Nov 25, 2013

Curtis Mayfield, Prophet of Soul

Curtis Mayfield giving peace sign on hillside

Curtis Mayfield

This one is personal. I've been magnetically drawn to the music of Curtis Mayfield since the first time I heard Super Fly. [I remember hearing "Pusherman" as a child and, having no concept of the words being used other than "mother" and "daddy," being intensely attracted to that circular, School House Rock-ish melody being hot potatoed between the instruments and vocals. I was a fan.] When I registered this blog, Curtis was one of the first topics I knew I would cover because even among music historians, discourse on Curtis' contribution to the general well-being of the Soul of the World typically revolves solely around Super Fly. This is misfortunate, as Curtis Mayfield made some of the most brutally realistic, cathartic, spiritually uplifting music this world has known or ever will - and you can dance to most of it...

Following this paragraph is "Pusherman" from the original soundtrack Curtis wrote and recorded for the 1972 film, Super Fly, an otherwise pretty typical example of the "blaxploitation" genre of 70's cinema. The lyrics to this song, in blunt parlance, detail the lifestyle of a ghetto drug dealer. At the beginning, he's stone cool, the only family/friend/role model/doctor you'll ever need. Check him out. Doesn't he have everything a Black man in America could desire? Flashy clothes, girls, cars, cash? As the song develops, we see that this man is just as rooked as his mark. Circumstances of birth laid his options out: he chose ghetto fabulousness but, now, he wants out. Living up to the image required by the game proves difficult when he's waiting for the other shoe to drop. Could be police or it could be a rival dealer but his luck has to run out and he knows it. The song ends by returning to the opening refrain. The narrator can't break the cycle and sticks with what he knows. It's a sad reality, lived by so many.

Curtis Mayfield - "Pusherman"

Now, the lyrical perspective of that song persists through the rest of the songs on Super Fly. "Freddie's Dead" spins the yarn of a junkie's downfall. "Superfly" examines the mentality of risking your very life just to get a leg up on those around you. The subject matter of the Super Fly soundtrack is extremely American and of its time, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights movement of the 60's. However, the themes being explored here are not exclusive to the time period. The characters in this world suffer from tunnel vision and that is nothing new to humanity. Plato's Allegory of the Cave, published in the 6th century, examines the illusory nature of the realities upon which we choose to fixate. More pertinent to Curtis' ghetto philosophy is this plate from William Blake's Heaven and Hell, in which neither the sufferer of Hell nor the Heavenly savior perceive the existence of the other, so mired they are in their present situation.

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Biographies of Curtis Mayfield typically, typically, center around Super Fly, using broad strokes to paint Curtis as a political activist, which he certainly was, but there was more to him than that. [The pathetic bio at was an anti-inspiration for this piece. Those at and even are similarly lacking.] Super Fly isn't overtly political in tone. A cursory listen to "Pusherman" could easily give one the impression that the song is glorifying drug culture. Super Fly is more of a mirror than a manifesto. Further, it is a sin for these media outlets to reduce Mayfield's achievements to one film soundtrack in the 70's. Super Fly isn't even Curtis Mayfield's best album. How could it be? Soundtracks, though they may eventually overshadow the film which spawned them, are written to compliment the vision of other artists, the film's director, et al. That is not the venue a musical artist would choose to create their masterpiece.

Let's back up a bit... It is worth remembering that Curtis' first public performance was in his grandmother's church. Black gospel music is a force and many is the youth who succumbed their entire life to that force. Curtis was one of those. The young man took his electric guitar and tuned it to the accidental notes on the piano keyboard, the black keys. Curtis was different, you see. Jerry Butler saw. Curtis dropped out of high school at 16 years of age to form a vocal R&B group with Jerry and three other boys. The Roosters- well, make that The Impressions. The Impressions were great. Do listen to The Impressions.

The Impressions - "I'm the One Who Loves You"

But this piece is not about The Impressions. Curtis Mayfield's first solo album, Curtis, came out in 1970 and hit the reset button on his career and soul music in general. The first song opens with a menacing fuzz bass riff, quickly followed by several overlain recordings of people talking. Above this we hear a woman's voice telling someone how her last night's depression led her to get out her Bible and read The Book of Revelations. She says if people would just read Revelations they'd all turn around and straighten up. Now, this is already pretty bizarre for the opening of an album by a "doo wop" musician, yeah? Well, then we hear Curtis, playing the role of preacher, with a disorienting echo on his voice yell, "Sisters! Niggers! Whiteys! Jews! Crackers! Don't worry! If there's Hell below... we're all gonna go!" Then he screams.

Curtis Mayfield - "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go"

That spells it out pretty clearly. We're all in the same boat. This is the message of equality that would saturate the album and Curtis' subsequent solo career. "We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue" explicitly addresses the insanity of a society built to suppress not just the Black person but all minorities and women of every race. "Move On Up" pleads we should focus on bettering the situation rather than waste time accusing others when "there's only one kind." Also born was the new formula of Curtis Mayfield's music: Set up the groove. Let it evolve the way it wants. Use that as a platform. Say what needs to be said. Say it clearly. Do not obscure the words with vocal acrobatics in an attempt to convey emotional conviction.

Curtis' second solo album, Roots, continued in this vein, even opening with another fuzz bass riff, this time accompanied by what can only be interpreted as the sounds of a tribal African drum dance. "We Got to Have Peace" and "Now You're Gone" are highlights. Some people around this time began to raise issue with Curtis' voice. Basically, fuck those people. If an artist is going to sing about truly important things then it is crucial that the listener is convinced of their purity of intent. If it sounds effortless, it probably is. Imagine Pat Boone singing "We've Got to Have Peace." End of discussion.

