If such a thing as a Definitive List of Legends In Music existed you can bet your life the usual suspects of DylanLennonMcCartneyJagger’nthat would be on it. Some may argue for the inclusion of WonderBowieMarley(insertyerown) too, but I doubt that many people would immediately add Curtis Mayfield to the list.
Poor Curtis hasn’t had it easy in the ‘legend‘ stakes. You want socio-political commentary? You’ve got Stevie Wonder. You want a string-swept soul? You’ve got Marvin Gaye. You want the funk? You’ve got James Brown. Curtis Mayfield did all this and more. With The Impressions he was there at the birth of soul music. He’s written for others. He’s produced others. He had his own publishing compnay. He had his own record companies. Yeah, that’s companies, plural. He was the complete package, yet in the grand scheme of things he rarely gets spoken about in the same reverential tones as those contemporaries mentioned above. Plain and simply, the genius of Curtis Mayfield has been too often overlooked.
Genius is a word banded about willy-nilly these days. If you must, listen to Fearne Cotton or Dermot O’ Leary or any of those radio presenters and I can guarantee that within 5 minutes you’ll hear them attribute the word ‘genius‘ to whatever is currently the pick of the pops. Go on, I dare you. The dictionary defines genius as, “A person of extraordinary intellect and talent.” So, Fearne ‘n Dermot, you’re wrong about Plan B and Kasabian and Beyonce (although, Kasabian excepted surely, they might have their moments.) Use the word wisely, or not at all, that’s all I’m saying.
“One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius.” Simone de Beauvoir said that. But you knew that already. Over time, Curtis most certainly did become genius. From doo-wop, gospel inflected beginnings, via straight ahead soul, he arrived at this, 8 minutes of bona fide soul genius (yes!) It’s called (Don’t Worry) If There’s Hell Below We’re all Gonna Go, it is extraordinary and it is the first track on the album pictured above. Seek it out, you’ll like it. With Curtis, you’re never too far from a wocka-wocka-wocka wah-wah guitar and he’s seen no reason to change that winning formula here. Taking his cue from the Book Of Revelations and underpinned by the sleaziest, meanest fuzz bass you’ll ever hear, strings sweep and brass blows as Curtis adds his heavily echoed sweet falsetto to the mix. It’s a fantastic arrangement. Brian Wilson always gets the ‘Legend‘ status when it comes to arranging, but (Don’t Worry)… proves that Mayfield is right up there with him. He must’ve known too when he was recording it that he was making such a monumental track. Listen to this, takes 1 and 2 of the backing tracks. No vocals, just the music in all it’s glory. You can imagine everyone gathered round the speakers in the control room as it plays, Curtis nodding his head in quiet satisfaction. Dig it, Brothers and Sisters!
As you well know, Curtis Mayfield did the soundtrack to Superfly. Here‘s the demo of opening track, Little Child Runnin’ Wild, known as Ghetto Child at the demo stage.
…and here’s Curtis doing the Snoop Dogg-sampling Give me Your Love, live somewhere, sometime in ’72.
(Listen to the Bathtub intro section on Doggystyle)