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Curtis Mayfield and/or the Impressions

Reviewed on this page:
Keep On Pushing - People Get Ready - One By One - Ridin' High - Fabulous - We're A Winner - This Is My Country - The Young Mod's Forgotten Story - Check Out Your Mind - Curtis Live! - Superfly - Times Have Changed - Back To The World - Preacher Man - Finally Got Myself Together - Sweet Exorcist - There's No Place Like America Today - Give, Get, Take And Have - Never Say You Can't Survive - The Right Combination - Love Is The Place - We Come In Peace With A Message Of Love - Live In Europe - New World Order

Curtis Mayfield first came to prominence as a member of the Impressions, a smooth soul vocal group formed in Chicago in 1956. After one early hit in 1958 ("For Your Precious Love"), original lead singer Jerry Butler went solo, and Mayfield soon became the group's primary vocalist, composer, guitarist and all-around mastermind. Starting with "Gypsy Woman" in 1961, the group - signed to ABC-Paramount - rang up a string of hits including classics of the era like "People Get Ready." In 1970 Mayfield left for a solo career and changed his sound radically, dropping vocal harmonies and sweet melodies in favor of stripped-down funk jams, which contrasted with his pure, clear tenor. He soon rose to his commercial peak with the blaxploitation soundtrack Superfly, and from then on he alternated between hard-edged political funk and string-drenched movie soundtracks, also producing other high-profile artists including Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight & The Pips. He also continued to produce some Impressions records, and reunited with them on occasion.

Along with many other 60s soulsters, Mayfield fell on hard times during the disco boom, and nearly disappeared during the 80s. In 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed in an on-stage accident - he lost his ability to play instruments, and could sing only with great difficulty. But he did manage a critical comeback with 1996's New World Order before his death on December 26, 1999. A word of warning: Mayfield's best work is totally gripping, but the rest (including most of his work for other artists) can be remarkably low-energy and just plain dull. Plus, he reused that "People Get Ready" melody so often in the 60s, he's like the Ray Davies of soul.

There's a very good fan site. (DBW)

The Impressions - Jerry Butler (tenor vocals), Curtis Mayfield (vocals, guitar), Samuel Gooden (bass vocals), Arthur Brooks, Richard Brooks (vocals). Arthur and Richard Brooks left by 1958, replaced by Fred Cash (tenor vocals). Butler left, 1958. Mayfield left, 1970, replaced by Leroy Hutson. Hutson left 1972, replaced by Ralph Johnson. Reggie Torian joined, 1973.

The Impressions (Impressions: 1963)

The Never Ending Impressions (Impressions: 1964)

Keep On Pushing (Impressions: 1964)
At this point, the Impressions were still doing simple Platters-style doo-wop with lovely harmonies, a tame rhythm section, and predictable progressions - about a decade behind what Motown was churning out. The only time they deviate from the four-chord formula, it's a mistake: the absurd marching song "Amen" (by Hairston, the only tune here Mayfield didn't write). The title track was a single, and it's more energetic than the rest - unless you're stuck even farther in the past than I am, you'll probably find this collection of precisely rendered compositions to be dated and a bit sterile. Produced by Mayfield. Now available on a twofer CD with People Get Ready. (DBW)

People Get Ready (Impressions: 1964)
Produced and arranged by Johnny Pate, and it's a lot more varied and interesting: strings and horns are used sparingly but creatively, and Mayfield's falsetto vocals are absolutely gorgeous on tracks like "I've Found Out That I've Lost." The lovely, guardedly political title track is the best known Impressions song, and was covered a zillion times during the oh so turbulent Sixties. Some other tunes have soulful grit ("Woman's Got Soul," "You Must Believe Me"), and Mayfield's beginning to play some interesting guitar ("Can't Work No Longer"), but there's still a lot of ordinary-sounding pop soul ("We're In Love," "Emotions"). This time out everything was written by Mayfield. (DBW)

