As a kid I remember the sound of America changing; the assassination of Martin Luther King and the backdrop of the anti-war and Civil Rights movements raging at the close of a tumultuous decade. This churn of the cultural zeitgeist came with a soundtrack. For the anti-war movement it was protest songs like Neil Young’s Ohio.
For the Civil Rights movement it was the ferocious funk of James Brown, Sly Stone and the great Curtis Mayfield.
The other night I was watching an episode of The Wire and they’d sampled a bit of Mayfield’s chestnut Move on Up and it sounded as primary, urgent and fierce as the day it was written. And that made me happy. It is sometimes easy to forget Mayfield, and we should never let it happen. His album Superfly was as musically tide-changing as Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul in that these records were the aural wallpaper of a culture in flux -- and they were records perfectly suited to their time.
When I was in high school, my friends and I would often ditch class and go downtown to see Kung-Fu and Blaxploitation films. The best thing about Superfly was its magnificent and revolutionary soundtrack -- it is a ridiculous film with a macho coke-head kind of ethos -- though Ron O’Neal’s pimp-lid hat was kind of cool and launched a whole new rash of questionable head-gear.
Curtis Mayfield came out of Cabrini-Green in Chicago. He dropped out of Wells High School and joined the Roosters, his first band, where he met Jerry "Iceman" Butler, another great soul singer and future Chicago alderman. He later joined the Impressions, for whom he wrote the soul-stirring People Get Ready, which was a huge hit. In Chicago he also collaborated with the Staple Singers -- specifically the great Mavis Staples, who recently tore it up at Lollapalooza, hurling that heaven-kissed voice around the stars and back.
I always loved Mayfield’s voice, an angelic falsetto which seemed, almost, to float above the muscular music itself -- particularly in songs like Freddy’s Dead and the rest of the soundtrack of Superfly. It was always a reminder that Mayfield’s chops as a vocal stylist had their roots in the Baptist Church -- singing Gospel music, like a great many Soul artists.
Mayfield’s songs ran counter to the message of the movie. They were sharply critical of the drugs, as well as the stupid and glorified violence that was central to the film.
Last year, my friend the film director John McNaughton and I were at a Mardi Gras Indian gathering in Uptown, New Orleans. We met a young man who looked like he was sculpted out of black marble -- he was the Bone-Man for a Mardi Gras Indian gang -- the one, who along with the Spy-Boy and the Flag-Boy makes way for the chief with a stutter-step dance and a shaking rhythmic procession. In the park there was the pungent-sweet smell of reefer and beer and it was blazingly hot, and -- on someone’s box a sweet echo of People Get Ready was emanating just above the crowd -- the bone-man had a fearsome head-mask adorned with white and red slashes and small screens for eyes. He took this apprenticeship seriously, saying that a great many Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs start as bone-men. The whole time he was speaking the Curtis Mayfield song floated in the atmosphere like a loving musical talisman of community. It cemented in my head that these songs are timeless.
My friend Don McCleese, the great music writer, reminds me that Jerry Butler once remarked that Mayfield was the only guy he knew of in the music world who came fully formed -- guitarist, singer, songwriter, producer -- he did everything well, a true Renaissance man.
I wish that here in Chicago there was a statue or mural or street named for him. Even after the great Mayfield was paralyzed in 1990, he continued on like a bull, producing, singing and writing songs, often while lying on his back. Art always finds a way. Curtis Mayfield grew up about one mile from where I am writing this. As a Chicagoan, his music has a special kind of resonance for me. When people discuss the great Soul music and Slow-Jams of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the inevitable locations are always Memphis, Detroit, Muscle Shoals, Alabama -- but Curtis Mayfield was one of ours. A Chicagoan.
This one is for him -- it’s called The Soul Rebel.
TONY FITZPATRICK is an artist from Chicago. For his blog, click here.