Artist: Curtis Mayfield
As the 1960's transitioned into the 1970's, a handful of artists began experimenting with the fusion of funk, soul, and jazz music. Artists like Herbie Hancock and Issac Hayes paved the way, creating some of the most original and timeless music in history. Concentrating on the interplay between funk and soul music, former Motown star, Curtis Mayfield took a completely different direction, yet remains one of the most important figures in the evolution of music. While he was never as commercially successful as many of his peers, one would be hard pressed to find an artist of the era who was more socially conscious, and more of an advocate for great changes within society. Making sharp criticisms on society, particularly African American culture, Mayfield conveyed his message with his smooth, soulful voice, earning the nickname, "The Gentle Genius." Recording dozens of albums, first with The Impressions, and then as a solo artist, his solo debut, 1970's Curtis, is easily his greatest musical contribution, and it remains a true musical masterpiece to this day.
When one looks back and the entire history of recorded music, the work of Curtis Mayfield represents one of the first times that an artist was directly addressing the struggle and issues within the African American community. While Mayfield is perhaps best known for the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film, Super Fly, his writing for this movie was different from other films of the genre in that it highlighted the darker side of "ghetto life" and attempted to promote a better sense of social consciousness. With unrelentingly honest lyrics, yet smooth and soulful singing, Mayfield was one of the first artists to advocate for change and a greater sense of pride within the community. As is seen throughout Curtis, he represents the ultimate musician, as he wrote every note of music and every lyric for the album, as well as handling the production duties for the record. It is due to this complete control of the album that Curtis can truly be seen as his true vision, and it is most likely one of the reasons that makes the album so fantastic. Bringing in a myriad of musicians, from funk-based rhythm players to classically trained harpists and violinists, Curtis presents a superb new take on both funk and soul music, and the sound remains unmatched to this day.
Curtis is one of the most full and beautiful albums of the entire decade, incorporating everything from jazz to classical to blues, all overlain with a heavy mood of funk. From the African drumming on Curtis' opening song, to the harp and string sections found on the albums' final track, the music is wonderfully eclectic, showing Mayfields' amazing range as a composer. The album presents a much harder version of the funk music at the time, yet the constant presence of Mayfields' voice keeps the songs somewhat soft, yet they never lose their sense of urgency or impact. The albums' opening track, "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go," sums up Mayfields' genius, as the song transcends traditional funk sounds, with a musical landscape of horns, violins, and various percussion, all over one of the most additively funky basslines ever written. Taking the foundations of soul music, and turning it into one of the most gorgeous musical arrangements ever, the harps on "The Makings of You," make it one of the most amazingly beautiful songs ever. One of the most interesting aspects of the music found on Curtis, is that many of the songs appear to be played in strange, or at least non-traditional key signatures. This is mostly due to the fact that Mayfield, who wrote all of the music, had no "formal" musical training whatsoever, and simply wrote what he felt. Regardless of his lack of formal training, the music throughout is nothing short of phenomenal, and each of the large list of musicians on the album perform perfectly.
With one of the most distinctive, soulful voices in music history, Curtis Mayfield's soft, yet powerful voice is simply stunning. Completely original, Mayfield honed his amazing voice during his years with The Impressions, singing hits like "Gypsy Woman" and "It's All Right." Singing perfectly in the upper octaves, it was in his later years with The Impressions that his themes of social consciousness and racial pride began to form within his music. These lyrical themes are found on nearly ever song on Curtis, and from the onset of the record, Mayfield addresses racial relations as well as his views on both the economic and political state of affairs at the time. Curtis sings beautifully, soulfully, as he uses his rallying cry of a song, "The Other Side Of Town" to proclaim, "...ghetto blues showed up on the news, all is aware, but what the hell do they care...you across the track, completely relaxed...you take a warning fact, don't you never come back..." Mayfield continues his sharp social observations on "We the People Who Are Darker than Blue," when he sings, "We people who are darker than blue, are we gonna stand around this town and let what others say come true? Are we just good for nothing they all figure..." Never mincing words or sugar coating the truth, the lyrics of Curtis Mayfield are some of the most poignant and socially charged words ever written, and his stellar voice provides the perfect vehicle for conveyance of these themes.
While there were many artists advocating for change within the African American community of the time, few were as brutally honest about the root causes and true situation than the great Curtis Mayfield. Working to instill a greater sense of pride within the community, Mayfields' raw, vivid lyrics are second to none; and the manner in which he delivers them makes his music nothing short of phenomenal. Taking aspects of all of the artists he had worked with previously, and blending together funk, soul, jazz, and classical music, Curtis is one of the most musically unique records ever made. Ranging from hard, funky grooves to more meandering, melodic passages, Mayfield shows off all of his musical talents on the album, and his unmistakable, unrivaled voice keeps the varied musical textures a single, cohesive album. The sensational music or lyrics on their own would have made Curtis worthy of longstanding acclaim, but the combination found on Curtis Mayfield's 1970 solo debut, Curtis, catapults the record into the uppermost echelon of albums, and it remains one of the most extraordinary records ever released.
Standout tracks: "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going to Go," "Move On Up," and "Wild And Free."