“The best gig was working with Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. He was a really good guitarist!…… I learned quite a lot in that short time. He probably influenced me more than anyone I’d ever played with up to that time, that sweet sound of his, you know.” – Jimi Hendrix
In 1970, Mayfield released his first solo album, Curtis. This album predated Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On by at least a year. Filled with socially conscious lyrics about race relations, the song “Move On Up” is clearly talking to African-Americans. And besides that, it is just a funky good party tune. Curtis liked to have it both ways.
This is the long version with some nice sax work. This is my favorite Curtis Mayfield tune. I couldn’t possibly love it more and I could listen to it all day:
That album was a hit and a half with other tunes like “If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go,” and “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue.” (CB’s favorite.)
Now, you need to know that in the early ’70’s – a very creative, very fervent time for filmmaking – a genre that came to be known as blaxploitation movies became popular.
This was somewhat of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it fed into black stereotypes; on the other it allowed black actors to play something other than slaves or maids. (See Spike Lee’s Bamboozled for an eye-opening excursion on how Hollywood routinely shit on black people.)
In 1972, Gordon Parks Sr., the director of the movie Shaft (which had its own great theme song), co-financed a movie called Super Fly about a cocaine dealer named Youngblood Priest. (One of the greatest names in the history of movies, right up there with Travis Bickle or Rupert Pupkin.) Needing a soundtrack, they turned to Curtis. But the movie was full of drugs and violence and other shit that Mayfield had no patience for.
According to Mayfield’s website, “they needed the right music on the soundtrack. At this time there was a not-exactly-unspoken question in Hollywood, “Can African Americans write film music?” Well, yes you fucking shitheads, it turns out they can. But Curtis decided to subvert the glamorization of the bad-ass culture by use of his lyrics.
The album was a massive hit and you couldn’t switch on the radio without hearing “Freddie’s Dead” or “Superfly.”
Hard to understand
What a hell of a man
This cat of the slum
Had a mind, wasn’t dumb
But a weakness was shown
‘Cause his hustle was wrong
His mind was his own
But the man lived alone
Oh, I do like “Pusherman” from the same album:
I’m your mama, I’m your daddy
I’m that nigga in the alley
I’m your doctor, when in need
Want some coke, have some weed
You know me, I’m your friend
Your main boy, thick and thin
I’m your pusherman
I’m your pusherman
A fellow blogger once clued me in to the album Curtis/Live! If it was one of you, shout it out ‘coz I just can’t remember. This album was recorded at Greenwich Village’s Bitter End in 1971. Wish I’d been there.
Here’s”(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go.”
Curtis continued touring and putting out albums throughout the Eighties even working once with Aretha Franklin on another soundtrack. He managed to get himself roped into doing a cameo during the finale of perhaps the worst movie in the history of the universe, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.*
While Curtis continued to send albums up the charts, he never had another crossover album like Super Fly. By 1980 Mayfield had moved, with his family of six children from Chicago to Atlanta, “effectively bringing the Chicago Soul era to a close.”
His career became that of writer/producer for himself and other artists. He toured the U.S., Japan and Europe, especially Britain. Mayfield even revisited Super Fly with Super Fly 1990, new songs and collaboration between Mayfield and Ice T. The rappers were finding Mayfield a major influence. (That song was from a 1990 movie called The Return of Superfly. There was a remake of the original movie released this year to not much acclaim.)
And then tragedy struck. In August of 1990, just two days after the release of the Return of Superfly album – with nasty weather threatening – Curtis was playing an outdoor show in Brooklyn, NY.
The Senator who put the show on did not want to cancel as thousands had already poured in to the park. He decided to put Curtis and his band, Ice-9 on early, reasoning that they could get off at least one number.
Ice-9 was already playing when Curtis was introduced and started walking out on stage with his guitar strapped on. But a huge gust of wind came up, knocking people out of the first two rows (“like toy dolls”) and sending huge speakers and stage lights crashing to the ground. One of those stage lights hit Mayfield square in the back of the neck.
According to his son’s book,”The ambulance rushed him to Kings County Hospital. In the only stroke of luck that day, the hospital stood right next to the field. Paramedics saved his life, but not his body. After stabilizing him in traction, doctors told him the brutal truth — the stage light had crushed several vertebrae. Paralyzed from the neck down, he would never walk, let alone play guitar, again. He was forty-eight years old.”
Needless to say, life became incredibly difficult but per his son, he cried but never succumbed to self-pity. Wheelchair-bound, it was four years until he sang again in public. When he recorded, he did so lying flat on his back singing line-by-line because singing requires breath control and he had it in limited fashion.
His final album, released in 1996, was called New World Order. This song is called “Here But I’m Gone” and despite his disabilities, his soulfulness comes through loud and clear.
On December 26, 1999, at the age of 57, Curtis Mayfield died from complications of type 2 diabetes.
Curtis Mayfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – as a member of the Impressions and as a solo artist. In 1999, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame just prior to his death. He was a winner of the prestigious Grammy Legend Award in 1994. He received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
The Impressions’ 1965 hit song “People Get Ready,” has been chosen as one of the Top 10 Best Songs Of All Time by a panel of 20 top industry songwriters and producers, including Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Hal David, and others, as reported to Britain’s Mojo music magazine.
Sources: Wikipedia; Rolling Stone; Curtis Mayfield web site
*Apparently, they had a whole bunch of people who were stars at the time sing a dog-doo version of the Sgt. Pepper reprise. The only thing I can find is this still picture with music. Everyone involved in this travesty should immediately hang their heads in shame.
But you gotta listen to the song. It sounds exactly like what would happen if you put together the Carpenters, Up With People, Donny and Marie Osmond and a bunch of jingle singers who had just come from a session singing about dish detergent and were unable to discern the difference.
Warning – this is the biggest piece of shit I ever heard in my life and has been known to induce vomiting so don’t eat before listening.