Wherein the leader of soul and gospel chart-toppers The Impressions recasts himself as a serious (and seriously powerful) solo singer/songwriter, fit for some challenging times
In the Autumn of 1961, the debut issue of The Fantastic Four crash-landed at newsstands all over America. The series – which, starting with its fourth issue, would feature the not-entirely-hyperbolic claim “The world’s greatest comic magazine” emblazoned across its covers – marked the birth of Marvel Comics, a publishing company that would, under the guidance of larger-than-life writer/editor/publisher Stan Lee, challenge industry leader DC Comics for domination of the super-hero market in the decades to come, adding elements of humour, soap-opera and social commentary to the genre’s well-worn recipe of costumed hi-jinks.
The Fantastic Four’s debut issue opened with an origin story, a fable of far-fetched science-hokum that saw egghead scientist Reed Richards and his three sidekicks take to the stars in an inadequately tested spacecraft. Shortly after leaving the Earth’s atmosphere, however, our intrepid adventurers are caught in a “cosmic storm”, bombarded with interstellar radiation that, upon their subsequent crash-landing back home, causes them to develop freakish superpowers.
While I am no scientist, I’m pretty sure that’s not how cosmic radiation works. Still, I find something compelling about the Fantastic Four’s back-story, its tale of transformation seeming to anticipate the very course of culture and entertainment throughout that decade. Change was the tenor of those times, artists and art-forms exiting the decade altogether different from how they entered it, transforming in response to all manner of external stimulus during these inarguably turbulent years. Developments in recording technology, civil rights conflicts, drugs, sexual liberation, the war in Vietnam and a wealth of further elements served as the ‘cosmic rays’ that would accelerate artists’ evolution across the decade.
These metamorphoses mostly flowed in one direction, performers shedding their more showbiz-y affectations in favour of something more serious-minded and ‘real’, shifting from ‘mere entertainers’, to artists with loftier ambitions, both for their art, and for its effect upon the larger world. New paths and roles were opening for ‘pop’ artists, and, as a result, many found themselves feeling restlessly itchy in the pigeonholes in which they’d previously nestled.
So it was with Curtis Mayfield, as the 1960s drew to a close. In 1956, aged only 14, Mayfield had joined Chicago vocal harmony group The Roosters, who later shed most of their original line-up and became The Impressions. Fronted by Mayfield, who penned much of their output (along with writing and producing for other acts as staff producer at Okeh Records), the Impressions would score multiple hits across the decade, with aching love songs, tender gospel reworks and, as the 60s wore on, anthems of black pride and unity, inspired by and inspiring the Civil Rights movement, like 1964 Top Ten hit Keep On Pushing, a favourite of Martin Luther King, or People Get Ready.
While such politicised pop struck a powerful chord with Mayfield’s audience, keeping the Impressions near the top of the singles charts throughout their career, the group’s albums weren’t quite so distinguished. Like the Temptations – whose LPs, even at the height of their ‘psychedelic soul’ era, would balance a side of inspired Norman Whitfield acid-funk with a side of ballads, so the Temps didn’t lose their bookings at Vegas or their place on the cabaret circuit – the Impressions’ albums were decidedly mixed bags, with the couple of gospel/protest nuggets on each often awash in a sea of rote filler.
By the mid-60s, however, rock artists were no longer approaching the Long Player as a ruse by which to sell their gullible fans the hit single and eleven clunkers; album tracks began to hold the same respect as their 7inch brethren, as more ambitious stars embraced the format as a vehicle to further express their ideas and concepts, and explore their art. Mostly, soul and R’n’B labels were slow to pick up on the trend: when Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder wanted to compose albums that veered from the Motown’s typical factory product and were, rather, expressions of themselves, they could only do so against the company’s wishes, by shaking off the interference of Motown’s legendary Quality Control department (no easy feat).
In 1970, Curtis Mayfield had found himself at a similar crossroads, electing to leave the Impressions in favour of a solo career, and forming his own Curtom Records with business partner Eddie Thomas. In Craig Werner’s excellent book Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield And The Rise And Fall Of American Soul, Marv Stuart, a white rock promoter Curtis had latterly befriended, recalls that he told Curtis “Everyone makin’ it is a singer-songwriter. You’re an artist, you should go out on your own.”
Shorn of his harmony singers, Mayfield would go on to cut a brace of solo LPs demonstrating a newfound focus and ambition, taking an altogether more conceptual approach to the album format, culminating in 1975’s powerful There’s No Place Like America Today. No longer the leader of a group who – their fiery, gospelised protest songs notwithstanding – were very much mainstream, middle of the road entertainers, Mayfield now recast himself as a soul/funk auteur, as the Serious Artist he was, a singer-songwriter whose words carried weight, whose songs were statements on Our World Today as resonant as Dylan’s ever were – moreso, I’d argue.
