The Class of 1970: Curtis Mayfield’s Solo Debut ‘Curtis’

[Yep, it’s 2021. We’ll be getting to lots of albums turning 50 in The Class of 1971, but there are a couple we didn’t get to last year. This is one of them.]

 

After a long career with The Impressions (1956-1970), Curtis Mayfield left the band to embark on a solo career. From 1970 to his death in 1999, he released 17 solo albums, four live albums, and six movie soundtracks, but perhaps none ever eclipsed his remarkable solo debut Curtis. It featured a mix of genres, including sugar-sweet soul, solid R&B, bouncy funk, and psychedelic soul.

Musicians on the recording include: Leonard Druss, John Howell, Harold Lepp, Loren Binford, Clifford Davis, Patrick Ferreri, Richard Single, Rudolph Stauber, Donald Simmons, Robert Lewis, Harold Dessent, Ronald Kolber, Harold Klatz, John Ross, Sol Bobrob, Sam Heiman, Elliot Golub, Henry Gibson, Robert Sims, Gary Slabo, and Phil Upchurch.

All eight tracks were written by Mayfield, who also produced. Riley Hampton and Gary Slabo were producers, mixers, and arrangers. The recording engineers were R.J. Anfinson and Tom Flye. 

Mayfield had founded his own record label, Curtom, a subsidiary of Buddah Records, in 1968. His final album with The Impressions was Check Out Your Mind!, the first album on Curtom, followed by this solo debut, CRS 8005. Bob Cato was the photographer and designer of the cover, which featured two pictures of Mayfield on the outside of the gatefold album and five of Mayfield with his children inside.

 

 

Curtis

SIDE ONE

“(Don’t Worry) If There is a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go” (7:46) could have been written last week. It opens with fuzz bass and competing background conversations before Mayfield’s deeply echoed voice enters. The percussion, horn arrangements, wah-wah guitar, and fuzz bass are overwhelming, and those lyrics (in part):

Sisters, brothers and the whities
Blacks and the crackers
Police and their backers
They’re all political actors

Hurry
People running from their worries
While the judge and the juries
Dictate the law that’s partly flaw
Cat calling, love balling, fussing and cussing
Top billing now is killing
For peace no-one is willing
Kind of make you get that feeling
Everybody smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke, smoke
Use the pill and the dope, dope, dope, dope, dope
Educated fools
From uneducated schools
Pimping people is the rule
Polluted water in the pool
And Nixon talking about don’t worry, worry, worry, worry
He says don’t worry, worry, worry, worry
He says don’t worry, worry, worry, worry
He says don’t worry, worry, worry, worry

But they don’t know
There can be no show
And if there’s a hell below
We’re all gonna go, go, go, go, go

It fades near the end, then returns for a quick coda.

 

From that psychedelic trip, we switch to harp, strings, horns, and harpsichord for the plaintive “The Other Side of Town” (4:01). This certainly represents a heavy change from the uplifting songs he performed with The Impressions. Here is a portion of the lyrics:

Ghetto blues showed on the news
All is aware
But what the hell do they care
You across the track
Completely relaxed
You take a warning fact
Don’t you never come back

I’m from the other side of town
Out of bounds
To anybody who don’t live around
I never learned to share
Or how to care
I never had no teachings
About being fair

“The Making of You” (4:00) is a beautiful song with Mayfield’s shimmering voices. Percussion, harpsichord, horns, and strings again dominate.

 

“We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” (6:00) also has full orchestration as Mayfield again hits the bullseye with the lyrics. Two minutes in, there is a complete tempo change as the groove goes very upbeat, heavy on percussion again and some fine wah-wah guitar. Two minutes on, harp reintroduces the original theme. Lyrics in part:

I know we’ve all got problems
That’s why I’m here to say
Keep peace with me and I with you
Let me love in my own way

Now I know we have great respect
For the sister and mother it’s even better yet
But there’s the joker in the street

Loving one brother and killing the other
When the time comes and we are really free
There’ll be no brothers left you see

We people who are darker than blue
Don’t let us hang around this town
And let what others say come true
We’re just good for nothing they all figure

A boyish, grown up, shiftless jigger
Now we can’t hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it’s at?

Pardon me, brother, while you stand in your glory
I know you won’t mind if I tell the whole story
Pardon me, brother, I know we’ve come a long, long way
But let us not be so satisfied for tomorrow can be an
An even brighter day

 

SIDE TWO

Surprisingly, “Move On Up” (8:50) didn’t make much of a splash at the time. The album was #1 on the Soul charts and reached #12 on the Pop charts, but this single did not chart in the U.S. It didn’t reach the general population until the movie The Groove Tube debuted in 1974, with this song as its opening. It is covered with regularity these days, delightfully so.

The formula continues to dazzle: percussion, strings, horns, and a gorgeous, full sound buoying Mayfield’s enthusiastic vocals. Halfway into the nine-minute track, there is a brief pause before the percussion leads to an instrumental reprise.

 

A young child (presumably, one of Mayfield’s) speaks to Mayfield. He asks her what she would like to be, and she answers, “Daddy, I would like to be” “Miss Black America” (2:55). A choir of Curtis Mayfields sings the choruses on this magnificent song, offering great hope and pride. The bass line is outstanding. 

Sisters we’re all so very proud
Of that natural look we se among the crowd
World wide admiration
From nation to nation

They love you Miss Black America
We love you too Miss Black America
You’re such wonderful people
And so beautifully equal
Miss Black America

A culture noone can deny
If a young child should ask
Then tell them why
They should not be ashamed
Of their past, just explain

The true mother is Black America
None other than Miss Black America
She cried tears of success
We wish her long happiness

 

Full orchestration launches “Wild and Free” (3:12), horns and strings and, again, copious percussion. The message is so uplifting, a real contrast to the previous tune.

Fighting what is wrong
Across the world as well as home
But respect for everybody’s right
Would be really out of sight 

Our great obligations
Would not be bad situation
If the young what we listen to
For what they really know is true

 

“Give It Up” (3:45) is at once uptempo and a declaration of an impending breakup, full orchestration on display again. It sounds so happy, but it distinctly is not.

I really truly love you
And the kids you must agree
And I never had too much
Concern or interest in astrology

But as I read it must be so
The invulnerable word incompatible
No matter how much we try
Our indifference but still show

Now we’ve got give it up
I’m gonna have to give it up

All concern and the trusts that never happened with us
The walk of embraces and the love of our faces
It never happened you see and I’m so sorry

Curtis was the brilliant beginning of his outstanding solo career.

 

 

 

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