Curtis Mayfield

Curtom Records, 1970

REVIEW BY: Mark Feldman


In light of his passing away last month, I thought that in addition to this web site's brief "In Memoriam" statement, it was only appropriate that we review one of Curtis Mayfield's albums. First instincts told me to go with Superfly, easily his best-known work and certainly an album no soul afficionado should be without, but upon further reflection, since "The Daily Vault" is all about musically digging deeper than the obvious, I decided to take a crack at the preceding 1970 release, simply titled Curtis.

Though not as immediately appealing and groove-filled as Superfly, Curtis is important because it was one of the first soul / R&B recordings to go beyond the collection-of-songs concept into an album concept. It did take the public a little time to accept this idea, sadly but most likely due to ingrained racial prejudices; Isaac Hayes had done his darnedest to break down that barrier a year before with his classic Hot Buttered Soul LP, containing four lengthy opuses that were some of the first musical glimmers of the ambitious '70s. But Mayfield followed closely after with this album, which left almost all of his '60s work with the Impressions in the dust, and also foreshadowed Superfly and nearly all '70s funk, years ahead of its time.

Incidentally, though most of its tracks are available on various greatest hits-type anthologies or box sets, Curtis still hasn't been reissued on a major label yet, making it a bit of a challenge to find. Inexcusable. But let's get to the songs.

The opening "(Don't Worry) If There's Hell Below We're All Going to Go" begins with an echoey call to arms - "Niggas! Whiteys! Jews!" - like much "message music" that was going on at the time, but when the irresistible fuzz bass line pipes in, and then suddenly an aural feast of strings, horns and pulsating polyrhythms joins the bass, you know that Mayfield is onto something new. What follows is message music to end all message music; an ominous reality check on the state of the world, where no one is innocent. Next, and in stark contrast, is "The Other Side Of Town," an eerie slow jam from the ghetto that begins with a lush harp and some of the scariest drumrolls ever. No gangsta rap can top this.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But after that one-two punch, Curtis is actually an optimstic album for the most part. The centerpiece is the fairly well-known "Move On Up," which offers some unusual messages, at least for 1970, about parents being able to understand children, and also one-ups "If There's Hell Below" with an even more grandiose multi-layered production.

Remember how extended dance songs used to be given "Part 1" and "Part 2" titles, where part 1 would be the actual song and part 2 would be the long, repetitive instrumental coda? Well, this is where it all started. There was no such thing as a 12 inch single in 1970, but all the elements of one are here - except that the equivalent of "Part 2" on "Move On Up" is actually an excellent horn solo, which envelops your attention so much that you simply don't realize you've been hearing the same set of two chords for eight minutes.

Let us not forget the ballads. "The Makings Of You," in addition to being an excellent choice for any Valentine's Day mix, is extremely complex for a simple love song, sung with such feeling you're almost moved to tears, and never really resolving on one chord, adding a jazz sensibility you don't often see in modern R&B. "Give It Up" is less ambitious but almost as gripping, a timeless torch song. And the whisper-to-a-scream-and-back-to-a-whisper "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue" is like nothing else recorded before or since, a moving plea for racial unity and awareness.

If there's one quibble I have with this album, and this really is nitpicking, it's that there's almost too much going on. It's as if Mayfield was so fascinated with all these new sounds and combinations of sounds he was creating that he had to cram as many of them onto the record as he could. It works fine on the faster-paced numbers like "Move On Up," similar to most of what would later come on Superfly, but on "Give It Up" and "The Other Side Of Town" for example, one wishes that the dozen or so musicians could just tone it down a bit and let Curtis's falsetto, the most mesmerizing of its kind, take center stage. Only "The Makings Of You" shows the proper restraint, and that's why it's so good.

But the amazing thing is that in spite of the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production that graces much of this album, it's really the singing that stands out. Mayfield is often overlooked when it comes to naming the great voices of R&B, but his ability to create such varying moods and sound so wrapped up in his songs was duplicated by very few - Marvin Gaye definitely, Stevie Wonder maybe, Al Green perhaps, and that's mighty good company. Add that to the wild, adventurous music, and you've got yourself one heck of an album. May he live forever in our CD players.

Rating: A

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© 2000 Mark Feldman and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Curtom Records, and is used for informational purposes only.