By the time Curtis Mayfield released his first solo album Curtis in Sep 1970, he already had established himself as a successful music artist for more than 10 years, especially as leader of the pop soul and R&B band The Impressions. But while songs like People Get Ready and Keep on Pushing had started to introduce lyrics with a social message, Mayfield felt what was generally expected of The Impressions did not sufficiently allow him to express himself, both musically and lyrically.
Right from the get-go with (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re Going to Go, Mayfield makes it crystal clear he has left behind the days of For Your Precious Love, Gypsy Woman and It’s All Right. For the record, I think all three songs are beautifully executed doo-wop soul. The point is they are very different from the music on Curtis. Perhaps an excerpt from Don’t Worry illustrates it best:
Everybody smoke/Use the pill and the dope/Educated fools/From uneducated schools/Pimping people is the rule/Polluted water in the pool/And Nixon talking ’bout, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/He say, “Don’t worry”/But they don’t know/There can be no show/And if there’s hell below/We’re all gonna go.
This is pretty heavy stuff. It’s also rather eerie how relevant these lyrics remain in present-day America, more than 45 years after they were written! Like much of the other music on the album, the song doesn’t have a catchy hook line but instead is fueled by a grove dominated by congas, funky guitars, jazz and orchestral parts.
The standout on the album, both musically and lyrically, is Move On Up, which remains one of the greatest funk-soul songs to this day. The fantastic horn intro and the conga-driven beat, along with Mayfield’s mesmerizing silky falsetto, is simply irresistible. Unlike the dark lyrics of the album’s other songs, Mayfield conveys a more upbeat message, saying there is hope after all for people if they work hard and persist. Again, an excerpt illustrates it best:
Take nothing less, than the second best/Do not obey, you must keep your say/You can pass the test/Just move on up, to a greater day/With just a little faith/If you put your mind to it you can surely do it.
While Curtis performed well upon its release, hitting no. 1 on the Billboard Black Albums and no. 19 on the Billboard Pop Albums charts, it got mixed reviews from music critics some of whom simply didn’t get what Mayfield was doing. Wendell John wrote in Rolling Stone, “Lyrically, his songs are a lot more rhyme than reason…The arrangements are all pretty uninspired, a little bit halfhearted – maybe largely because there’s so little melodic meat to most of the tunes.”
The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau at first wasn’t particularly impressed either but later reassessed his views: “Initially I distrusted these putatively middlebrow guides to black pride–“Miss Black America” indeed. But a lot of black people found them estimable, so I listened some more, and I’m glad…What did surprise me was that the whole project seemed less and less middlebrow as I got to know it.” Oh, well…
Bruce Eder from AllMusic said Curtis “was practically the “Sgt. Pepper’s” album of 70s soul, helping with its content and success to open the whole genre to much bigger, richer musical canvases than artists had previously worked with.”
Finally, let the music speak. Here’s a clip of Mayfield performing Move On Up live. While playing the horn parts on keyboards isn’t as good as the real instruments, even without the horns, the song and Mayfield’s voice shine. And, by the way, what a killer band!
Sources: Wikipedia, AllMusic, Rolling Stone, Robert Christgau Consumer Guide Reviews, YouTube