-inspired numbers. It is full of sweeping strings over a constant bass line and punchy horns. Killer electric guitar enhances the song again too. 

Love To Keep You In My Mind is a lush, romantic slice of sweet soul to end the album with. Backed by luscious strings, intoxicating congas and melodic bass, it is certainly not a socially-conscious number, it is a full-on love song. Mayfield's falsetto vocal is at its soulful, soaring best.

Despite many moments of brilliance, the album doesn't quite have the cohesion of What's Going On, which plays better as one complete concept. It is probably Mayfield's finest creation though and is well up there, no doubt about that. This was seriously good soul music.




Superfly (1972)


Little Child Runnin' Wild/Pusherman/Freddie's Dead/Junkie Chase/Give Me Your Love/Eddie You Should Know Better/No Thing On Me/Think/Superfly     

This is a ground-breaking "blaxploitation" movie soundtrack album that, along with Isaac HayesShaft is up there as one of the finest representatives of its genre. While Shaft was a musical masterpiece of an album, this one contained more full songs and stands up as a straight-up soul album in its own right, irrespective of being a movie soundtrack. The theme was one of social deprivation leading to drug abuse and tells stories from the perspective of both the users and the dealers. It builds on issues dealt with by The Temptations, The Undisputed Truth, Bill Withers and Marvin Gaye and it goes even further. There is a convincing argument that this is the best "aware" soul album of the early seventies, if not of all time. Also, although both Curtis and Roots were great albums, this really takes some beating. The sound on it is full, deep and funky, with less string orchestration than on those two albums. It is certainly Mayfield's grittiest, funkiest offering.
                                             
Little Child Running Wild is a hard-hitting, funky percussion-driven magnificent opener, with apparent similarities, lyrically, it would seem, to The TemptationsRunaway Child Running Wild. However, Mayfield's song is autobiographical (for the movie's character), speaking of his deprived upbringing, whereas The Temptations' one is a narrative take of a young child on the streets. 

Pusherman is a sublime, beautiful piece of rhythmic, bassy funk with Mayfield's iconic falsetto giving us an uncompromising first-person description of the life of a "pusherman", hustling drugs on the streets - himself a "victim of ghetto demands". Mayfield takes a depressingly realistic view of things and, to an extent, the wonderful, atmospheric funk of the song's melody almost glorifies the pusherman, simply because the music describing him is so damn good. Mayfield views the issues from the point of view of the criminal which was a unique thing to do in 1972. Socially aware material had only been around in soul music for four years or so and for Mayfield to sing and compose from this perspective was certainly adventurous and risk-taking in the extreme. 

The balance is restored, however, in the sad tale that is Freddie's Dead, about a life snuffed out but not by drugs, but run over by a car. It is all linked though, but you get the impression that the song just shrugs its shoulders at another death on these mean streets. The music is once again excellent - funky flute, shuffling drums, sweeping strings and "chicka-chicka" wah-wah guitars.

 

After these three stonking openers, we are reminded that this is a movie soundtrack album with the brief funky wah-wah and horns groove of Junkie Chase. Very Blaxploitation. 

Give Me Your Love once more features some totally delicious instrumentation. Man, those wah-wahs. The sound is so good as well. Fantastically clear yet deep and warm too. Mayfield's vocal takes a while to arrive and because the music is so good, you don't notice. When it comes it just makes it all even better.

Eddie You Should Know Better is a short, soulful song clearly written for the movie. It is excellent, however, full of atmosphere. 

No Thing On Me is a sumptuous piece of funky soul with Mayfield's character in a positive mood, claiming now to lead a clean life - "you don't have to be no junkie....my life's a natural high..." is the admirable sentiment - "sure is funky, I ain't no junkie...". Things seem to be looking up, thankfully. A bit of redemption. That positivity continues in the beautiful instrumental groove of Think. This features some lovely saxophone near the end.

Finally, we get the barnstorming brassy funk of Superfly, a true blaxploitation classic, that appears on every compilation of the genre. Although the album is only thirty-seven minutes in length, every second is dripping with atmosphere. Truly one of the best soul/funk albums of all time. Essential.




