A Weekly Song: Episode 1 - Curtis Mayfield
A Weekly Song
I thought I should probably start this new venture with something optimistic to celebrate the new year. You need a good opener – a strong, essential first track before you can meander off into weirdness.
But then, as I was leafing through the big binder where I keep loads of old CDs, I chanced across this track, which might be considered less than optimistic. Nevertheless, it seemed perfect:
It speaks to the times we find ourselves in – it’s as relevant now as it was when it was first released in 1970. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Just listen to the lyrics and substitute “Trump” for “Nixon” and you’ll see what I mean. Maybe it’s missing something about climate change, but I encourage you to write your own extra verse and hum it to yourself every day this year as a reminder that while our grate leaders fiddle (mostly with themselves), this modern descendant of Rome’s civilization will soon surely burn like never before. Unless we do something about it…
Anyway. I digress, but that’s how this song fires me up.
Back in the day, any music of African American origin was known as “soul music,” especially in the UK where I grew up. In the mid-70s, you’d see adverts for vinyl LPs on TV with names like “Souled Out” on labels like K-Tel, who were also known for making gimmicky household goods that you had to send off for. As a child, I used my Dad’s cassette recorder to tape stuff off the TV and somewhere, I still have recordings of some of those ads which featured seconds-long bursts of popular tracks. To my child’s ears, they sounded impossibly intriguing and glamorous. In this way, I first heard a snippet of Curtis Mayfield singing Move On Up, one of his biggest international hits.
I properly discovered Curtis about a decade later, after his 70s heyday when as a teen I got into a phase collecting US blaxploitation soundtracks. Curtis is of course famous for the likes of Superfly and Short Eyes as well as a run of immaculate solo albums.
If There’s a Hell... was released in 1970 on Mayfield’s first solo album Curtis, after he took a sabbatical from his R&B outfit, The Impressions. (He didn’t intend to leave the group but was so successful as a solo artist, he never went back.) As a statement of creative intent, it’s difficult to ignore. As a protest song, it’s one of the most erudite, atmospheric and powerful that I’ve ever heard. With it, Curtis invented a new kind of funk – soul grooves with a conscience – conscious, righteous dance music. When Curtis employed humour, it always had a darkness; when he used irony, it was pointed satire.
It’s not like there hadn’t been protest songs before (see also Marvin Gaye for but one example off the top of my head), but not much that used the opening track of a vinyl LP as a canvas with which to depict a state of inner city mind and social decay with such an apocalyptic mood. If There’s a Hell... was protest music all right, but you could dance to it. The opening salvo of street names for a catalogue of human types groups us all under one umbrella and Curtis’ pulpit-style delivery is unforgiving.
Yet even then, like much of the rest of his output, it has a subtlety to it. Maybe that’s an odd way to describe something so declamatory, but even when his observations were piercing, Mayfield’s lyrics often had a sophisticated quality of storytelling that often worked on more than one level. He was known for his social awareness and advocacy for equal rights, for fairness, respect, for a desire to see a more humane and equitable society.
Of all the classic soul maestros, Curtis is perhaps the least showy. I don’t mean that in the sense that he couldn’t put on a good show – his Curtis/Live album is perhaps one of the finest live records ever recorded, no lie. It’s warm and intimate, his voice high in the mix so you can hear all the nuances. There is an absolutely storming, funky and extended version of If There’s a Hell… on that album, and if you like live concert recordings, I can’t recommend this one highly enough. He had a silky, almost breathy delivery, impassioned and sometimes fiery but never strained and always somehow wise.
When he sings, “Don’t worry,” it’s almost deadpan, and with repetition becomes weighted not just with sarcasm but with an existential dread.
“He says, don’t worry...”
...This slowly changes to everyone, to all of us:
“They say, don’t worry.”
Because of course we should worry. Curtis, in 1970 was predicting the future. He saw the bigger picture. Whether hellbound or aiming at the heavens, we’re all in it together.
Below you’ll find a scan of the full lyrics, from the inside gatefold of my vinyl copy of Curtis/Live.
More info on Curtis Mayfield here.