Since the summer, Iâ€™ve been in a deep dive Curtis Mayfield mode because of the new Traveling Soul biography of Mayfield that I reviewed for Pitchfork.com.
Iâ€™ll try not to repeat the same lede as the review but it does bear repeating: itâ€™s crazy that it took until now for someone to write a definitive Mayfield biography. There was Peter Burns’ Curtis Mayfield that come out of the UK in the early â€˜00s but while it was a fantastic discographic resources, it offered little on Mayfieldâ€™s actual life. Traveling Soul is hardly perfect (see Part 2 below) but it goes far further than any previous book in trying to give us a sense of Mayfield as both artist and man. Whatever its other flaws, thatâ€™s a Very Big Deal.
And hey: the book convinced me to revisit a catalog that I thought I knew decently well and then I realized how little I actually knew. Here then is a highly personalized playlist. Itâ€™s not meant to be a primer by any means but rather, captures how I moved back through Mayfield and The Impressionsâ€™ music in the weeks and months I spent reading and thinking about the biography.
1. The Impressions: Gypsy Woman (1961) (Available on The Complete A and B Sides)
On the one hand, the group you create with a bunch of doo-wop loosies from across Chi-town manages to land a huge hit right out the gate: â€œFor Your Precious Loveâ€ (1958). But then that insta-success catalyzes the relatively quick departure of lead Jerry Butler and now you look to your guitarist and main songwriter, Curtis Mayfield, whoâ€™s all of 16. It could easily have all gone south for Curtis, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden. Chicago probably had hundreds, if not thousands, of failed soul groups from that same era and as talented as The Impressions were, thereâ€™s no guarantee that they wouldnâ€™t have ended up in that same pile of forgotten coulda-beens.
But then Curtis churns out â€œGypsy Woman,â€ an unlikely hit the opens with the clickity-clack rhythm of castanets and takes the listener on an quasi-exotic trip. Now The Impressions had their proverbial foot in the door.
2 +3. Gene Chandler: A Manâ€™s Temptation (1963) (Available on The Duke of Earl) + Major Lance: Iâ€™m the One Who Loves You (1964) (Available on Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago Soul)
As The Impressions were trying to build momentum, Mayfield was fast becoming a key architect in what would become known as The Chicago Sound, partially because he was doing work for artists at many different area labels, especially Vee-Jay (where The Impressions were originally signed) and OKeh, where Curtis was hired on as a songwriter in late 1962. The way Traveling Soul tells it, Curtis has literal bags of songs he was writing and he allowed different artists to dip into that bag, including Gene Chandler, Major Lance and Billy Butler. (Many of these recordings are compiled on the Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago Soul anthology).
Listening back now, especially on these two songs, the Mayfield influence is incredibly obvious in terms of the style of the song, how the vocals fit together, etc. Gooden and Cash even sang backup on many of these songs; all that was really missing was Curtisâ€™s voice and even as he became a hit machine for other artists, he and the Impressions were fast moving towards their signature sound.
4. The Impressions: Iâ€™ve Been Trying (1964) (Available on The Complete A and B Sides)
Let me start by saying this is one of my all-time favorite things The Impressions ever touched. Itâ€™s so simple and unadorned, allowing the trioâ€™s vocal prowess to take center stage. As Traveling Soul points out, the kind of three-man vocal weave that the group practiced was completely commonplace in gospel singing but as with many innovations in R&B/soul, bringing gospel techniques into secular music was an innovation in itself. â€œIâ€™ve Been Tryingâ€ powerfully gives Mayfield, Gooden and Cash their own turns on lead but the real sublime magic happens around the 2:00 mark where the three stack falsettos atop one another and the effect is of such ineffable beauty that I feel like Iâ€™m besmirching it by saying anything more besides: listen, rewind, listen, repeat.
5. The Impressions: Iâ€™m So Proud (1964) (Available on The Complete A and B Sides)
â€œIâ€™m So Proudâ€ also showcases the groupâ€™s budding vocal style but I focus on this song for a different reason. Before I read Traveling Soul, I never paid that close attention to the lyrics but now the verse immediately after the main hook is like a thorn hidden along a rose stem. The group, gorgeously, sings of â€œIâ€™m so proud of being loved by you,â€ and then it switches to Curtis – solo – singing â€œand it would hurt, hurt to know, if you ever were untrue.â€
Letâ€™s just pause on that for a momentâ€¦nowhere else in the song except here does he give any indication that his lover is out there creeping. Indeed, the entirety of the song is all about the profound, soul-fulfilling love they share but then Curtis undermines that entire vibe with one line. As I suggest in my review, itâ€™s like he couldnâ€™t help himself; his insecurities in real life ran so deep to emerge even in the most innocuous of love paeans. Dude had issues.
