Curtis Mayfield

A brilliant songwriter, vocalist, instrumentalist, producer and arranger, he had the aphoristic grace of a natural poet who was steeped in the rhetoric of the black church.

Topics:

Curtis MayfieldFILE-- Curtis Mayfield is shown in this undated handout photo. The composer and songwriter, whose string of hits "Superfly," "People Get Ready,'' "Talking About My Baby,'' and "Keep On Pushing,'' has died Sunday, Dec. 26, 1999. Mayfield was 57.(AP Photo/Curtom Records, ho)(Credit: Associated Press)

American popular music in the rock era has been dominated by cult of personality — by “superstars,” flamboyant charismatics, grandiose gestures. Curtis Mayfield, who died the day after Christmas, 1999, at the age of 57, was an exception to the rule: a popular music titan who was never a pop star. Few musicians who sold as many records and exerted as great an influence as Mayfield had as modest a public persona.

He began making hit songs in the late 1950s. For the better part of the next two decades, he was at the forefront of popular music, a pioneer of both ’60s soul and ’70s funk. And his gritty but never nihilistic excursions into black pop make him the spiritual forefather of the more positive and uplifting strains of ’80s and ’90s hip-hop. But even at the height of his fame as a million-selling solo artist, Mayfield was a self-effacing, unlikely star.

To the extent that he projected an “image” it was that of a hip intellectual: His scraggly beard and thin-framed eyeglasses gave him a professorial cast, a fitting look for a musician whose songs bristled with intelligence and unashamedly brought the didactic urgency of gospel to the secular airwaves.

Mayfield was one of the most complete musicians in the history of black pop; only Stevie Wonder and Prince rival the aplomb with which he balanced the roles of songwriter, vocalist, instrumentalist, producer and arranger. This autonomy gave Mayfield the freedom to experiment, and he was consistently several steps ahead of his contemporaries.

In the 1960s, as the leader of the Impressions, Mayfield developed a distinctive soul style, combining gospel-based vocal interplay, swooning string and horn arrangements, and his own rolling, stately guitar lines. Even more groundbreaking was his lyric-writing for the group. He had the aphoristic grace of a natural poet who was steeped in the rhetoric of the black church, and he poured this gift into songs of inspiration and uplift, which took the themes of the civil rights movement to the pop charts: “Keep On Pushing,” “Amen,” “Meeting Over Yonder,” “We’re a Winner,” “We’re Rolling On.”



The most majestic of these, the chiming ballad “People Get Ready,” is a testament to Mayfield’s craftsmanship: By sheer force of poetic economy and musical eccentricity (those oddly delicate guitar figures; that queer whole-step leap between verses two and three), he wrestled one of the most hackneyed of American images — the glory-bound train — into what is, with Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” the greatest message song of the soul music era.

Mayfield left the Impressions to pursue a solo career in 1970, recording a string of albums which were remarkable for the scope of their musical ambitiousness and social awareness. Tackling issues of urban poverty and desperation, drug abuse and violence, black pride and self-determination, Mayfield wrote songs with a bluntness and narrative verve that anticipated rap. “Superfly” (1972), Mayfield’s gorgeous soundtrack to Gordon Parks Jr.’s seminal blaxploitation movie, is the most celebrated of these recordings; but perhaps the best and most important was “Curtis,” Mayfield’s 1970 solo debut.

He had absorbed the influence and expansive spirit of the Beatles and the Beach Boys, and “Curtis,” a lushly orchestrated suite of thematically linked songs like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go,” “Move On Up” and “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” was Mayfield’s soul music answer to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Pet Sounds.” A tougher and more baroque version of the musical-uplift he had produced while leading the Impressions, “Curtis” inaugurated the heyday of politically charged ’70s soul, which would be highlighted by Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” and “Fulfillingness’ First Finale.”

The fluency with which Mayfield addressed social concerns marked him as one of only a handful of truly eloquent, conscience-driven American singer-songwriters, and the eulogies that have followed his death have treated him, rather breathlessly, as something of a secular saint — a kind of American Bob Marley. This sort of hyperbole isn’t surprising: Rock critics are invested, to the point of ridiculousness, in the myth of pop music’s political relevance, and generally find it easier to amplify that myth than to discuss a piece of music. In Mayfield’s case, this is a pity, because his music — in particular the music he recorded on that glorious sequence of early-and mid-’70s solo albums — is his great legacy.

Those records were trailblazers of what might be called black psychedelia. Take a listen, for instance, to “Superfly”: The lyrical string and horn arrangements that made the Impressions records such sweet listening are gloriously, woozily bloated into shapes amorphous and trippy; the bass is dark and wet, and Mayfield piles on layers of Latin percussion, boosted in the mix and swirling atop his multi-tracked rhythm guitar. Together it sounds unmistakably like the prototype for the funk and disco that would rule the airwaves later that decade, and which, through the alchemy of sampling, haunt the hip-hop and techno tracks of contemporary clubland.

Curtis Mayfield didn’t make it to the 21st century, but there’s every reason to believe that his weird, transcendent music will survive to see the 22nd.

Jody Rosen is a Manhattan writer. He is currently working on a cultural history of the song "White Christmas."

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>