His debut solo album Curtis, released September 1970, was a fine statement of intent, its first single (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go an acrid take on race relations in America that married Johnny Pate’s dramatic string arrangements to roiling funk guitar and a withering lyric that scourged “political actors”, shaming Nixon by name. The Other Side Of Town and We People Who Are Darker Than Blue furthered this noir-ish take on social turbulence, the former a blossom of broken pride, an admission that “depression is part of my mind / the sun never shines”, the latter leavening the ache with a little of Mayfield’s trademark gospelised hopefulness.
Curtis marked a definitive step forward for Mayfield, shedding the tuxedos and the cabaret milieu for something closer to the soothsaying folk singer-songwriters of the time, albeit empowered by the lean funk orchestra behind him. Mayfield’s next release would mark a further stride away from his past, even while Curtis was revisiting some of his Impressions back pages. Gone this time were Johnny Pate’s lush strings, those last vestiges of Mayfield’s glossy past. Instead, Mayfield stripped his songs back to their lean core so their rawest, purest qualities could shine. They were performed by an edgy, whip-smart band, led by a relaxed Curtis who, abandoning the showbiz patter of the cabaret days, now spoke of the issues behind his songs, humbly and proudly assuming the mantle of protest singer and joking with his audience and his musicians, making 1971’s Curtis/Live! an informal but often profound experience.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, the Bitter End is proud to present…”
With the Curtis album topping Billboard’s Black Albums chart and edging into the US Pop Top 20, Mayfield booked four dates at New York nightclub The Bitter End in January 1971. His first concerts as a solo artist, Mayfield’s performances across those four nights would be recorded by Curtom and released late that year as a live album that, like the shows it was culled from, stood as a portrait of an artist in transition, but at the heady apex of his powers.
A canny choice of venue, The Bitter End was an esteemed Greenwich Village hangout, a launching pad for iconic comedians like Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, and for the rising folk movement: Dylan, Joan Baez and Judy Collins had cut their teeth at the club’s early 60s hootenannies. Far removed from the larger, glitzier halls the Impressions previously toured, it was intimate, seating only a couple of hundred within its bare brick walls. But this intimacy would only make Curtis/Live! a more rewarding album.
The modest venue also necessitated the absence of strings and horns, Mayfield instead playing with a small band of musicians. The group was led by bassist Joseph ‘Lucky’ Scott – “Lucky the Freak,” according to Mayfield. “He’s our director,” Curtis tells the Bitter End audience. “I don’t really know why we call him the director, we ain’t got but three pieces up here. I think that was his idea, to get more money…” Those ‘three pieces’ were rhythm guitarist Craig McMullen, drummer Tyrone McCullen and, on percussion, Master Henry Gibson, a legend on bongo, conga and tumba who also recorded with Donny Hathaway, The Rotary Connection and Aretha Franklin.
For Mayfield’s group during these January dates, less was more. They played sparely, sparsely, listening to each other, calling and responding to each other, loose and open to improvisation. Opener Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey) set the mood; when the Impressions originally cut the track (and ill-fated Mayfield discovery Baby Huey covered it with his Babysitters), it was as a tight and brassy vamp, an urgent stomp fashioned for the dance-floor. At the Bitter End, however, the song is transformed into a lucid groove, fluid, liquid, sloshing loud and quiet, rising and falling away so Curtis can preach, calling to the room “We don’t need no music, we got soul”, before a brief showcase for Master Henry Gibson gives way to a hush so Curtis can confess he “got to say it loud… got to say it louder… I’m black and I’m proud”, the drums rolling and that groove driving on home.
The minimal instrumentation gave space for Mayfield’s guitar-playing to take the fore; not giving to grandstanding soloing, he preferred to embroider his songs with beautiful melodic flourishes, that emotive playfulness Hendrix invoked on Castles Made Of Sand and Little Wing. Sometimes they drew everything back, like on the hushed Stare And Stare, a slow, spacey, trancey blues eked out by muted guitar wails, Gibson’s foreboding conga rumbles, and Mayfield’s fraying vocals. Sometimes they hustled into a bristling psychedelic-funk tornado, guitars shrieking over freakbeat breakdowns on Check Out Your Mind. The seething voodoo groove of (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below – all writhing polyrhythms, strobing wah-wah guitar, ground-shaking bass and Mayfield’s falsetto declamations – reaches a frantic, freak-out pace that outdoes the studio original for intensity.
