Monday, March 24, 2008

The Immortals: #99 - Curtis Mayfield

The soundtrack for which he remains best known is, today, lessened, marred by the trappings of a movie which demanded uncharacteristically unsubtle (read: cartoonishly racist) subject matter that both dates and devalues his excellent work. I don’t care who you are, making characters like Youngblood Priest and Eddie into anything less than an offensive caricatures and cinematized stereotypes was a superhuman task. That Mayfield made from that ludicrous material music so heartfelt and enduringly resonant as to nearly legitimize pure exploitation has to be a testament to both his talent and those songs (this was proven again when Superfly became the first film to make less money than its soundtrack.) Still, while a stigma may forever be attached to that heralded “classic,” Curtis settles the debate over which was truly his best record.

Mayfield showcases every ability here. An extraordinary producer, his reverbed, psychedelic vocals and inventive instrumentation influenced everyone from Sly Stone to Jimi Hendrix. The extra material on subsequent releases of Curtis includes several future mid-hits in demo form, and comparisons display his exceptional talent as an arranger and composer in both the elegance of his studio dynamism and the visceral punch of his hard-wah riffing. And of course, as an alternately uplifting and apocalyptic lyricist, his tracks plumbed the darkest depths of politics, race, drugs and urban ill-health while never descending so deep into the engrossing paranoia as to lose faith that we could not rise above it all again.

Unfortunately, like most artists in the early 70s retroactively noted for making “socially conscious” music, that recurring message of hope is too-often remembered as the whole story of what is, in actuality, a much more significant result from Mayfield’s musical endowments. His contemporaries in the modern sounds of soul, greats like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Gordy-led menagerie of Motown masters, made innovative records built from the gold-selling foundations of their socially conventional pop sounds. Remember, by this time previously negative associations were merely archaic reminders of 50s race-baiting, and the 60s had officially established whites as the prime (and profitable) audience for what was now the full-cultural force of rock and roll. Even as the nation descended into ever-worsening levels of sickness in the polarized era of civil rights, Vietnam and general socio-political upheaval, the radio became as safe as milk, and new orders of catchy numbers by clean-cut representatives from any popular genre could be made to order overnight from Hitsville, Wherever.

Mayfield, though of a similar mass-marketed pedigree in his back-catalogue with The Impressions, became the key figure in separating the homogenized racial legacies of co-opted rhythm and blues based musics. Unafraid to parlay in both the idioms of language and emotion found in real-life discussions of highly-charged issues, he determined that honest self expression couldn’t appeal to everyone all the time- that to create something great might well have to alienate some people in the process. Put another way, Curtis Mayfield boldly made black music that was really black again. And with that, good shit returned again to the AM dial.

"Sistas! Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers! Don't worry... If there's Hell below, we're all gonna go!"

One can quite likely trace a straight line from Mayfield’s first spoken words on the first cut off the first side of his solo debut to the sounds yet to come straight out of Compton, Detroit, and Brooklyn and everywhere else there was inequity in class, race or creed. Like the future works of those artists, Curtis provides a brutally authentic examination of not only its own time, but of some of our lasting American dualities. The message remains as simple as ever: we are a people rife with spiritual decay, yet together we're still capable of truly great things. Whether this amounts to a defense of gangsta rap or BET, or an attempt to reconcile any controversy associated with taking sides on our cultural divisions I’m really not sure. But what I am certain of now is that, in a towering and singular career, Curtis Mayfield once taught us that we simply couldn’t pretend we had achieved the harmony and prosperity that a unified people deserve. And he promises us that we have greatness still to earn.

Curtis by Curtis Mayfield

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