One By One (Impressions: 1965)
Holy Mantovani, Batman! Abruptly, the group shifted gears, releasing a bunch of sappy covers of standards ("Without A Song," "Mona Lisa"). Labelmate Ray Charles succeeded with like material during this period, but he had worlds more presence and jazzy arrangements; Motown made some similar mistakes, but never went this far overboard into the land of 101 strings, swirling harps, and corny woodwind trills that make tracks like "Nature Boy" damn near unlistenable. There are three Mayfield compositions, but they're no better (except for "Falling In Love With You," an elegant ballad that would fit on any other album from this era). About the only point of interest is a rare Gooden lead on the Tony Bennett tune "I Wanna Be Around." Arranged and conducted by Pate, who threw all his previous restraint to the wind. I would say avoid this one at all costs, except that it's available on a twofer with Ridin' High. (DBW)

Ridin' High (Impressions: 1966)
A sudden jump to the mainstream of mid-60s soul, with far more prominent drumming ("Right On Time"), more piano, swinging horn fills, vibes, and upbeat, enthusiastic tunes. The rousing "Gotta Get Away," for example, recalls Stax artists like Sam & Dave. But there's still plenty of the super-smooth vocalizing their fans expected - "I Need You" is perhaps the best example - and Mayfield gets in a guitar solo on "Too Slow." A lot of the song material is routine, though: "I Need To Belong To Someone" is nearly a note-for-note copy of "People Get Ready." There's only one non-Mayfield tune: the horrific standard "Let It Be Me." Again, produced by Pate. (DBW)

The Fabulous Impressions (Impressions: 1967)
Mayfield reacted to the group's declining sales by continuing to imitate Motown, as on the driving but thin single "You Always Hurt Me." If you're a fan of the group you'll enjoy ballads like "I'm Still Waitin'" and "Aware Of Love" (with Gooden singing lead), and there's also listenable uptempo fare like "Love's A Comin'," but this isn't a good place to start. Available on a twofer with We're A Winner. (DBW)

We're A Winner (Impressions: 1968)
The title track, the group's first undeniable hit single in several years, is a brilliant inspirational number with propulsive, creative drumming. However, the rest of the album sounds like it could've been recorded in 1963, with a passel of unremarkable, old-timey love songs ("Moonlight Shadows," "I Loved And I Lost"). All originals except for an over-the-top cover of Jimmy Webb's "Up, Up and Away." With only ten tracks to start with (most previous albums had twelve), there isn't much reason to pick this up, if you can find the single somewhere else. (DBW)

This Is My Country (Impressions: 1968)
The first release on Mayfield's own Curtom label, and Black Power emerges as a clear theme (title track), though the lyrics don't date too well ("Every brother is a leader, every sister is a breeder" from "They Don't Know"). Musically there's no real change, just more four-chord ballads and pop tunes with basic rhythm section, horns and strings instrumentation - the biggest change is corny harpsichord on the Motown-like, oh-so-groovy "Love's Happening." And aside from the moving title track, the compositions don't sound so fresh either: "Fool For You" is almost identical to the Ray Charles song of the same title, and "Stay Close To Me" is a ripoff of "This Old Heart Of Mine." Apparently Donny Hathaway is featured on here somewhere, but the liner notes don't say where - as usual, all the songs are Mayfield's. Released on a twofer CD together with the following album. (DBW)

The Young Mod's Forgotten Story (Impressions: 1969)
The album includes "Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)," Mayfield's first venture into wah-wah'd funk that points the way to his successes of the next few years. But the rest of the tunes are in the same old-timey style of the previous Impressions releases, including a long string of similar-sounding ballads: "My Deceiving Heart," "Love's Miracle." Mid-60s Motown is referenced once again in the uptempo "Seven Years" and "Wherever You Leadeth Me." Arranged by Hathaway and Pate - the orchestral backing of "The Girl I Find" is quite sophisticated. (DBW)

The Versatile Impressions (Impressions: 1969)
A collection of covers ("Yesterday," Bacharach/David's "The Look of Love") put together by ABC-Paramount after the group jumped ship. It does contain one new Mayfield original, "Don't Cry, My Love." (DBW)

