Curtis Mayfield was one of the most influential African-American musicians of all time. After finding fame in the iconic soul group The Impressions, as a solo artist, he helped to popularise the style of imbuing music with social commentary. Of course, he wasn’t the first person to write ‘message music’, but Mayfield certainly helped to bring the plight of the African-American population into the mainstream and carry on the good fight.
It’s no coincidence that some of the most iconic African-American artists of all time cited Mayfield as a critical influence. Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Tracy Champman, Marvin Gaye and even Stevie Wonder are just some of those who noted his exceptional talent at different points. His falsetto vocal register and iconic open F-sharp tuning gave his work a style that was simply ice-cool — and you just cannot beat his use of the wah-pedal.
Mayfield began working on his first solo album in 1970, and never intended to leave The Impressions permanently. However, after receiving advice from his manager Marv Stuart, a year later, he left the band and embarked on his journey as a solo artist. Stuart thought that if many other established soul singers who were formally in bands could find success on their own, then so could Mayfield.
His debut solo album, Curtis, is an undisputed masterpiece. Released in September 1970 by Curtom Records, the record saw Mayfield reach into areas that he’d not yet fully explored and was the most progressive and expansive soul record ever released at the time. It preceded Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which was released in May 1971. Many parallels can be drawn between the two; defined by social commentary augmented by huge production. You could even argue that Curtis set the stage for What’s Going On.
On Curtis, Mayfield blended soul with funk and psychedelia and created a sound that was perfect for 1970. The optimism of the countercultural movement had faded away at this point, leaving many of the marginalised feeling hopeless, creating a stark contrast to the sunny feel of the album’s music. Incorporating political and social concerns that Mayfield and the community felt, it’s a splendid ode to that time of great societal unrest. On the record, he discusses African-American pride and their struggle to be accepted in wider society, with the spectre of Jim Crow still looming large.
Of the time, Mayfield would later recall it as a “happening era… when people stopped wearing tuxedos… people were getting down a little more”. The swooning classic ‘We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue’ reflects this sentiment clearly. Lucidly, Mayfield sings: “We people who are darker than blue / Are we gonna stand around this town / And let what others say come true? / We’re just good for nothing they all figure”.
Of the album’s more abrasive sound, Mayfield explained that it was something he had “long wanted to do… but was out of category of what was expected of me and The Impressions. What I got off in the Curtis album allowed me to be more personal for myself”.
No mention of the album would be complete without what is arguably Mayfield’s magnum opus, ‘Move on Up’. It showcased Mayfield’s new large sound, and the extended version is just incredible, a stoned anthem looking forward to better days. The saxophone solo at the end is one of the most uplifting ever put to wax, and the music perfectly lifts the song’s message of optimism. It’s funk at its finest, and the message is still as potent today.
Interestingly, due to Mayfield’s background as a self-taught musician and the fact that he played in such a left-field tuning, his backing band would often be confused by his direction and, at times, were quoted as saying: “Gosh, this is a terribly strange key to play in”. A testament to Mayfield’s unique approach to life, anecdotes such as these raise the brilliance of the music to dumbfounding levels.
An absolute classic with no downside, Curtis is a must-have for any record collection. Anthemic, introspective and defiant, one can only imagine how incredible it must have been hearing it for the first time in 1970. It changed the DNA of soul and pushed it in an expansive direction.
Listen to Curtis in full below.