“Trying not to offend anyone, but just basically trying to tell it as it is…”
Mayfield’s first solo single, (Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below had evidenced a newfound nihilism within his political song-writing, swapping the optimism of Impressions-era anthems like We’re A Winner and People Get Ready for something bleaker, its pre-apocalyptic hurtle echoing the violence of recent years, the hopes quashed, the arrival of Nixon in the White House. If the Impressions’ righteous anthems were penned to stir their audience to toil in service of the Civil Rights movement, Curtis’ solo songs were darker, more complex, more personal, and more honest – their moral landscapes were often scored by grey areas between right and wrong.
A run of songs early in the Curtis/Live! program spans the development of Mayfield’s protest songs, beginning with a new song that never made any of Mayfield’s studio albums, I Plan To Stay A Believer. A fragile flourish of qualified optimism that reaffirms his faith in the Civil Rights movement in the face of cynicism and disappointment, its placid glide is preceded by Curtis musing that America is “a country that is so far advanced, we seem to be able to do everything except get along.” Darkly, he chuckles. “There’s even a bit of humour in it when you think of such people as [rightly reviled racist vice-president Spiro] Agnew…”
Next, Mayfield flips the mood with Impressions hit We’re A Winner, a mild sass to its upbeat lick, to Curtis’ cries of “We’re movin’ on up, movin’ on up”. Mid-song he pauses, wryly, and grins, taking a swipe at the radio stations that banned the song upon its release in 1967 – an action that still didn’t stop the track topping the Billboard R&B Chart. “You may remember reading in your Jet Johnson publications, a whole lotta stations didn’t want to play that particular recording,” he smiles, gently. “Can you imagine such a thing? Well… We don’t give damn, we’re a winner anyway! Right on? I see I got a little strength out there tonight… Put a little fire under ya… Alright now…”
Mayfield’s warming to his role as emcee now, telling the stories behind these songs, spelling out his vision. Everything is political, and in such times, even his cover of Roger Nichols and Paul Williams’ We’ve Only Just Begun – a lachrymose easy listenin’ hit for white-bread duo the Carpenters the year before – is transformed into a hymn to the Civil Rights movement: still so far to go, but a mission shared by many. “A lot of folks think this particular lyric is not appropriate for what might be considered ‘underground’,” Mayfield says, by way of introduction. “But I think ‘underground’ is whatever your mood or your feelings might be at the time, as long as it’s the truth.” Their cover version is charming, Mayfield and McMullen’s guitars chiming together, that fragile quality to Mayfield’s falsetto lending a sweet, human vulnerability to its Hallmark lyrics.
The song segues into People Get Ready, perhaps the strongest and most powerful of Mayfield’s Impressions-era protest songs, and certainly his most-covered standard. Its lyric found Mayfield at his most churchy, explicitly intertwining the Civil Rights movement and religious belief, suggesting that emancipation is as inevitable as deliverance to Heaven, and that the key to both lay in faith. “All you need is faith, to hear the diesels hummin’” he sings, “You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the lord…We’re gonna make it one day / Brothers, I believe.”
People Get Ready closes this spree of Impressions-era protest anthems. The next song, Stare And Stare, announces the change in Mayfield’s outlook and temperament immediately. Over minimal, slow-burning funk, Mayfield narrates tensions during a long journey on public transport – the contrast between People Get Ready’s “train to Jordan” couldn’t be clearer, and couldn’t be a coincidence. It’s a sharp, sour lyric, one that takes a dim view of all players in the game, one that seems better suited to a hip cubby hole like the Bitter End than the optimistic homilies of Mayfield’s Impressions-era songs – his opening lyric, noting that even within the black community there’s precious little unity (“I look across the aisle at the process he wears / While people sitting back digging my nappy hair”) draws knowing chuckles from the audience. Mayfield offers some perspective of his own, but there’s precious little hope in his words: “Like it’s a crime to do of good and brotherhood… What a way to waste the day… It seems here lately, we have nothing to say.”
Stare And Stare’s mood is one of resignation, of sad defeat – perhaps that’s why Mayfield never saw fit to record it on any of his studio albums. On his best solo material, this bleakness, this honesty, was allied with a fierce sense of direction, a fiery anger, a biting wit. And so it is with Curtis/Live!’s final trio of tracks, which include three of Mayfield’s finest songs, and also capture his live quintet at their most inventive, most restless and most searingly funky.
“I ain’t gonna point no fingers… I don’t want nobody to point no fingers…”
With his Impressions songs, Mayfield wasn’t writing so much for himself as for his community, his people, rallying their faith in their shared goal, bolstering their belief in themselves and their right to equality – a preacher who used the recording studio and concert stage as his pulpit. These songs were true anthems, truly and truthfully rousing and moving.