Back To The World (1973)


Back In The World/Future Shock/Right On For The Darkness/Future Song/If I Only Were A Child Again/Can't Say Nothin'/Keep On Trippin'            

After the huge, and somewhat unexpected success of the ultra-funky blaxploitation soundtrack, Superfly, this album reverted to the heavily-orchestrated, lush, brassy soul sounds of Mayfield's first two solo albums, Curtis and Roots. There is still some solid funk around, but it is less gritty and pounding than on Superfly, which is a shame, to be honest. Mayfield's message is still one of concern for the contemporary world, both societal and environmental. The album is only seven tracks long, and is decidedly uncommercial. In that respect, it is considered something of a failure, which is unfair, as it contains some credible songs, just no catchy Superfly-style numbers. Mayfield was certainly not going to let up on his message, and indeed, didn't until 1977, when he started to dabble in disco. It was hard-hitting, urban, conscious funk/soul all the way.
                            
Back In The World is a typical pice of smooth, falsetto-dominated lush Mayfield soul, similar to some of the material on Curtis and Roots

Future Shock features some delicious funky wah-wah guitar and some punchy horns. It is one of the album's tracks that is most similar to the Superfly material. This time though, Mayfield is saying "we got to stop the man from messing up the land...". Inspired by Alvin Toffler's 1970 book, the song contains warnings for more than just drug dealers, but for the whole world. 

Right On For The Darkness is a deep, industrial strength funky chugger, lightened only by some sweeping strings. Personally, I would have preferred it without the strings, just keeping the funk, which is heavy.

 

Future Song is  religious-themed, laid-back slice of sweet soul that a probably a minute or so too long. The tempo is upped, however, with the Move On Up-ish fast groove of If I Only Were A Child Again. The horns and the percussion rhythm are great on this one. 

Can't Say Nothin' is a wonderful helping of brassy funk, with an almost swamp-blues style riff underpinning it. Mayfield's vocals are only incidental on what is essentially an excellent instrumental. A few more vocals arrive at the end, however, but it is still largely a musical outing. 

Keep On Trippin' ends the album with a melodic and soulful number that sees Mayfield's falsetto hitting those top notes once more. There is a hint of Motown in the song's verse structure.

While this is not a Curtis Mayfield essential, it is certainly not inessential either, if that doesn't sound too silly. It is not a poppy album, but, as with all his early/mid seventies offerings, it has serious credibility.




Sweet Exorcist (1974)


Ain't Got Time/Sweet Exorcist/To Be Invisible/Power To The People/Kung Fu/Suffer/Make Me Believe In You    

By 1974, you knew what you were going to get from Curtis Mayfield - six or seven tracks on an album, a mixture of orchestrated sweet soul and wah-wah guitar, horn-driven urban funk. The social message was launched in 1970 and it is still strongly there. Unfortunately, the fact that seven similar albums were released between 1970 and 1975 tends to dilute the effect somewhat and some of these albums have ended up slightly overlooked, which is a bit of a pity, as they are all impressive.

This one is a bit more soulful and laid-back and the consciousness is ever so slightly downplayed in favour of a more romantic approach.
                
Ain't Got Time is a superb, deep, funky opener. Full of atmosphere, wah-wah, solid drums and Curtis's sweet vocal dishing out the wise advice. There is a Temptations feel to the track in many ways. Mayfield's voice is just a little deeper than on some of his songs, and it lends the song more gravitas. 

Sweet Exorcist starts as a lush soul number before it morphs into a deep, heavy funk chug on its chorus.

To Be Invisible is a sensitive, slow burning sweet soul number, one of Mayfield's smoothest numbers for quite a while. As with all his songs, a deep wisdom underpins the lyrics, even on the love songs. Curtis was a serious, deep-thinking man.

  

Power To The People has a slight Staple Singers gospel-influenced feel to it. The interplay between the horns, drums and Mayfield's voice is instinctively effortless. 

Kung Fu is a delicious slice of appetising, tasty funk in the Superfly style. Suffer is a soul ballad in the O'Jays/Harold Melvin style. There is not much that can be said to analyse material like this, other than it sounds great, facile as that sounds. If you like soul music you will like it, simple as that. 

Make Me Believe In You sees the sublime funk return on another infectious groove.

As I said at the beginning, you know what you're going to get by now. If you like it, these are good albums, all of them, in their own right. You an't go wrong with any of them. If you just want to dabble in Curtis Mayfield, then Superfly and Roots would be good places to start.




