In 1970, Curtis Mayfield decided to leave The Impressions to pursue a solo career. Curtis had been a member of The Impressions since 1958. That was when Curtis was discovered singing gospel. He was in the same choir as Jerry Butler. Both Jerry and Curtis were asked to join a doo woo group The Roosters, who later, became The Impressions. Curtis was still in school when he was asked to join The Roosters. So, he dropped out and became their lead singer and principal songwriter. However, after eleven albums, Curtis decided to leave The Impressions. It was the time for Curtis to launch his solo career.
That wasn’t the only change in Curtis Mayfield’s life. He decided to form his own independent record company, Curtom Records. Over the next few years, Curtom Records would go on to release albums by everyone from Leroy Hutson, The Impressions, Donny Hathaway and The Staple singers. Curtom also released Curtis Mayfield’s debut album Curtis. Released in 1979, Curtis, which will be rereleased by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014. Curtis vindicated Curtis Mayfield’s decision to become a solo artist.
For his debut album Curtis, Curtis Mayfield penned eight tracks. This includes Moving On Up and (Don’t Worry) if There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go and Move On Up. Recording took place at RCA Studios, Chicago. Curtis put together a band that included some of the Chi Town’s top session musicians. They recorded eight tracks between May and July 1970. The music was very different to the pop-soul of The Impressions.
Curtis was a fusion of soul, funk and psychedelia. This was music with a social conscience. Curtis featured songs about the politic and social problems of that time. Much of the music on Curtis, reflected the problems that black America was facing politically and socially and how they could unite to solve these problems. This was a new direction for Curtis, one he’d wanted to move his music towards. Although the album was very different to the music The Impressions released, Curtis was both critically acclaimed and a huge commercial success.
On the release of Curtis in September 1970, Curtis reached number nineteen in the US Billboard 200 and number one on the US R&B Charts. Curtis spent five weeks at number one. Two singles were released from Curtis. The lead single was (Don’t Worry) if There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go. It reached number twenty-nine in the US Billboard 100 and number three in the US R&B Charts. Remarkably, Move On Up, one most memorable songs Curtis recorded as a solo artist failed to chart. At least it reached number twelve in the UK Charts. However, since then, Move On Up has been reappraised and is perceived as a soul classic. The same could be said of Curtis, which I’ll tell you about.
Curtis opens with (Don’t Worry) if There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go a track that showcases Curtis’ new funk based sound. It’s an eight minute epic which opens with muted conversation and a woman talking about religion. She’s accompanied by a buzzing bass, before Curtis, like a prophet of doom forecasts our collective descent into hell. This announcement is all encompassing, regardless of race or religion. Soon, it’s all change. The arrangement is quick, sounding like something from a Blaxploitation soundtrack. A funky rhythm section, bursts of bright, blazing horns, lush sweeping strings, chiming guitars and keyboards create a dramatic, funky backdrop for Curtis’ lyrics. They’re bleak as he forecasts our demise and decent into the pits of hell. As the track progresses, and the arrangement builds. The result is a hugely powerful, dramatic almost prophetic track with lyrics full of social comment. Curtis’ brings them to life acting as a nation’s social conscience.
When The Other Side of Town opens, the sound is grandiose and dramatic, with a cinematic sound. A sweeping piano, combines with dramatic drums, lush strings, blazing horns and guitars before Curtis’ tender vocal enters. Behind him, the powerful and dramatic arrangement provides a total contrast to his vocal. It’s humble and thoughtful, full of sadness and regret as he sings about poverty, and all the things he missed out on or never knew about. Angry horns interject, blazing, while strings sweep grandly. They play their part in a dramatic arrangement that’s sympathetic to the bitterness, anger and regret that Curtis must feel.
There’s a slightly theatrical, yet dramatic sound to The Makings of You, with piano, harp, rhythm section then dramatic blazing interjections of horns make their presence felt. This seems a fitting introduction to Curtis’ hugely tender, gentle and thoughtful vocal, as he sings a song about love, against a sweeping backdrop of strings, horns, rhythm section, harp and chiming guitars. Together, they produce an arrangement that one minute has a gentle and understated strings and a harp central to the sweeping sound, the next it’s loud and powerful with horns blazing and interjecting. Together, they produce a beautiful and fitting backdrop for an equally beautiful and gentle vocal from Curtis, on one of Curtis’ highlights.
On We Are the People Who Are Darker Than Blue, Curtis addresses the problems of racism and who best to deal with it. In the song, he says that what people say, mustn’t become a self fulfilling prophecy. Accompanied by a slow arrangement, where horns, strings, piano and rhythm section combine, Curtis’ vocal is emotive and dramatic. This is perfect for Curtis’ thoughtful and intelligent lyrics. His voice is full emotion, rising as anger and annoyance simmers just below the surface. The arrangement reflects this. Later the arrangement veers between funky to slow, before a frantic funky workout unfolds. Curtis joins in, his voice almost an early rap, as he gets across the problems and his feelings about them. After this, the track slows down, to its former tempo and sound. Like other tracks, it’s deeply moving and hugely powerful, with Curtis again, using his music to become spokesman for those effected by these problems.
