Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Curtis Mayfield - Curtis / Live!

Curtis Mayfield
Curtis / Live!

Released 1971 on Curtom
Reviewed by Dog 3000, 31/08/2003ce

1 Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)
2 I Plan To Stay A Believer
3 We're A Winner
4 We've Only Just Begun
5 People Get Ready
6 Stare And Stare
7 Check Out Your Mind
8 Gypsy Woman
9 The Makings Of you
10 (Rap Intro Of Musicians)
11 We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue
12 (Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Going To Go
13 Stone Junkie

This week marked the 40th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, and so CNN ran the video of his speech complete and unedited. It was one of those incredible moments in history, not only because of the power of his rhetoric but because of the the incredible energy from the crowd of 250,000 who were listening to him speak. Anyone with a soul can't help but be moved by the performance. Watching it on the TV 40 years later it still made me shiver and brought tears to my eyes. A lot of Curtis Mayfield's records give me that same feeling. The tears don't come because the music is sad, but because it's so damn NOBLE and TRUE.

In my mind Curtis Mayfield may be the single most "unsung" musical figure, period. A tremendously talented singer, songwriter, guitar player, producer, arranger and spokesman, he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as your Bob Dylans, Lennon-McCartneys, Joni Mitchells, or whatever musos you think qualify for the inner circle of greatness. In fact he's greater than any of those guys. You wanna talk about the power of the shamen? Like Dr. King, Curtis was able to connect with and MOVE people from all walks of life. His songs are confrontational yet he never separate the world into "us and them." Like King, when he calls for freedom for "his" people he is calling for the freedom of ALL people.

Mayfield's second solo release was a double album recorded live at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, NYC in early 1971 (in fact it was his first set of live gigs as a solo artist after he left his previous group The Impressions.) The sparse backing band consists of a guitarist (Hendrix look-alike Craig McCullen, who plays distortion-free and usually through a wah-wah), a bass, a drummer and a conga player, so the versions here are nothing like the heavily (and brilliantly) orchestrated arrangements you'll hear on his studio albums. There is no wanky show-off soloing, though the band does jam and vamp like crazy. Playing in an intimate space, Curtis' connection with the audience is unlike anything you'll hear on any other live album. At many points throughout the album something Curtis says will make the racially mixed crowd spontaneously erupt in cheering and (it being 1971 after all) shouts of "Right On!" and "SOOOULL!!!"

All the songs are good and even Curtis' raps between the songs say more than many "artists" do in their entire careers. Some highlights:

The opening number "Mighty Mighty" was one of the last singles Curtis made with the Impressions before he left the group, and it's one hell of a song. At the time "Black Power" was a popular concept, but Curtis rejects the very notion of "power" itself, no matter who wields it, and all the conflict that arises from power games. He doesn't want people to rely on "powerful leaders" he wants them to simply get up, get into it, and get involved in bettering their own lives:

"We're killing up our leaders,
We're killing up our leaders!
It don't matter, black or white
we all know it's wrong
but who's gonna fight to make it right?
And mighty mighty, spade and whitey
your black and white power
is gonna be a crumbling tower
and will we stand divided
so goddamn undecided?!"

"We're A Winner" is another classic Impressions song (even if you haven't heard it before you'd recognize the "movin' on up!" refrain which was "borrowed" for the theme to "The Jeffersons" TV show.) An anthem for the civil rights movement, the record was considered rather controversial at the time (for exactly the same reasons Dr. King was "controversial.") After playing through the song like it was on the original record, the band breaks down and vamps while Curtis explains: "You may remember reading in your Jet and Johnson publications, a whole lot of stations didn't want to play that particular recording. Can you IMAGINE such a thing? Well I would say, the way most of you would say . . . WE DON'T GIVE A DAMN WE'RE A WINNER ANYWAY!"

The he sings another verse with a brand new set of even more "controversial" lyrics:

"We're a winner and never let anybody say
boy, you can't make it cause a feeble mind is in your way
No more tears do we cry
the Black boy done dried his eyes
and we're movin' on up (movin' on up!)
There'll be no more Uncle Tom
at last that blessed day has come
and we're a winner!
Everybody knows the truth
you just keep on pushin'
like Martin Luther told you to
and I don't mind leaving here
to show the world we have no fear
and we're movin' on up"

(Sorry if I sound like a "pussy" but just typing those lines has my eyes watering all over again. From the sound of it the audience had exactly the same reaction when he sang it.)

On the face of it the inclusion of a song made famous by the Carpenters and a million wedding bands ("We've Only Just Begun") seems lame, but Curtis explains to the audience: "A lot of folks think this particular lyric is not appropriate for what might be considered 'underground.' But I think underground is whatever your mood or feelings might be so long as it's the truth. I think it's very appropriate we might lend a few words of inspiration right here." And thus the song takes on an entirely new meaning when he sings lines like "there's so many roads to choose / we'll start out walking and learn to run / yes we've just begun".

A song that doesn't appear on any studio album, "Stare And Stare" is a slow wah blues that uses a description of the social interactions of people riding on a bus to make larger points about the divisions between people -- not just between "social groups" but within them. "I look across the aisle at the process he wear / while people sittin' back digging my nappy hair / a sister's standing and no one ever cares / we're all just riding with our noses in the air."

"If There's A Hell Below" was Curtis' hit single at the time, and even if it's not quite as powerful in this stripped-down arrangement it's still a mutha of a song (the studio version is impossible to top, it's absolutey one of the most apocalyptic things ever recorded.) Again, it's a song that addresses politics and race head on ("Sisters / brothers and the whiteys / Blacks and the crackers / police and their backers / they're all political actors") yet once again it's much broader than that ("Everybody says don't worry / they say don't worry! / but they don't know / if there's a Hell below / we're ALL gonna go!")

And finally, "Stone Junkie" (another tune not found on any studio album) is about drugs, but then again it's not. It's about how we're ALL sinners, all addicted to some vice or another. As he introduces it: "I don't wanna point no fingers . . . don't want NOBODY to point no fingers."

Like very few artists can, Curtis Mayfield smashes psycho- and sociological barriers and shows us the infinite promise and nobility within our race. And of course by that I mean "the human race."


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