6. The Impressions: Youâ€™ll Want Me Back (1963) (Available on The Complete A and B Sides)
Iâ€™m including this mostly because itâ€™s a non-LP b-side (and a lovely one at that) that graced the flip of the groupâ€™s most successful single ever.
7. The Impressions: Weâ€™re a Winner (1968) (Available on The Complete A and B Sides)
â€¦and this just happens to be my favorite of their uptempo tracks. Itâ€™s crazy to me that some white radio programmers found this too inflammatory to play but itâ€™s a reminder of the politics of the time that proclaiming â€œweâ€™re a winnerâ€ was deemed a threat to the status quo.
8 + 9. The Impressions: Iâ€™m Loving Nothing (1968) + Seven Years (1969) (Both available on the This Is My Country/Young Mods’ Forgotten Story CD)
If you could only buy one album that Mayfield worked onâ€¦cheat and buy both The Impressionsâ€™ This Is My Country and Young Modsâ€™ Forgotten Story. As far as Iâ€™m concerned, this was a double album that just happened to be split into two (and indeed, thereâ€™s a CD reissue that packages them together). They were the first two albums recorded for Mayfieldâ€™s new Curtom label and they feature the same key personnel. Besides The Impressions, there was longtime arranger/producer Johnny Pate plus newcomer Donny Hathaway, who was briefly recruited by Mayfield out of college and stayed around until 1969 when Hathaway struck out on his own (this lead his vindictive mentor to cut off all ties with him). The production, songwriting, everything on these two albums are exquisite and while I donâ€™t want to overvalue Hathawayâ€™s contribution in such a way that diminishes anyone elseâ€™s, I have to think that part of what makes these albums so striking is because he added something extra on the production/arrangement side (though it appears his influence was more felt on the Young Modsâ€™ recordings vs. This Is My Country, where Pate was still working out most of the charts.
In any case, â€œIâ€™m Loving Nothingâ€ is one of the most devastating ballads Iâ€™ve ever heard, a 2.5 minute eulogy to a love affair that apparently has gone very wrong (maybe the lover from â€œIâ€™m So Proudâ€ finally went untrue). â€œSeven Yearsâ€ is also about the end of a relationship but it sounds so damnâ€¦happy that I forgot that itâ€™s supposed to be a heartbreak song (Iâ€™m sure a musicologist out there can explain whether Iâ€™m right or wrong about my assessment of the songâ€™s emotional affect). It also features another one of those mind-melting multi-harmony moments – scroll up to 1:55 where the three get their â€œwhoo-whoosâ€ on and itâ€™s the best thing ever. Iâ€™m getting chills simply thinking about it.
I could have included half the songs on these two albums â€“ thatâ€™s how much I love them â€“ and Iâ€™ve already done a dissection of â€œMy Deceiving Heart,â€ which appeared on Young Modsâ€™.
9.1 (Bonus): The Impressions: Gypsy Woman (1970 Re-Recording) (Available on The Best Impressions)
When I read the other Mayfield bio – which isnâ€™t that great from a biographical point of view but is incredibly good as a discographic reference – I learned that Hathaway and Pate and the Impressions worked on a series of recordings for a third album in that same era: The Best Impressions. Youâ€™d be totally forgiven if you assumed this was nothing more than a â€œgreatest hitsâ€ LP since the entire b-side are just songs culled from This Is My Country and Young Modsâ€™. But the A-side songs are not taken from their ABC-Paramount catalog; theyâ€™re re-recordings of some of the groupâ€™s biggest hits. According to Traveling Soul, Curtis wanted to create these new versions so â€œwhenever anyone wanted to license them, they would license his masters [vs. the masters owned by ABC-Paramount], and all the money would go to Curtom.â€
Itâ€™s an interesting logic though, if I understand how these things workâ€¦Curtis was gambling on the idea that someone wanting to license, say â€œGypsy Woman,â€ would rather go with this new version vs. the original and generally, I feel like people would rather license the original because thatâ€™s the song they know. Regardless, I picked up this LP because I was curious to hear what the group would do with their classics by adding a few years and some new players (including Hathaway). For the most part, the differences are subtle on most of the songs â€“ â€œIâ€™ve Been Tryingâ€ has more instrumentation hanging on its bones (not an improvement in my opinion) but â€œIâ€™m So Proudâ€ makes Curtisâ€™s vocals seem even more intimate â€“ but I included â€œGypsy Womanâ€ here because itâ€™s the most transformed of the bunch. Now the songs open with a dramatic horn chorus and the new take feels more cinematic in build and scope. The castanets are still there but the arrangement is far fuller and the layers of sound run several layers deeper. Rather than a mere re-recording, this is the one song from the 1969 sessions that sounds most re-imagined.