With his solo material, however, Mayfield freed himself from this responsibility to always be marching selflessly towards freedom, to always be positive, allowing himself to air darker feelings: anger, resentment, uncertainty, self-doubt. Much of his greatest material – the bitter, aching, painfully real funk of Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here, the hard-edged streetscapes of his Superfly soundtrack – stems from this darkness, from Mayfield’s attempts to reconcile his altruism, his desire to enact real and meaningful social change, with his own limitations, his fallibility, with the reality that man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.
The times were a-changing, at fearsome pace. Only a few years before, black radio stations had banned We’re A Winner, even though its lyrics harboured nothing more incendiary than a churchy call to “Keep on pushin’”. Now Mayfield sang and spoke frankly of a country in disarray: Martin Luther King’s dream deferred following his murder, following the murders of Malcolm X and RFK, with the bloodshed in Vietnam ratcheting upwards, and Nixon installed in the White House believing he had a mandate to ignore the turmoil in the inner cities, where poverty, crime and drugs formed a brutal, dehumanising trifecta. Jim Crow was history, in word if not entirely in deed, and yet the world – especially for those people who were darker than blue – seemed a worse, more dangerous and less ‘free’ place altogether, an uneasy truth from which Mayfield refused to flinch.
The stage of the Bitter End was no pulpit, and Mayfield’s audiences on these New York nights weren’t looking for soothing homilies or simple words of hope, but for someone with the strength, the clarity of vision to tell it as it was, to share in some communal truths. During We People Who Are Darker Than Blue, Mayfield invokes the criticisms of those who look down upon the poor and needy in the inner cities: “We’re just good for nothing, they all figure,” he murmurs, “A boyish, grown-up, shiftless jigger”. It’s a powerful line, all the more powerful here thanks to the microphones that pick up a member of the audience issuing a stunned, gasped “wow” after Mayfield delivers it.
During the mid-song breakdown, the group really begin to cook, Master Henry Gibson beating a violent call to arms on his conga, “Lucky” Scott plucking some bad-ass low-end on his bass, McMullen and Mayfield sparring guitar lines like lit molotovs, McCullen pummelling taut, triumphant drum-rolls and cymbal splashes from his kit. Within this funky maelstrom, Mayfield raps some hard-edged and hard-to-shake questions: “Should we commit our own genocide,” he asks, “Before we check out our minds?”, the song’s downcast mourn giving way to an urgent, restless call to action.
(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go picks up this intensity and runs as far as the quintet can take it. Lyrically, its State Of The Real World Address is far removed from the blessed trains and heavenly gates of People Get Ready: now, Curtis only sees corruption and decay wherever he looks, bereft of answers but with a litany of culprits he spits out over the bristling funk. On the studio cut, heavy reverb lent Mayfield’s vocal the booming weightiness of a God itself while spieling the track’s scornful roll-call of Hell-worthy scoundrels, Pate’s symphonic flourishes lending further weight to the declamations.
At the Bitter End, McCullen’s hi-hat rasps in conversation with Gibson’s percolating congas, “Lucky” plucking rubbery basslines, Mayfield and McCullen firing off lean and spare flashes of wah-soaked guitar – compared to the sturm-und-drang of the original, it’s restrained, pared-back, an undergroove for Mayfield’s high-toned, acid-dipped croon. Here, it’s less a brimstone sermon, more a matter-of-fact conversation, but more effective, the crowd clapping along, laughing when Curtis whispers “And Nixon says, ‘Don’t worry’.” That line, repeated throughout, lends the track an uneasy edge, “Don’t worry” the sound of the oblivious, partying while Harlem burns, while students lie dead at Kent State, while Hell rises up and subsumes America.
Six minutes in, Curtis breaks from his singing, and addresses the audience. “Sisters… Whiteys… Niggers, heheheheh… Jews… Police and they backers…” The Bitter End punters, a mightily mixed bunch according to the 1999 reissue sleeve-notes, laugh uneasily along with him, and it’s an electrifying moment, Mayfield turning his accusations upon them, upon himself. Everybody’s implicated; if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. It renews a sense of community that runs throughout Mayfield’s songbook, only it’s different here than before – that community is fallible, is a community of sinners, and if they’re not willing to repent their failings then they’ll burn, in this life if not the next.