Got To Find A Way (1974)


Love Me (Right In The Pocket)/So You Don't Love Me/A Prayer/Mother's Son/Cannot Find A Way/Ain't No Love Lost    

This was Curtis Mayfield's second album of 1974 and, on this one, even more than on its predecessor, Sweet Exorcist, he abandons his hard-hitting "message" numbers and replaces them with his take on love. Unsurprisingly, it is both a wise and downtrodden one. Curtis was never really comfortable with pure pop or pure "I love you, girl" sentiments. It is always more like "you used to love me girl, what went wrong?" There is far less funk on here too, more strings and sweet soul sounds than Superfly-style gritty funk. For that reason, for me, this is a somewhat unremarkable album and one that just sort of washes over you, although, at certain times, there is nothing wrong with that. The album has been virtually forgotten in Mayfield's canon, it has to be said, however.
                                
Love Me (Right In The Pocket) is typical Mayfield funk/soul to open the album with, although this time the funk is aimed at a girl Mayfield is after, as opposed to warning about pushermen or future shock. 

So You Don't Love Me is a strings-dominated, lush smoocher of a tune that still has Mayfield's cynical-about-love lyrics, however. 

A Prayer is a smooth, falsetto-driven soul number. Is it time for some copper-bottomed Mayfield funk? Of course it is, and, thankfully, it hasn't been abandoned completely, as Mother's Son, with its heavy, thumping funk intro proves. It is probably the best cut on the album, full of atmosphere and deep funk. Killer guitar too. The bass/drum/lead guitar interplay near the end is sublime.

Cannot Find A Way has a message to it over its slow burning light funk beat, although the vocal is a bit low down in the mix. Ain't No Love Lost confirms that the old side two is funkier than side one, but it ends too soon and is is somewhat unremarkable.

Curtis would return in 1975, channelling his Superfly/Roots socially aware thing once more on the excellent, uncompromising There's No Place Like America Today. This album trod water just a little. It is not a bad one, by any means, but there are better ones either side of it.


There's No Place Like America Today (1975)


Billy Jack/When Seasons Change/So In Love/Jesus/Blue Monday People/Hard Times/Love To The People         
                                
This is definitely one of the great, underrated “social comment” albums of the 70s. It probably doesn’t have as clearly delineated a social message as say earlier albums like Curtis and Roots did, but the songs are all mature, thoughtful compositions and observations on contemporary urban society are never far away, particularly in the gun violence of the funky opener, Billy Jack, or the poverty and unfair taxation of When Seasons Change

Hard Times, with its hypnotic, slow burning funk backing, and the mellifluous Blue Monday People are similar in approach and conviction. There is a case for Hard Times being one of Mayfield’s finest ever tracks.

The single release, the soulful So In Love lifts the sombre, reflective mood a little. Mayfield’s beautiful falsetto soars over a crystal clear backing. Indeed, the sound on this album is outstanding throughout. Sharp, clear cymbals, rich, rumbling bass and undistorted horns. Nowhere is this better exemplified than on this track.

The spiritual is never far from Mayfield’s thinking, and the gospelly Jesus provides this. Again, some great cymbal work on this and some inspiring guitar parts too. Lovely bass line as the song builds up half way through.

Just seven tracks on this album, the tracks are all substantial and one is not left feeling hard done by. An under appreciated piece of work.




Give, Get, Take & Have (1976)


In Your Arms Again (Shake It)/This Love Is Sweet/PS (I Love You)/Party Night/Get A Little Bit /Soul Music/Only You Babe/Mr. Welfare Man     

After the potent socio-political run of albums in Curtis, Roots, Superfly, Back To The World and the previous year’s There’s No Place Like America TodayCurtis Mayfield went all soulful with this predominantly laid-back collection of loved-up tributes to his new love.
           
Mr. Welfare Man is the only “comment” song that acts as an antidote to all the saccharine on show, but no matter, it is a pleasant late-night album. Immaculately played with excellent sound quality. 

Tracks like PS I Love YouIn Your Arms Again, the falsetto of Only You Babe and the disco groove of Party Night offer a lighter alternative to all that urban decay as expressed on previous works. In a way, it is nice to hear Mayfield in a more relaxed vein, just for a change.