9.2 (Bonus): The Five Stairsteps: Donâ€™t Change Your Love (1968) (Available on The First Family of Soul)
Iâ€™d be remiss in not pointing out that Curtom had its own stable of artists besides The Impressions and Mayfield. The Five Stairsteps were a family R&B group that Mayfield had discovered early on, signing them to his old Windy C subsidiary before bringing them over to Curtom for a few years (and before the group departed to go over to bigger success with Buddah). â€œDonâ€™t Change Your Loveâ€ is perhaps best remembered today for the opening drum break that dozens would go onto loop (I feel like every west coast hip-hop artist in the early â€˜90s used it at least once) but it also bears Mayfieldâ€™s obvious touch, especially on the vocal arrangements. According to Traveling Soul, because the Stairsteps were signed to Curtom, it lead the label to pass on another family soul group who had briefly auditioned for them: The Jackson 5. Oops.
10. Curtis Mayfield: Give It Up (1970) (Available on Curtis)
To be sure, thereâ€™s far more consequential songs off of Curtisâ€™s magnificent, self-titled solo debut LP. â€œWe People, Who Are Darker Than Blueâ€ is an incredible accomplishment both musically and thematically and if youâ€™ve never heard the entire, full version of â€œMove On Up,â€ itâ€™s worth sitting through it a few dozen times so you can marvel at everything Curtis layered into it. But I choose â€œGive It Upâ€ here because, like â€œSeven Years,â€ it sounds like a â€œhappy song thatâ€™s actually sad.â€ And once again, itâ€™s about the complete disintegration of a relationshipâ€¦in rather specific detail. Todd Mayfield muses in Traveling Soul that the song was really about the end of the marriage between Curtis and his mother, Diane, and that makes total sense in the context here. Notably, Todd points out that the song ends the album, almost like an emotional counterpoint to the intense energy of â€œMove On Up.â€
11. Curtis Mayfield: The Makings of You (1971) (Available on Curtis Live!)
I generally prefer studio originals to live versions given the complexities of trying to capture good sound in a live setting but in this case, â€œThe Makings of Youâ€ on Curtisâ€™s double-LP live album from â€™71 is far and away my preferred version. The sheer intimacy of the song, the way Curtisâ€™s guitar is foregrounded, the subtle impact of the congas in the background, the noise of the crowdâ€¦every element here works in perfect concert with the other.
12. Curtis Mayfield: Think (1972) (Available on Super Fly)
When Curtis was working on the Super Fly soundtrack, he brought in Johnny Pate again. However, Pate felt on the albumâ€™s two instrumentals, including â€œThink,â€ his contributions were so extensive that he deserved a co-writing credit. Mayfield disagreed and refused to grant one. Pate â€“ whose talents had graced Mayfield recordings since the early 1960s â€“ never worked with Curtis again.
13. Curtis Mayfield: So In Love (1975) (Available on Thereâ€™s No Place Like America Today)
Thereâ€™s No Place Like America Today is arguably the last great â€˜70s album that Mayfield put out though perhaps Iâ€™m biased because this album has â€œSo In Loveâ€ on it and that song, alone, would elevate practically any LP. Especially with all those other heartbreak songs Iâ€™ve highlighted earlier, â€œSo In Loveâ€ feels almost like an exception: an unqualified, earnest love song of the most sensuous order.
14. Curtis Mayfield: Baby Itâ€™s You (1985) (Available on We Come In Peace With a Message of Love)
Like so many of his peers from the â€˜60s, the latter half of the â€˜70s wereâ€¦unkind to them. Disco messed up many a soul giantâ€™s game by forcing them into recoding in a genre that they clearly had little feel for and Curtis was no exception. His career continued its fade into the 1980s as the traditional sound of soul became further minimized in the rising sounds of boogie, electro and eventually hip-hop. Itâ€™s hard to find much from Curtisâ€™s catalog in this era worth noting but then I stumbled on â€œBaby Itâ€™s You,â€ which ranks amongst the best of his quiet storm output from the era. The production has that â€˜80s sheen but like Curtisâ€™s best ballads, everything is stripped down, letting his falsetto do much of the work. The song also boasts a great vocal hook despite those â€˜80s horns (or maybe because of them?)
Part 2: On Traveling Soul
My Pitchfork review was mostly an excuse to critically revisit Mayfield and his legacy and as such, I had to leave out more thoughts on Traveling Soul as a book/biography. As noted above, I enjoyed large parts of it but there’s a couple of things I’d nitpick over: