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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Curtis Mayfield

“Our purpose is to educate as well as to entertain. Painless preaching is as good a term as any for what we do.” – Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield went from the gospel choirs of Chicago, Illinois, to the frontline of the Civil Rights movement in a musical journey that brings to mind the John Cooper Clarke quote, “All the best musicians started out in church; Jesus invented rock ‘n’ roll.”

While his music may have ventured wildly away from gospel into the sleek and sexy world of unapologetic funk, he continually remained true to the notion that behind the music there should be some “painless preaching.” The preaching on Mayfield’s part often became quite ardent and he was one of the music pioneers of the blaxploitation movement lending his sultry grooves to the movie Super Fly in the now-iconic soundtrack album of the same name.

His journey to the forefront, however, was a long one and he earned his musical chops the hard way before going it alone. Mayfield became a member of Jerry ‘The Iceman’ Butler’s vocal group, The Impressions, at the tender age of 14. The group would eventually be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but more importantly for Mayfield at the time, they provided the perfect platform for him to learn the craft. As he matured in the panned he seeded a new direction by penning socially conscious songs that helped to shape the forthcoming wave of civil rights anthems.

After leaving The Impressions in 1970 to pursue his own musical direction, he announced himself with one of the greatest musical solo introductions of all time with ‘Move On Up’, a track that signified his bold stylings that can best be described as an exuberant garden party of funk, gospel and soul with just a pinch of King Curtis and Miles Davis in there to jazz up the melee. 

His finger-to-the-pulse of society propagation and exhilarating celebration of life wrapped up in the most toe-tapping sonic fireworks display continued throughout his career. While musical accolades often do not demark quality or contribution, the fact he was a double inductee to the. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame clearly indicates the impact that he had. Below, we’re diving into the best places to start in a journey through one of the most upbeat stars in music’s glinting career.

The six definitive songs of Curtis Mayfield:

‘People Get Ready’ (with The Impressions)

The beauty of The Impressions music is undeniable. They sport the sort of vocals that could spread butter on bread with a silky drift of sound. However, you’d be hard pushed to describe them as rock ‘n’ roll, in fact, if they were any more wholesome and soothing their album sleeves would have to be knitted to give off the right impression. 

Thus, as racial injustices howled around them, a difficult proposition was presented – join the movement and risk alienating a hard-fought fanbase or remain on the apolitical side-lines. With ‘People Get Ready’ Mayfield wrote a song that showed that they could do both without diluting either. It is gorgeously sweet and sanguine while offering up a profound message, proving that bliss didn’t have to be ignorant. 

‘Move On Up’

In 1970 Mayfield made the bold move to go it alone and he elbowed his way into the mainstream with one of the greatest songs of all time, period. ‘Move on Up’ is a song that thrives on so much sonic sunshine that you could naively suppose it would suffuse warzones into garden parties. 

The fact that the song harnesses more than a thousand prime Steve Martin gigs, has led to it becoming one of most sampled pieces of music around: everyone wants a piece of what Mayfield was offering on their own record. In fact, the song has become so synonymous with celebrations that Joe Biden even used it to close his 2020 presidential campaign speeches. 

‘We Got to Have Peace’

Mayfield’s follow up to his first solo record was Roots. Therein he continued with his classical soul sounds and crafting one of the most definitive records of the genre in that era. With it, he achieved commercial success with the album charting at six in the R&B charts. Importantly for Mayfield, this success came with a political punch that would set the tone for what followed. 

‘We Got to Have Peace’ is far from the most poignant declaration in history, but for what it lacks in depth it makes up for with a composition that makes any criticism of the one-track lyricism facile. 

‘Pusherman’

Super Fly stands out as a culminating moment in Mayfield’s career. The drip-feed of funk into his soul suddenly meddled head-on, his political involvement sprung to the fore in a much more notable way, but all of his musical craft and coasting honeyed vocals remained. 

The anti-drugs anthem of ‘Pusherman’ captures street life in amber and presents it with class, style and one the funkiest basslines to ever rumble onto a record. The critical and commercial highpoint of his career was a melee of everything that went before and rather than sounding hectic it sounds like the golden hour of the party embalmed with a hue of cognizance and musical excellence. 

‘The Right Combination’ (with Linda Clifford)

With the civil rights movement coming to an end Mayfield flirted with various musical directions throughout the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1980’s collaboration with Linda Clifford that he reached the same no-hold-barred enthusiasm as his pioneering early output. 

‘The Right Combination’ is an unabated journey into the sultriest music going. It continually verges on going over the top but prides itself on defying the label of kitsch by being so boldly daring to brave it in the first place. You can shout “get a room” or you can be whisked up in the joyous glossy tones of the duets magic. 

‘Here but I’m Gone’

When you hear that an artist has had a change of sound while in the autumn years of their career warning lights often flash. However, every now and again, the rebirth is one that reminds you of their creative brilliance all along. In 1990 an accident had left Mayfield paralysed from the neck down and all of that pain and suffering is transfigured into a gorgeous record of reflection that bears all the scintillating and mellowed silky sounds that made him a legend in the first place. 

‘Here but I’m Gone’ is a profound piece of music that simultaneously offers escapism and realism in equal measure. In short, it does what Mayfield always set out to do – offer up some painless preaching. 

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