Saturday, April 7, 2012

Music Reviews-Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield
Even among talented creative folks there are people who specialize and know their limitations. There are great singers who couldn't write a song to save their life. There are incredible musicians who can't sing. There are excellent songwriters who are far too shy and retiring to ever perform their own works. There are skilled performers who have zero business sense and defer all financial decisions to their managers, agents, attorneys and promoters. There are talented bandleaders who really shouldn't be trusted to engineer or produce their own recordings. And so on.

But sometimes, along comes a man who is capable of doing just about whatever is necessary to create his music and bring it to the public. Curtis Mayfield was such a man. He was at various times and oft simultaneously, a singer, songwriter, producer, arranger, bandleader, guitarist, A&R man, record company executive/owner, promoter, multi-media tycoon and social activist. So he was a giant among giants.

Curtis Mayfield had a masterful career both with The Impressions where he had become the primary songwriter and lead vocalist and later as a solo artist. If someone could be said to have his pulse on the feelings of Black America and transmit that musically it would have been Curtis Mayfield as much as anyone, and that includes heavyweights like James Brown, Donnie Hathaway and others. Songs like "Move on Up" , "Keep on Pushing" and "We're a winner" did become mainstays of the Civil Rights/Black Power movements.

As mentioned Mayfield was a very inventive guitarist. His peculiar chord structures and rhythms were picked up on by among others, Jimi Hendrix (just listen to Little Wing or Electric Ladyland) and Jeff Beck and provided an interesting different approach to the guitar than was common in the late sixties and early seventies. As a solo artist Mayfield often sang in a falsetto register, which was miles apart from his normal speaking voice. Again, Hendrix put this to great use, especially in Electric Ladyland.

There is occasionally a controversy about whether someone who describes brutal conditions of being black or poor in America and/or negative responses to those conditions is indeed endorsing such responses. This dinged Mayfield a bit with his songs "Superfly" and "Pusherman". But people who knew his work knew that the positive but realistic Mayfield was just telling it like he saw it. So in that way he was a forerunner of people like The Last Poets or the Watts Prophets or other rappers that would later come on the scene. He was also a collaborator, patron and producer of Donny Hathaway.

If you have the opportunity I would pick up just about any of Mayfield's music-starting with his gospelly/doo-wop with The Impressions thru his sixties soul with that group and the late sixties/early seventies movement into funk and funk rock as a solo artist. I'm a little iffy about some of his late seventies work as it's in the same universe as disco but even "bad" Mayfield work is better than "good" disco in my book. So if you're not hip to his work, please check him out. Sadly he's no longer with us, having passed away after a freak accident left him a quadriplegic, but he left more than enough music to show that he was indeed a master of 20th century music. You don't get inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice by just showing up. He worked. The below songs are just a very small sampling of Mayfield's solo and group work. His music takes me back to a more positive time.

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