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Curtis Mayfield: where to start in his back catalogue

In Listener’s Digest, our writers help you explore the work of great musicians. Next up: influential funk and soul singer-songwriter Curtis Mayfield

By Alexis Petridis | The Guardian | March 30, 20120

The album to start with

Superfly (1972)

Curtis Mayfield was an odd choice to write a blaxploitation soundtrack. His reputation was built on the protest songs with which he documented the 60s civil rights movement – Keep on Pushing, People Get Ready, Choice of Colours, We’re a Winner. His writing was characterised by open-heartedness, empathy and nuance; for all its importance in bringing black experience to mainstream cinema, blaxploitation films were frequently violent, cartoonish and shocking.

Indeed, Mayfield was horrified by the rushes of the film, which he dismissed as “a cocaine infomercial”. So he wrote songs that commented on the plot and criticised its characters, that gave wider social context to the action, that actively sought to undercut the film’s coke-y machismo. Then he insisted the soundtrack be released months before the film, so that before they saw it, the public would have heard his interpretation of the movie: that Superfly was not a film about, as the posters claimed, “stick[ing] it to The Man”, but about desperation (“trying to get over,” as he sang again and again on the title track); that the key character wasn’t its hero Youngblood Priest, but his doomed fall-guy Freddie: “No one’s serious, it makes me furious, don’t be misled – just think of Fred.”

Moreover, Mayfield’s songwriting powers went into overdrive, dredging his own childhood memories for the opening Little Child Running Wild, writing music that wasn’t just supremely funky, but troubled and haunting: the skeletal, insistent Pusherman; Eddie You Should Know Better and No Thing on Me, where the starkness of the lyrics snags against the lush orchestration; the simultaneously hooky and unflinching Freddie’s Dead. The title track, meanwhile, was the negative image of Isaac Hayes’ laudatory blaxploitation theme Shaft. Where Hayes lavished praise on his film’s “sex machine” hero, Mayfield depicted Youngblood Priest filled with “weakness”: “Ask him his dream … he wouldn’t know … time’s running out and there’s no happiness.” The dark mood even seeped into the beautiful Give Me Your Love, its shimmer of strings failing to mask an air of bleak resignation in the lyrics.

The result wasn’t a soundtrack so much as a concept album inspired by a film. It wasn’t just Mayfield’s best album, but one of the high watermarks of arguably the most fertile and creative era in soul music’s history. It vastly outgrossed the film, although the latter was a box-office success. Infinitely more people have heard Mayfield’s songs than have seen the movie that inspired them: his plan worked far better than he could have imagined.

The three albums to check out next

Curtis (1970)

Mayfield had covered an incredible amount of ground over the course of the 60s with the Impressions – the band singing Check Out Your Mind or Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey) at the decade’s end were unrecognisable as the post-doo-wop combo of the early 60s. Even so, his first solo album came as a shock, not least its opening: what was placid, sympathetic Curtis Mayfield doing bellowing racist epithets, screaming and telling people they were going to hell? But from that point on, Curtis never lets up: its sound pitched somewhere between the psychedelic soul experiments of Norman Whitfield and the genre’s heavily orchestrated future; its ballads extraordinarily beautiful even when the subject matter turned grim: “Shall we commit our own genocide before you check out your mind?” Mayfield sang on We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue, a track that lurched between string-laden gorgeousness and tough, conga-driven funk; the nine minutes of life-affirming joy that is the full-length version of Move on Up undimmed despite the song’s subsequent familiarity. Predating the moment when Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder wrested control of their work from Motown, it was the first of 70s soul music’s great auteur-driven albums: the sound of a new era that still sounds fresh 50 years on.

There’s No Place Like America Today (1975)

Mayfield’s writing had always been distinguished by its optimism, but it finally seemed to desert him on There’s No Place Like America Today, as stark and harrowing a depiction of life in the US as the mid-70s produced. America was still suffering the after-effects of the oil crisis and the 70s recession, unemployment at its highest rate since 1941: “Scufflin’ times,” as Mayfield put it on the astonishing When Seasons Change. “Look around and see yourself so weak and so vulnerable.” He slowed the tempo of his songs to an agonised crawl, stripped the arrangements back until they felt sparse and sombre, shifted his songwriting so that there seemed to be no peaks, no breakdowns: for all the music’s delicacy and nuance, there’s something oddly unrelenting about it. The opener Billy Jack detailed the kind of drug-related ghetto murder that he’d depicted in Freddie’s Dead, but this time treated it with a sad, fatalistic shrug: “It’s a wonder he lived this long”. There’s No Place Like America Today is tough, but powerful listening.Advertisement

New World Order (1995)

In 1990, Curtis Mayfield was paralysed from the neck down after a lighting rig collapsed during a gig in Brooklyn. But he continued to write and marshalled his energies for one last album. It arrived filled with poignant moments, among them Aretha Franklin’s appearance on Back to Living Again, where she appears to be urging him on: “Right on, go ahead Mayfield”. But New World Order isn’t an album interested in eliciting the listener’s sympathy: it succeeds entirely on its own musical merits. Remarkably, given that his vocals had to be recorded line-by-line, Mayfield singing while lying on his back, his voice sounds incredible. His songwriting still had bite, as evidenced by Here But I’m Gone’s portrayal of a crack addict. And while he worked with TLC and Outkast production team Organized Noise, he didn’t have to chase new trends: his influence over contemporary R&B and hip hop was so vast that his sound required only a cosmetic makeover to sound current.

One for the heads

The traditional narrative suggests disco harmed Mayfield’s career, not least because his kind of social commentary fell out of fashion in favour of something more escapist. That’s an overly simplistic reading: artistically at least, Mayfield was more than equipped to cope with changing trends. His label Curtom Records released a string of fantastic disco tracks – Linda Clifford’s Runaway Love, Mystique’s What Would the World Be Without Music, Barbara Mason and Bunny Sigler’s admittedly obscure Locked in This Position – and his own work in the era is worth far more than a cursory listen. From 1979’s overlooked Heartbeat, What Is My Woman For? is a very Mayfield take on the genre – a beautifully wrought hymn not to a one-stand or dancefloor delirium, but the pleasures of a long, stable relationship and parenthood: “Never changing, she’s as solid as that wall.”

The primer playlist

For Spotify users, listen below or click on the Spotify icon in the top right of the playlist; for Apple Music users, click here.

Further reading

Travelling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield – Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria (2016) A more clear-eyed and comprehensive work than you might expect from the subject’s son, Travelling Soul is about as definitive a Mayfield biography as there is.

Chicago Soul – Robert Pruter (1992) If you want local context for Mayfield’s career, this is the place: there’s a chapter devoted to his Curtom label, and Pruter’s research into the everything from the city’s stylistic shifts – from doo-wop to the early 80s – to prevalent dance crazes is exemplary.

Curtis Mayfield: People Never Give Up – Peter Burns (2003) Not the biography it claims to be, more a Mayfield nerd/collector’s paradise that does a good job of unravelling his labyrinthine work as artist, songwriter and producer.

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