What does it sound like?:
Curtis Mayfield was born in Chicago and, with The Impressions, was an instigator of its soft soul sound, a sound characterised by rich orchestration and sweet, keening vocals. He wrote the songs, played guitar, keyboards, saxophone, produced and sang lead. By 1970, he’d formed his own company, Curtom, with its associated record label. The following year, the band dissolved and Mayfield was established as a solo artist. This box collects remasters of his first four non-soundtrack studio albums in which he took advantage of his creative control to establish his signature sound and explore his favourite themes. Those albums are Curtis, Roots, Back To The World and Sweet Ecstasy.
Curtis Mayfield was one of the first Soul singers to tackle social issues. The Impressions’ People Get Ready, more than an inspiration for Bob Marley, was as far back as 1965. 1968’s We’re A Winner was an unambiguous anthem of black pride. The consciousness of solo debut album, Curtis, predates Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. The only contemporary equivalent would be to imagine Sly & The Family Stone’s Stand! produced by Norman Whitfield and sung by The Temptations.
The secret is all in the eloquence of the delivery. His voice is a high tenor bordering on falsetto. He is incapable of screaming and shouting. His guitar style is gentle and flowing, the source of most of his melodies. He delivers the hard-hitting message in tracks such as We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue with such sweetness it’s an easy pill to swallow. The music is remarkably uncluttered considering there’s a full orchestra with a prominently placed harp, a complete horn section and a myriad of percussion. The arrangers Johnny Pate, Riley Hampton or Richard Tofu take a great deal of the credit. Henry Gibson provides the boinging, echoed congas and Tyrone McCullen or Donald Simmons the perpetual motion drums. A key musician is Joseph ‘Lucky’ Scott with his phat, funky bass. This palette works equally well for the softer, romantic numbers too. The juxtaposition of gritty social commentary, uproarious funk and delicate ballads gives each album enough variation to attract repeat listens.
The traditional narrative arc for Curtis Mayfield’s solo career is that it started with a bang, reached an early peak with Superfly, then gradually drifted away apart from a lesser second peak with There’s No Place Like America Today. Indeed, the debut bristles with confidence. Mayfield brings all his musical and personal experience from his upbringing in the mean streets of Chicago to an album articulating his horror at the state of the world and his faith in human beings to find a way. (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go is a shocking and powerful vision of Armageddon, whilst Move On Up is as joyous and as uplifting as it is possible for a song to be and the string-swept The Making Of You is simply beautiful. Roots is even more sophisticated and refined, the songs tighter and more direct. The message is very clearly Peace and Love and the music more danceable. Keep On Keepin’ On is a lush reverie. Back To The World was never going to match Superfly’s intensity, so it doesn’t even try. Its bluesy, relaxed feel can be seen, in retrospect, as a broadening of scope and the lyrics a reassertion of positivity. Right On For The Darkness, the centrepiece, could be a Terry Callier Jazz epic. Sweet Exorcist treads water somewhat as Mayfield raids his old pocket book for previously unused songs. The political ire and brimstone are replaced by a weary sorrow. A prominent organ brings a gospel sensibility to most of side one, Kung Fu and Make Me Believe In You are lean and funky and the love songs are especially delicate. However, all these years on, all four albums nestle nicely together, exuding a comparable degree of class, glowing in their new remaster.
Presumably, Superfly will get its own deluxe treatment but this period was extremely productive for Mayfield. Two live albums are classics, particularly Curtis Live. There’s another soundtrack album, Claudine, written and produced for Gladys Knight and The Pips. Plus, Got To Find A Way, a funkier beauty of album, was released later in 1974. This box could be twice the size.
Curtis Mayfield is a major Soul artist whose catalogue deserves a lovingly curated makeover. All of this collection is high quality, rewarding close attention. Here’s hoping it’s part of a wider scheme to logically showcase his life’s work.
What does it all *mean*?
Before purchasing, you need to consider the existing, cheaper Original Albums CD box, containing these four plus Curtis Live in flimsy packaging. The mastering is less fresh but the value is unquestionable at £20 versus £14. Of course, if you are looking for vinyl, there’s no contest.
Goes well with…
A sense of injustice and a heart full of love.
Might suit people who like…
Soul Music at its best.