/ Fool for you, Curtom, 1968
If it hadn’t been Paul Weller, it might well have been somebody else. Past the two decades when he was in his prime, the songs of Curtis Mayfield could surely not have stayed long in the hands of soul aficionados alone. But in the UK in the early eighties, it was Paul who doffed his cap to this particular inspiration, recording ‘Move on up’ (and the Chi-Lites’ ‘Stoned out of my mind’) for the ‘Beat surrender’ double seven inch and alerting spotty would-be mod youth everywhere to the genius of Curtis. And when the Style Council went out on tour in 1984, the choice of the Impressions’ ‘Meeting over yonder’ made for a happy fit with Weller’s stomping soul direction and the increasingly confident expression of his political convictions.
Curtis himself grew into the times, beginning to make his mark on them while leading the Impressions. In ‘People get ready’ he wrote a song as sure and true as ‘A change is gonna come’. Both sound like spirituals that wrote themselves a long, long time before any mortal channelled either out of the ether. Of the songs that followed in its wake, some were as spiritual but most were more human; more Mayfield-esque.
Arguably the point came early in Curtis’ life as a solo artist when he became the musician and lyricist who best reflected the times, pointing the way into the future with the far-seeing clarity of a visionary yet retaining the humility to empathise with the flawed sinners on every side. Sure, he was a peaceable moderate rather than a militant firebrand, an Obama rather than a Malcolm X, but his purpose was as firm as his demeanour was gentle.
If you scan the history of pop and soul, there aren’t many with his persistence, with the natural ease he showed in gradually refining his compositions. And after so long as an Impression, to have the desire and energy to reinvent himself as Curtis Mayfield, and then to pursue the same kind of process of refinement from one end of the seventies to the other, seems to me extraordinary. Tom Waits is in the same league. There aren’t many reasons to set Tom alongside Curtis, save for the pleasure of imagining them side by side; they are so utterly unlike, but for the artistic integrity that lifts them above less consistently creative mortals.
Curtis’ solo years are rightly celebrated and perhaps it’s over-familiarity with them which inclines me towards the earlier incarnation and the two volumes of Definitive Impressions (neither quite that definitive given there had to be two of them). In the seven year stretch from 1963 to 1969 the Impressions averaged five singles a year, and more often than not it’s difficult to tell which side of the single was the lead. You only have to plough your way through the lows among the highs of Madness’ The business collection of As and Bs to know how difficult it is to get both sides of a single right. Perhaps the comparison is unfair on the Nutty Boys, since the Impressions began issuing singles in the days when 45s were not necessarily marked as side A and B, 1 or 2, in case the notional flip aroused more interest and radio play than the A, so they had more reason to come up with a matching pair. (From this discography, it looks like ‘People get ready’ started out as the backing for the equally glorious full-range lead-swapping soulfulness of ‘I’ve been trying’ before it emerged as the front-runner.)
Over the years Curtis’ voice seemed to defeat the wear and tear that age brings to everyone else (particularly Tom Waits). Its timbre became lighter, higher and sweeter – the sweetness that allied to the spring of his song writing enabled ‘Can’t satisfy’ and ‘You always hurt me’ to out-Motown Motown. Fred Cash and Sam Gooden stood alongside Curtis, and together they sang like angels. Neither should the contribution of producer-arranger Johnny Pate to the celestial nature of the end result be forgotten. On ‘I’m so proud’, even a xylophone adds to the heavenly feel. Such sweetness might be cloying were it not for the substance and strength typified by ‘Keep on pushing’, while in its finger-clicking groove ‘It’s alright’ encapsulates like no other song a kind of non-specific kind of earthbound happiness despite it all. Sam Gooden adds full-stomached satisfaction to the reassuring delight of Curtis’ near countertenor, and the drums roll like drawn-out moments anticipating better times to come. And has a more optimistic song than ‘We’re a winner’ ever been written, music and lyric breasting the tape together, arm in arm on the podium?
From ‘Keep on pushing’ onwards, Curtis kept saying what needed to be said, and such songs were necessarily the most immediately striking on 1968’s This is my country and 1969’s The young mods’ forgotten story (happily paired as a reissue by Charly). While The young mods’ forgotten story is the lesser of the two LPs, in ‘Choice of colours’ it contains one of Curtis’ greatest pairings of verse and chorus, magical melodies both. Lyrically he employs the Socratic method to build an unanswerable case against bigotry. Bright and undaunted, This is my country was one side of a dime which when flipped in the air came down as Curtis’ finest solo LP, There’s no place like America today, wherein darker, harsher messages were delivered with greater coolness but equal grace and the same generous musicality. Optimism defeated? No, Curtis was just digging in for the long haul. ‘Realising little could be achieved through the barrel of a gun, his chosen weapon was music and he carried nothing more threatening than a guitar. With the Impressions, there was no macho posturing, no sage stroking of chins, no basilisk stare, only the steady candour of the gaze,’ writes Clive Anderson of the sleeve of This is my country in his notes to the Charly reissue. By implication he is also describing the music, a concentrated accumulation of all the vinyl that came before it, ten slices of horn-powered soul, ten pieces of hook-laden pop. The politically conscious songs in fact only top and tail the LP; the Impressions’ meat and drink remains the love song. This is my country has a particular fine crop documenting the comings and goings of the heart. The most unusual is ‘I’m loving nothing’ on which the man who had written so many love letters now puts himself in the character of an abruptly empty and frustrated man, a man who has become for some unspecified reason devoid of the emotion that ironically courses through another majestic Mayfield vocal.
This then was the constant, from ‘Gypsy woman’ in 1961 through to 1980’s Something to believe in – the return time and again to minor key melancholy, the counterpoint to the Impressions’ bursts of brassy joy and Curtis Mayfield’s unshakeable belief that even long odds can be overcome.