Curtis Mayfield - "We Got to Have Peace"

Then Super Fly happened. Major commercial success. Everyone freaks out. What is impossible to understand: Curtis' next four albums each contained songs as good or better than those on the preceding LP. This is a jaw-dropping achievement for an artist, to consistently mature in execution of vision. Nobody seems to bring this up much...

1973's Back to the World, arguably a concept album, opens with the title track - a soldier returns home from a war, sees things from a different perspective: the war was useless, he has no job prospects, his wife disappeared while he was gone, "people don't give a damn." Interesting here is that Curtis consistently sings the lyric as "back in the world" throughout the song, though the title is, in fact, "Back to the World." The implication is that being back in the world has led the young man to turn his back to the world, in retaliation for the world turning its back to him. This theme is later fully expressed in "Right On for The Darkness," the album's best song. A sarcastic anthem, praising The Darkness in the world for all of its achievements. "We're in a messy world of tears. Through the ices' [Isis?] everyone will see. I can hear the people's fears. The world put a heavy weight on me."

Curtis Mayfield - "Right On for The Darkness"

According to the back of the record sleeve, the album ends with the depressing "Keep on Trippin," wherein our soldier laments his lost girl and wishes that his idle dreams of her, possibly drug-induced, would bring her back. A future article on Baby Black Widows will attempt an investigation into the esoteric examinations of such concepts in art. Gender specific terms in song can be used to reference a myriad of topics. The "lost girl" here could very well be The World named in the album title. Possibly due to a mere error but also possibly not, the actual LP was pressed with "Can't Say Nothin" as the last song that plays. The song has a lyric about astrology, leading one toward the conclusion that Curtis Mayfield very well may have been aware of the further interpretations buried in his lyrics.

Curtis Mayfield - "Love Me (Right in the Pocket)"

That song from 1974's Got to Find a Way was "Love Me (Right in the Pocket)." "In the pocket" is a musician's term to describe when a group of musicians are exactly on beat with each other every step of the way, no mistakes, no dropping of a groove. This type of connection is necessary when a composer begins incorporating abrupt changes to the rhythmic character of a song, as Curtis Mayfield does here. The lyrics of the song could be interpreted as a celebration of Curtis' relationship with music being there for him no matter his troubles with society but it isn't really important what the song is about. Curtis is more focused here on exploring new avenues of expression. The mathematical mechanics of a song, for whatever reason, can have a revelatory effect on the listener. The technique must first be grasped, practically, before it can be effectively put to use. The Message takes a temporary back seat here.

It took less than a year for Curtis to master the task he set before himself. Sweet Exorcist, released later in 1974, in addition to featuring some baffling artwork on the cover, showcases a new, more mature understanding of musical dynamics combined with lyrical development. The title track begins with Curtis too depressed to see the use in committing suicide. If the song stayed in this place, musically and lyrically, it would be simply pathetic. It doesn't. Curtis has a woman, a "sweet exorcist," to dispel The Darkness. The song itself is a shapeshifter. Curtis sets that groove up, like always, but this time it has a mind of its own. Curtis is able to punctuate the morphing beat with stabs of vocals, playing with repetitions of melody. He's reached his stride. [The song stays in 3/4 the whole time, by the way. Count it.]

Curtis Mayfield - "Sweet Exorcist"

Curtis Mayfield's run of masterpieces ended with the album There's No Place Like America Today. Released in 1975, the title isn't exactly praising the state of the Union. On the cover is Margaret Bourke-White's photo, Kentucky, the background a White family, smiling in their shiny, new automobile while the foreground consists of what seems to be a welfare line of poor, Black men and women. Musically, the album, especially side A, may be Curtis' best. ["Jesus" being the only weak song on the album.] Though you will find it rarely mentioned, even missing from, every aspect of Curtis Mayfield's career is here represented in its most fully actualized form. Long, sweeping, orchestral arrangements are given time to grow organically, twisting and lifting. "Billy Jack," a slow funk saga about a gangster's inescapable murder, has atmosphere. Intertwining wah-wah guitars swirl around a gunshot snare as Curtis lays out the tale. "When Seasons Change" stretches its melody long and thin, giving quick little resolutions here and there. "So in Love" is probably responsible for Boyz II Men's entire career [listen to the crescendo at about 0:39], but don't hold that against it. Bob Dylan said something about Woody Guthrie's music, something like you could listen to it and learn how to live. That's this. This is that.

Curtis Mayfield - "Billy Jack"

In no way did Curtis Mayfield fall off his horse, it should be mentioned. It's merely that this string of albums represents an era of a Master. He continued to make good music. Even his last album, 1996's New World Order, has so much to offer. Some have a problem with the production values of the album, labelling it "cheesy." Remember that this is a man who had something to say, something he felt needed to be heard by as many people as possible. Curtis Mayfield's music strives towards commercialism. Today's musical equivalent of the School House Rock melodies of his early '70's output would be, like, a Disney Channel musical. Another thing about the album is that Curtis Mayfield was totally paralyzed from the neck down in a truly horrible accident in 1990, when a lighting rig fell on him during a soundcheck at Wingate Field. In order to record the vocals of New World Order, Curtis had to be suspended upside down from a harness [so that gravity would help him force air through his vocal chords] and sing his lyrics one line at a time. Too, Curtis sang his lines slower and lower than they needed to be so that the engineer could speed the tape up in recreation of Curtis' signature vocal sound. If, knowing this, you become overwhelmed with emotion while listening to this song, considering this man's dedication to a spiritual revolution and positive attitudes despite severe misfortune... Well, I certainly would understand.

Thank you for your time. Are there any questions?

Curtis Mayfield - "Back to Living Again"


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