I’m not sure why more people don’t dig Curtis Mayfield. Even a lot of musicians I’ve met don’t know much about his work, or aren’t into it, at least at first. Some find it overproduced, in that 1970s way when you could get an entire orchestra to play on your record. Others react negatively to the falsetto vocals. Personally, I find the vocals to be devastatingly beautiful. He often sounds like someone confessing a terrible secret. The arrangements are a bit more of an acquired taste, but after a while you begin to revel in the lushness of it all. Mayfield’s songs are as funky as James Brown’s, but more melodic and fully-formed. His vocal skill is the equal of Marvin Gaye or Al Green. Curtis Mayfield was the complete package: singer, songwriter, producer, guitarist, bandleader.
It’s not that he is completely unappreciated, especially in the black community and among soul music aficionados. His best known songs like It’s Alright or People Get Ready are recognized by many, and the Superfly soundtrack remains popular, but he is rarely mentioned with other giants like Brown or Green. Certainly his choice to strike out on his own early on, starting his own record label and running his own sessions, contributed to his obscurity even while giving him near total artistic freedom. By the time he was paralyzed from the neck down after a lighting rig fell on him during a performance, he had largely fallen out of the public eye. Ironically after the accident he gained quite a bit of attention, which ended up reviving his career. Before he eventually died from his injuries, he released several more albums with a slew of guest stars, albums that would have been remarkable coming from an able-bodied man. It turned out that Curtis was very much appreciated after all.
Curtis Mayfield’s songs are all fully realized expressions of an artistic idea, even when he was seeking a commercial goal. Take the Superfly soundtrack. The Blaxploitation films of the 70s spawned soundtracks that have long outlived most of the movies. For Superfly, Curtis wrote a song for every character in the film. The songs capture the characters better than the movie does! Unfortunately, the music wasn’t used that way in the film, but it shows his gift for writing a fully realized song on almost any subject.
Check out the gorgeous ballad The Makings of You. In addition to it’s unique chord structure and time changes, listen to the amazing number of positive words Curtis packs into the song: expression, happiness, roses, astound, joy, children, laughing, righteous. This song isn’t just about a lover, it’s about love itself, universal love, love for all mankind.
Or take the song Party Night from the Give, Get, Take, and Have album. A naked attempt to capitalize on the disco craze, it starts out in a typical disco groove, then suddenly turns into something quite different. Despite ridiculous lyrics like “Having cheese and wine, dancing all the time”, by the end it has turned into something beautiful and uplifting. Even when trying to be brazenly commercial, Curtis Mayfield couldn’t help but create great art.