Move On Up has almost become synonymous with Curtis. It’s a joyous explosion of uptempo, feel-good music. The rhythm section, horns and strings accompany a joyous Curtis. Horns interject, while strings sweep and swirl as frantic drums and percussion combine. A piano plays subtly in the background. However, it’s Curtis vocal that steals the show, That’s despite his band fusing soul, funk and jazz unite. The band demonstrate just how talented and tight they are. Proof of this is the funk workout. They showcase their individual and collective talents. By the end of the track, you’ve been swept along by some joyous music, celebratory music that’s laden with hooks.
Miss Black America opens with a slow piano solo, accompanied by gentle drums and percussion provides the backdrop for a telephone conversation between a father and his young daughter, who wishes to become Miss Black America when she grows up. When the conversation ends, the arrangement changes drastically, bright, blazing horns, piano, rhythm section and guitars combining to accompany Curtis, who is accompanied by backing vocalists. They soulfully unite, providing a perfect accompaniment to Curtis vocal that celebrates Miss Black America, her beauty, talent, and intelligence. The arrangement has an equally, joyous, celebratory sound, full of grand, bright horns, driving rhythm section and sweet, soulful backing vocals. Together with Curtis’ tender, yet joyful vocal, they combine to produce a hugely melodic and dramatic track, that celebrates the accomplishment of Miss Black America.
Wild and Free dramatically bursts into life, a blaze of horns, quick, driving rhythm section, harp and guitars, accompanying a powerful, emotive vocal from Curtis. Later strings sweep, grandly in, adding to the drama of this fulsome arrangement. It unfolds in waves of dramatic music. Horns and strings are at the heart of the arrangement, while the rhythm section that power the arrangement along, providing its heartbeat. Guitars chime, while a harp sweeps elegantly in. All of these instruments contribute to one of the best arrangements on Curtis. As for Curtis, he delivers lyrics about one of nature’s free spirits with combination of emotion and power, demonstrating his talent and versatility as a vocalist.
Curtis closes with Give It Up, another dramatic track. Waves of emotive, soulful music unfolds. Horns, strings, keyboards and the rhythm section accompany Curtis tender, thoughtful and sometimes, powerful vocal. His vocal is full of emotion, sadness and regret, as horns, strings and guitars provide an arrangement that veers between subtle and melodic to dramatic and powerful. This matches the emotion of Curtis’ lyrics, and his delivery of them. Here, Curtis does what he does best, sings soul music. For some reason, this seems a fitting end to his debut album, Curtis.
Curtis was a result of three months hard work. Along with some of Chicago’s best session players, Curtis recorded eight songs. The result was an album that’s very different to music Curtis recorded with The Impressions. Gone is the soul-pop of The Impressions. Curtis sees Curtis Mayfield reinvent himself. There are parallels with both Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Just like Curtis, they came of age in the seventies. These three artists music matured and they released what was not just some of the best music of their respective careers, but some of the best soul music released during the seventies. This includes Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 debut Curtis.
Whilst the music on Curtis was totally different from the music The Impressions released. Curtis is Curtis Mayfield’s Magnus Opus. The eight tracks ooze social comment. They’re are cerebral and a reflection on the problems facing America. Racism, religion, poverty and love songs sit side-by-side. Curtis breathes life, meaning and emotion into the eight songs he wrote. Each of these tracks is of the highest standard, featuring powerful, poignant and intelligent lyrics. Curtis also produced Curtis and played several instruments. This includes guitar, bass, drums, piano and saxophone. In some ways, Curtis Mayfield came of age on Curtis. He was able to fulfil his potential. As the new decade dawned, Curtis became the spokesman and social conscience for a generation of people
The music on Curtis may have been totally different from The Impressions music, but it was hugely powerful and intelligent music. Curtis’ music dealt with the political and social problems of 1970. He became the spokesman and social conscience of a generation of people. His music spoke for, and represented people who didn’t have a voice, and couldn’t make their feelings, protests or presence felt. In a way, Curtis’s music was like a conduit for them. Through him and his music, their worries, fears and anger was heard, not just in America, but worldwide. This demonstrates the power and potency of music, and how music can cause debate and even, cause change. On Curtis, not only did the music have a message, but it was among the best music Curtis ever recorded.
Although Curtis Mayfield’s solo career spanned two decades, he never surpassed Curtis, which will be rereleased by WEA Japan on 4th February 2014. Having said that, between 1970s Curtis and 1974s Sweet Exorcist, Curtis Mayfield released the best music of his career. Ironically, the most successful album of Curtis Mayfield’s career was Superfly, the soundtrack to a Blaxploitation movie. It reached number one in the US Billboard 200 and US R&B Charts in 1972. Superfly also spawned two million-selling singles, Freddie’s Dead and Superfly. A groundbreaking concept album, Superfly was the most successful album of Curtis Mayfield’s career. However, the best album Curtis Mayfield released was his debut album Curtis. Along with Superfly, Curtis is the perfect introduction to Curtis Mayfield’s career. Standout Tracks: (Don’t Worry) if There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go, The Makings of You, We Are the People Who Are Darker Than Blue and Move On Up.