And yet there’s still something hopeful in there, a chance for retribution in the fact that if everyone’s to blame for how things are, then everyone has the agency to right all these wrongs, if they try. There’s no mystical hand-of-God waiting to deliver them from Hell, and if they want to escape, they’d all better pull together. Upon this revelation, Scott’s bass kicks back in with the track’s serpentine riff, and the band chase it along, the crowd clapping and cheering on, Mayfield’s guitar wailing some delirious, ceiling-scraping solo, like if the song gets funky enough then maybe the end-times won’t come, seeking deliverance in the groove.
“That hit home everywhere…”
Just when you think Curtis/Live! is done, as the emcee announces “Curtis Mayfield,” and we imagine his little troupe marching off the cramped Bitter End stage, as voices from the room call for more and you’re wondering just what more Mayfield has left to give, the band return for the encore, Stone Junkie, a druggy-as-fuck anti-drug song loping with a side-eyed, wasted magic, and making Funkadelic’s majestically slackadaisical Loose Booty sound like Minor Threat. It’s of a piece, lyrically, with If There’s A Hell Below; where that song observed that “Everybody smoke / Use the pill and the dope”, Stone Junkie claims that “Times have now arrived in this nation… Black and white, yellow, red and blue / All in the same bag, we know it’s true.”
A year or so later, Mayfield would deliver his final word on the issue of drugs with his epochal sound-track to Blaxploitation smash Superfly, undercutting the movie’s arguable glamourisation of the drug-dealer archetype with songs that portrayed pusherman and addict alike with a grittier, bleaker, more truthful vision, concluding with No Thing On Me, where Mayfield declares “My life is a natural high / The Man can’t put no thing on me”. Stone Junkie – another track Mayfield never cut on any of his studio albums – finds Curtis feeling his way towards the conclusions of Superfly, an edgy, knowing, streetwise musing on recreational chemicals of all stripes that’s also wickedly funny, in a way Mayfield, for all his strengths, rarely is.
“This is something I know everybody knows about,” Curtis says, by way of introduction. “I ain’t gonna point no fingers… I don’t want anyone to point no fingers,” he adds. “Right on… Yeah…” It’s 1971, New York City, a roomful of hipsters, at least a bunch of whom are probably high themselves, and Curtis is fronting a funk band, hardly the most abstemious demographic in the world. Again, while dropping these serious truths, Mayfield’s not looking to judge, to moralise, but to tell it like it is, and the track plays out like a communal airing of sins and failings, a dark, wry smile at the pill-popping rich folks and skin-popping paupers alike, over a squelching, giddy, see-sawing funk, a puncturing of hypocrisies.
Three or so minutes in, the groove drops back, and Curtis takes the microphone. “I know everybody, whose heart is still thumpin’,” he sings, “Is drinkin’, shootin’, snortin’, or smokin’ on somethin’,” to the audience’s ribald guffaws. “That hit home everywhere,” he laughs, and another voice – in his band, or in the crowd – answers, “A lotta junkies out there!” “That ain’t my business, you know what you do,” he sings again, before the song builds into a mass sing-a-long of its hypnotic chorus, the Bitter End’s huddled hipsters in fine voice, until the final run-out groove.
And so closes what is surely, without doubt, one of the finest live albums of all time, although the nascent rock press – the very audience Marv Stuart was presumably suggesting Mayfield redirect himself toward – were slow to pick up on this fact. Rolling Stone magazine – your source for curiously positive reviews of dreadful Mick Jagger solo albums since 1967 – had given 1970’ Curtis a tin-eared pan upon release, scolding If There’s A Hell Below for “dealing with ‘social issues’ in a nice, bland, inoffensive, inconclusive way,” and arguing that Move On Up, perhaps Mayfield’s brightest, boldest anthem, only had “some life to it”. Reviewing Curtis/Live! for the same magazine, Jon Landau – best known for claiming Bruce Springsteen to be rock’n’roll’s future, and emasculating the mighty MC5 as producer of their tinny Back In The USA album – posits that “Mayfield has ignored his melodic gifts while turning out a series of Sly Stone-Norman Whitfield influenced tunes that have been singularly undistinguished… He concentrates more on the lyrics these days and those have become increasingly political and pretentious…. Curtis Mayfield, solo artist, just ain’t happening.”
But listen to the audience at The Bitter End on those four nights – listen to the band playing to them – and you’ll hear the actual truth. Curtis Mayfield, solo artist, was totally happening, a man in transition, creating the greatest music of his life. And tapes were rolling all four nights of Curtis’ Bitter End residency, so here’s hoping some enterprising record label shares some more of that magic at some point in the very near future, so we can again hear that humble soulful man, not trying to offend anyone, but basically telling it like it is. It’ll hit home everywhere.