Check Out Your Mind (Impressions: 1970)
The last Impressions album before Mayfield went solo, and it's a good one. The production style suddenly jumped about five years forward, catching up with late 60s soul and R&B conventions without sounding like knockoffs: strong melodies (title track, "Only You"), funky (but not overly repetitive) bass lines ("Do You Want To Win?"), and burbling Latin percussion ("You're Really Something, Sadie"). "Baby Turn On To Me," however, is too close to Temptations hits like "Ball Of Confusion," and that trend continued on the next Impressions release. The ballads are hit and miss: "You'll Always Be Mine" and "Say You Love Me" are rather dull, though "Can't You See" is dramatic, with soaring strings reminiscent of Isaac Hayes work like "I Stand Accused." The psychedelic "Madame Mary" and bouncy "We Must Be In Love" had previously been recorded by labelemates the Stairsteps. The title track and "Baby Turn On To Me" were singles, and went Top Ten on the R&B chart, but overall this album has been unjustly neglected. Available on a twofer with Times Have Changed. (DBW)

Curtis (1970)
Mayfield's first solo album, and his masterpiece. His interest in black consciousness and spirituality comes across loud and clear on funk anthems ("Don't Worry (If There's A Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go)"), tender love songs ("Miss Black America"), simmering meditations ("We People Who Are Darker Than Blue") and pure lovely pop ("Move On Up," with a sweeping arrangement that makes you think nine minutes is the ideal song length). And those are just the hits: the minor tracks are also well constructed and tuneful ("The Other Side Of Town"). Everything was written and produced by Mayfield, as usual, and he blends in everything from full orchestrations to wah-wah to sound effects without ever being self-consciously experimental - some of the credit is surely due to arrangers Riely Hampton and Gary Slabo. As an early 70s social-political self-written soul concept album, the obvious comparison is to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Well, Mayfield's lyrical focus is a lot sharper, his tunes are fully as memorable, his arrangements are flawless though not as idiosyncratic. Gaye's got him beat hands-down as a vocalist, though: for all Mayfield's heartfelt precision as a writer, his soft tenor just doesn't project Gaye's emotion and urgency. So I guess I'll call them even. (DBW)

Curtis Live! (1971)
A double album recorded at NYC's Bitter End, and a powerful demonstration of Mayfield's pre-Superfly accomplishments, with the best of the Impressions material ("Gypsy Woman," "People Get Ready") alongside his new solo work ("We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue"). The small group setting focuses the attention on Mayfield's lyrics - earnest but full of humor - and intense (though understated), frequently mournful vocals ("Stare And Stare"). This works particularly well on the Impressions songs, which surprisingly don't suffer from the lack of vocal harmonies, and sound completely up-to-date. The arrangements mostly stick to bass vamps and wah-wah licks, with the only variation coming from Henry Gibson's constantly shifting percussion, but since the song material is so strong and the band so focused, the interest level never flags. Flawlessly performed and capably recorded; besides Mayfield and Gibson, the band is Craig McCullen (rhythm guitar), Tyrone McCullen (drums) and Joseph "Lucky" Scott (bass). (DBW)

Roots (1971)
Perhaps Mayfield's most varied and musically complex work, though it's not as hit-filled or consistent as Curtis. The opening "Get Down" is powerful polyrhythmic funk, and Mayfield even plays Santana-like lead guitar to complete the effect. Mayfield also displays his usually concealed guitar skills on the bluesy ballad "Now You're Gone," where he turns in a convincing B.B. King impression. Throughout the string arrangements (by Pate) are fascinating ("Beautiful Brother Of Mine"), and the rhythm section (the same crew from Live!) gets creative while holding down a solid beat. As usual, Mayfield's lyrics are directly social-political, and he creates an eerie mood to go with it on the harrowing "Underground," replete with screams and ominous guitar. Good as it is, though, the album's not wall-to-wall brilliant: the side-closers "We Got To Have Peace" and "Love To Keep You In My Mind" are pleasant pop but nothing special, and the mellow "Keep On Keeping On" wears out its welcome with a long running time and no clear melody. Also in 1971, Curtom artist Ruby Jones released a self-titled LP with "production supervision" by Mayfield; the disc includes a cover of his "Stone Junkie." (DBW)

