LIVE from Your Speakers: Curtis Mayfield, CURTIS/LIVE!
Any conversation about socially conscious pop and R&B of the ‘60s and ‘70s needs to include Curtis Mayfield, though his name is often overshadowed by those of other artists who were doing career-best work in that era. It was a period of the album-length grand gesture – Marvin Gaye’s WHAT’S GOING ON, Aretha Franklin’s YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK, Stevie Wonder’s INNERVISIONS, Sly & the Family Stone’s THERE’S A RIOT GOIN’ ON and others. Mayfield’s gift was in crafting smaller, more concentrated statements that packed a harder punch. “People Get Ready,” “Keep on Pushing” and “We’re a Winner” – songs he wrote and performed with the Impressions – were Civil Rights Movement anthems. And though Mayfield would gain renown for 1972’s Blaxploitation film soundtrack SUPER FLY, his best early solo music was full of bracing sentiments, like the admonishing “(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go” and the stark “We the People Who Are Darker than Blue.”
It makes sense, then, that the best representation of Mayfield’s genius would come in a compilation, and that’s just what CURTIS/LIVE! provides us – a gathering of his most trenchant statements, played with simmering energy and no small amount of cool.
Recorded at New York City’s Bitter End club in January, 1971, CURTIS/LIVE! Is redolent with the politics of the day. Mayfield starts the set with the proud but reproving "Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey),” aiming to set the tone for everyone in the audience (“Your Black and White Power / Is gonna be a crumbling tower”). He gets specific in “I Plan to Stay a Believer,” laying out a design for wealth equality, albeit in the silkiest of smooth soul songs. He brings new verses to “We’re a Winner,” whose “Movin’ on up” refrain gets people in the crowd shouting, “Preach!”
Mayfield doesn’t spend the whole set hitting on issues. “Gypsy Woman” and “The Makings of You” tackle more carnal concerns, and, in perhaps the only moment on the album that seems out of place, he lends a shaky voice to “We’ve Only Just Begun,” the Paul Williams-penned hit for the Carpenters.
It’s a misstep, but one quickly and definitively remedied by a run through “People Get Ready,” treated by performer and audience like a national anthem, which it sort of was. There’s also an intense “If There’s a Hell Below …” heavy on the percussion leaving the room roiling for nine feverish minutes.
Curtis Mayfield deserves more credit than he gets for his soulful takes on the social issues of his time. Let CURTIS/LIVE! stand as Exhibit A that he was one of the great ones.
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