Never Say You Can't Survive (1977)


Show Me Love/I Just Want To Be With You/When We're Alone/Never Say You Can't Survive/I'm Gonna Win Your Love/All Night Long/When You Used To Be Mine/Sparkle       
This was the last proper soul album Curtis Mayfield would release for a while, before taking the disco dollar for a while, and it is a really good one. While the hard-hitting social comment of the early seventies had unfortunately been left behind, his venture into melodic, lush, sweet soul was an appealing one. The sound quality on the album is excellent too.
                                            
Show Me Love is a delicious serving of Al Green-esque, horn-driven sweet soul, with Mayfield's trademark falsetto to the fore. It benefits from a sumptuous saxophone solo at the end. Nice track. 

I Just Want To Be With You is a beautiful and rhythmic slow soul groove.

When We're Alone is even more appetising, perfect easy listening soul. As I said, it is a bit of a shame that Curtis was no longer putting the world to rights, but taken for what it is, this luscious soul fare is top quality.

Never Say You Can't Survive is a slow-paced but punchy horn-powered up beat soul ballad. We get our first taste of funk with the intro to I'm Gonna Win Your Love. The song continues as a merging of sweet soul and gentle brassy funk, with some harmonious backing vocals. 

All Night Long is more a straight-ahead soul ballad, with those sublime horns once more. They are even more powerful in When You Used To Be Mine

Sparkle is a late-night, laid-back slowie to end the album on.

While all the tracks are most pleasant, forty minutes of them is more than enough. You eventually long for a bit of Mayfield's earlier power or funk. I prefer the albums from the early seventies, but as an example of peaceful, unthreatening, quality smoochy soul, this does just fine.




Do It All Night (1978)


Do It All Night Long/No Goodbyes/Party Party/Keep Me Loving You/In Love In Love In Love/You Are You Are   

Curtis Mayfield totally abandoned his "message" based, socially-aware urban funk/soul and went full-on disco for this album, released in the middle of the 1977-79 disco boom. Yes, there are still a few funky guitar parts here and there and Mayfield's falsetto hasn't changed, but the album's six tracks are largely heavily orchestrated disco stompers of lush soul ballads. The Isley Brothers went the same way at the same time too. Not a Pusherman, Billy Jack or Superfly in earshot of this one. Those early/mid seventies characters are long gone, in jail or drugged-out, no doubt. It is the hedonistic disco groove that matters now, and the energy to do it all night. It is a bit of a shame that Mayfield ended up by the end of the decade doing stuff like this, but as he was still Curtis Mayfield, it was certainly classy disco. You can't help but think, however, that Mayfield would never, ever have recorded anything like this between 1970 and 1976, he would have rejected it outright. The album duly alienated Mayfield's long-time fan base and, significantly, failed to win him many new ones either.
                  
Do It All Night Long is over eight minutes of typical disco string orchestration, rhythmic percussion, pounding drums, female backing vocals trading off against Mayfield and some funky guitar lines. 

No Goodbyes has that archetypal, sweeping disco backing that featured on so many songs and movie soundtracks. The rhythm is infectious, however, with those backing vocals again dominating. Mayfield's vocal is almost incidental to the groove of the track. The problem with Mayfield is that he wasn't poppy enough to construct perfect three minute Disco Inferno- type floor shakers, he was still far too sincere and serious an artist to go completely pop. What you get, then, is a strange hybrid of material that wants to be disco pop but still retains that desire to be viewed as credible. I referred to The Isley Brothers earlier, and they suffered from the same problem. No Goodbyes could never be a hit single. It duly wasn't.

The lively, danceable Party Party is virtually sung by the backing singers and is barely comprehensible as being a Curtis Mayfield track. The guitar line is decidedly upbeat and funky, though. As well-crafted disco goes, I cannot help but like it, taken in isolation. It has an addictive Chic-esque percussion and bass interplay near the end. Mayfield returns to tell us that "all we need is funk". Never mind what is wrong with America today for Curtis now, unfortunately.

The old "side two" sees the mood get a bit more laid-back and soulful with firstly, Keep Me Loving You and then In Love In Love In Love, which is a bit of a throwback to Mayfield's previous romantic numbers, albeit here with even more lush orchestration and a nice piano in there too. 

You Are You Are is a slight return to the disco groove, reminiscent of Harold Melvin & The Blue NotesThe Love I Lost in its refrain and there you go, the album is over in the flash of a glitterball. It was pleasant enough, but most people accept that this was not representative of Mayfield's best work.

                           

No comments:

Post a comment