Superfly (1972)
Mayfield hit the top of the pop charts with his fourth solo release, this soundtrack to the landmark blaxploitation film; musically it follows in the wake of Shaft, with wah-wah guitar, Latin percussion and hip horns providing a streetwise vibe, softened by occasional strings. Lyrically it's complex, not just sketching out the plot but propounding a message of unity and transcendence. Several tracks are memorable and have been much sampled by hip hop acts: "Pusherman," "Little Child Runnin' Wild," the hit singles "Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly." This is justly considered a classic, but I'm not sure it really needed the deluxe two-disc treatment that Rhino gave it. Including alternate versions of nearly every single track makes it painfully clear that the compositions here have no musical depth beyond catchy pentatonic riffs: the instrumentals ("Junkie Chase," "Think") don't repay close listening, and the alternate takes are flat and uninteresting. You're better off with a single-disc version if you can find one, but either way, you shouldn't pass this up. (DBW)

Times Have Changed (Impressions: 1972)
Mayfield produced and wrote everything, except for a cover of Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues," and Leroy Hutson's "This Love's For Real," but didn't sing. As the Motown cover indicates, Mayfield's mostly following trails blazed in Detroit, and very often the group sounds exactly like the Whitfield-era Temptations, most notably on the six and a half minute "Stop The War," which borrows rhythm and string arrangements and even the title from an earlier Tempts effort. (The liner notes hilariously allege that the phrase "Hell no, we won't go" was invented by Mayfield for this recording.) Meanwhile, the melodies are servicable and unremarkable, and Mayfield reworks "People Get Ready" on the ballad "Need To Belong To Someone." I wouldn't exactly climb over barbed wire to get my hands on this one. (DBW)

Back To The World (1973)
A thoroughly enjoyable blend of percussive urban funk with full horn and string arrangements ("Right On For The Darkness," "Future Shock"). "If I Were Only A Child Again" is knowing, swaying, wah-wah enhanced soul, and the moving album closer "Keep On Trippin'," with its memorable "Heavenly Father" refrain, is just gorgeous. Worth hearing if you liked Superfly: though some tunes like the title track lack energy, and no song is as memorable as the previous record's hits, the lyrics are more abstract and thoughtful. Arranged by Richard Tufo. (DBW)

Preacher Man (Impressions: 1973)
Hutson left for a solo career with incredible speed, and Cash took over lead vocal duties, and doesn't really sound that different from Mayfield. Produced and largely written by Tufo, with backing provided by Curtom regulars like Henry Gibson, and they continue in the Tempts-inspired direction Mayfield had mapped out: the ten-minute stringstravaganza "Thin Line" is only the most blatant of the many ripoffs herein. There are some pleasant tunes, though: "Simple Message" is soothing and inspirational, and "Colour Us All Gray (I'm Lost)" is fine, frantic funk. Available on a twofer with Finally Got Myself Together. (DBW)

Curtis In Chicago (1973)
This live disc features the Impressions, and other guests. Also in 1973, Mayfield composed the score for Superfly T.N.T., and even had a bit part in the film. (DBW)

Finally Got Myself Together (Impressions: 1974)
The Impressions recruited two replacement vocalists: Ralph Johnson (not the Earth Wind & Fire drummer) and Reggie Torian. Mayfield didn't get involved with this project, but Tufo did, as well as old Motown hands Ed Townsend (who wrote half the songs here) and David Van De Pitte. There's almost none of the previous Motown/Sly-inspired funk ("Don't Forget What I Told You" is an exciting exception). Instead, there's plenty of supersmooth string-backed Philly soul ("If It's In You To Do Wrong," "We Go Back A Ways"). Johnson's voice sounds astonishingly like Gladys Knight's only a bit smoother, and it works well in this context. Townsend's "I'm A Changed Man ` (Finally Got Myself Together)" became the group's biggest hit in years, sailing to #1 on the R&B chart, and "If It's In You To Do Wrong" was also moderately successful. (DBW)

Sweet Exorcist (1974)
This time, Mayfield overdoses on atmospheric ballads with no discernable melodies ("Ain't Got Time," "Suffer") - he recites half-spoken lyrics over repetitive, slow-moving string arrangements, and it's hard to keep paying attention. The single "Kung Fu" and the closing "Make Me Believe In You" are the only funky cuts here, and both simply rework "Papa Was A Rolling Stone." The record does contain some of his spookiest lyrics ever on the yearning "To Be Invisible," but the political catchphrasing often seems tired ("Power To The People" - there's an original title). Produced by Mayfield; arrangements are split between Tufo and former Motowner Gil Askey. (DBW)

Got To Find A Way (1974)
Again, everything written and produced by Mayfield. Also in 1974, Mayfield produced Gladys Knight and the Pips' Claudine, which features a reworked version of "On & On" from Times Have Changed. (DBW)

There's No Place Like America Today (1975)
Continuing the vibe from Exorcist, with seven long songs that have no real melodies and just a couple of slow-shifting chords, while Mayfield half-sings his message of hope and faith, not necessarily in that order ("Jesus" and "When Seasons Change" are dull commercials for Christianity). This is a shame in cases like "Blue Monday People" where the lyrics are unusual and poignant. The most exciting tune is one Mayfield had originally written in 1969, "Hard Times," and "So In Love" is a pleasant love song, but truly this disc is all in the same mold - you'll either go with the mellow groove or, more likely, hate it. Musicians include Mayfield, Tufo, Scott and Gibson, plus Phil Upchurch and Gary Thompson (guitar) and Quinton Joseph (drums). Also in 1975, Mayfield wrote and produced the soundtrack for the Bill Cosby-Sidney Poitier vehicle Let's Do It Again; the title track, performed by the Staple Singers, was a #1 hit single. (DBW)

First Impressions (Impressions: 1975)
Though this is titled like a from-the-vaults release, it's actually an album of new material, mostly written and produced by Townsend and arranged by Tufo. (DBW)

Give, Get, Take And Have (1976)
From the opening "In Your Arms Again (Shake It)," this is punchier and more energetic than America. It's still basically the same format, though - slow chord changes; rhythm section, wah-wah and strings arrangements - without the precision or variety of his peak early 70s work. Everything sounds familiar, from the 50s love song "Only You Babe" to the funky "Mr. Welfare Man" (which had already appeared on Claudine), but the record's charm and good cheer is infectious. Lyrically it's hit or miss, with a couple of unambitious party numbers ("Party Night," "Soul Music"), though the plain-spoken love song "This Love Is Sweet" is charming. Produced by Mayfield and arranged by Tufo. Also in 1976, Mayfield produced Aretha Franklin's Sparkle. (DBW)

Never Say You Can't Survive (1977)
In the same vein as the previous album: simple songs with full but not over-lush orchestration that never fail to be touching (title track), driving ("I'm Gonna Win Your Love") or both ("Just Want To Be With You"). The acoustic guitar-meets-strings ballad "When We're Alone" comes dangerously close to bathos, but never quite topples over. The stylistic experimentation and unforgettable hooks of his early 70s discs is totally absent, but it's a soothing, heartwarming listen ("Sparkle," which suits his calmer voice better than Aretha's). Backing vocals by Kitty and the Haywoods, and a few tracks were arranged by James Mack instead of Tufo; otherwise it's the usual personnel. (DBW)

Short Eyes (1977)
Movie soundtrack. Also in 1977, Mayfield scored another Cosby-Poitier flick, A Piece Of The Action, which featured Mavis Staples. (DBW)

Do It All Night (1978)
Apparently an ill-fated venture into disco, arranged by Askey. The title track and "You Are You Are" were singles in the US; "No Goodbyes" was a single in the UK. Also in 1978 Mayfield produced Franklin's Almighty Fire. (DBW)

Heartbeat (1979)
More disco; Mayfield used the first outside producers and songwriters of his solo career, including Bunny Sigler and Norman Harris. (DBW)

The Right Combination (Linda Clifford/Curtis Mayfield: 1980)
This duet album alternates between disco-tinged funk ("Rock You To Your Socks") and retro 50's ballads ("Love's Sweet Sensation"), and both are done well. The title track is a lovely gentle melody recalling Mayfield's mid-60s work, as is "I'm So Proud." The lyrics don't address any social issues, for once, they're uncluttered and unclichéd love songs, which isn't a plus or a minus as far as I'm concerned. Clifford's voice doesn't impress me much, easy on the ears but not distinctive or gripping - still, it's a nice change from Mayfield's unvarying tenor. Norman Harris gets one shot as producer ("It's Lovin' Time (Your Baby's Home)") with Mayfield; the rest of the disc is produced by Mayfield alone or with Askey (who arranged). "Between You Baby And Me" was the single; it went to #14 on the R&B chart after its 1979 release. The large crew of musicians includes holdovers Scott and Gibson, and a whole lot of names I don't recognize. (DBW)

Something To Believe In (1980)
More soul/R&B, with two charting singles: "Love Me Love Me Now" and "Tripping Out." (DBW)

Love Is The Place (1981)
Produced by hack Dino Fekaris, and everything that made The Right Combination charming is carried to offensive extremes: the refreshingly light romantic lyrics have turned to mawkish clichés ("You Mean Everything To Me"); the retro influences have become an excuse to avoid anything approaching an original melody ("Babydoll," title track); the pop-friendly arrangements have become toothless 70s elevator music ("She Don't Let Nobody Else (But Me)"). On track after track, the rhythm section is dampened in favor of massed strings and sickly-sweet backing vocals ("Toot 'N' Toot 'N' Toot"); the record would be a total loss if it weren't for the gospel closer "Come Free The People." Session musicians include the Waters sisters, Michael Sembello, and who could forget Paulinho Da Costa? (DBW)

Honesty (1982)

We Come In Peace With A Message Of Love (1985)
A grab-bag, with a leftover Norman Harris disco production ("Body Guard"), a couple of retro love songs ("Baby It's You," "This Love Is True"), and a depressingly modern remake of 1971's "We Gotta Have Peace," with synths and routinely programmed Linn drums. The high point is a funky reggae tune, "Breakin' In The Streets," and the low point is an endless, unvarying would-be dance track ("We Come In Peace"), also disgraced by unimaginative drum programming and synth. Despite all the stylistic variety, the proceedings have an uninspired, almost desperate air. Musicians include Lucky Scott and Tracy Mayfield (bass); Edward Gregory (guitar); Theodis Rodgers, William Green and Buzzy Amato, (keys); Hank Ford (tenor sax) Morris Jennings, Glen Davis and Henry Gibson (percussion); The Harris Machine performs the Norman Harris cut. Not as bad as the worst of the disco miscalculations, but worse than almost any of Mayfield's other work. (DBW)

Live In Europe (1988)
A double album recorded in 1987, with Lebron Scott (bass), Amato (keys) and Gibson (percussion). Mayfield is crisp and professional as always, but lacks the focus and passion that made his 1971 live album such a revelation - the band stays far in the background and doesn't vary much on the longer numbers ("Move On Up"). Meanwhile Mayfield hardly plays guitar, so all you get is "up with humanity" monologues that get dull, however well intentioned. So, strangely, the most exciting performance is the backup band's opening instrumental, which is furious Tyneresque post-bop jazz ("Ice-9"). And since the set list is heavy on tunes that he'd already recorded live ("Gypsy Woman") plus a few more familiar hits ("Freddie's Dead," "Back To The World"), this is nothing but an enjoyable curiosity: Curtis Live is the live disc you want. (DBW)

Take It To The Streets (1990)
In 1990, Mayfield scored Return Of Superfly, and also suffered an accident that's left him paralyzed below the neck. (DBW)

New World Order (1996)
With Mayfield unable to play instruments, he hooked up with a bunch of outside producers, most of them young enough to be his children. But the sound isn't aggressively modern: mostly they create calm soothing synth grooves with a healthy amount of wah-wah, not far from Mayfield's usual approach ("Back To Living Again" produced by Narada Michael Walden with brief backing vocals by Aretha Franklin, "Here But I'm Gone" produced by Organized Noize). Indeed, the record's main flaw is that it's too mellow: outside of some classic Mavis Staples belting on "Ms. Martha," and a few solid tunes like "No One Knows About A Good Thing" (cowritten and produced by Daryl Simmons), most of the material relies so heavily on atmosphere it's barely there ("Let's Not Forget"). Though Mayfield plays it cool as always, his vocals are focused and more urgent, as on the mournful title track and a remake of "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue" (produced by Zapp's Roger Troutman, who contributes his trademark "voice box" backing vocals). Mayfield did co-produce several tracks, including the stomping retro-soul "I Believe In You" (featuring dramatic duet vocals by Sandra St. Victor) - one of the few tracks using live drums. (DBW)

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