Category Archives: Curtis Mayfield

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Freddie’s Dead” by Curtis Mayfield

Superfly is a film I’ve never seen. Nor have the soundtrack to. One of the oddest omissions in my collection. The reason having the album never seemed a priority to own is because my father had the 2 CD special edition in the early aughts. A set complete with radio spots for the album from Curtis himself. And it was played to death. So there was a lot of exposure to the music from this 1972 classic soundtrack for the Gordon Parks Jr’s drug scene related epic staring Ron O’Neal as the dealer Priest-so as I understand a character planning on retirement after a final “sweet” drug deal.

Apparently Mayfield wasn’t particularly pleased by Parks’ movie after seeing a screening during the film scoring process.  He was said to have described it as an “infomercial for cocaine”. Being the socially conscious man that Mayfield was? He decided to write a series of songs that not only ran thematically counter to the film. But also added depth based on different perspectives of Superfly‘s seemingly pro crime themes. The film itself can be debated. But what cannot be so easily is how Mayfield fleshed out one particular “flunky” pusher from the film in one of its classics called “Freddie’s Dead”.

Tyrone McCullen’s ultra funky drums start of the song accompanying Mayfield’s lead melody on a punchy fuzz guitar,with a layer of wah wah in the back round. As the song comes into itself,that bluesy melody the song starts out of with the countering orchestral strings,dreamy glockenspiel and big band horn charts accentuating the melody. All along with Henry Gibson’s percussion. Especially as the song jumps up a chord on the chorus. As the song progress,muted horns and psychedelic guitars and all, a bridge with a bass/string/percussion delay goes into extended chorus fading out the song.

“Freddie’s Dead” is one of those masterpieces of early 70’s cinematic funk for what became known as the “blacksploitation” genre of cinema at the time. It was famously covered by the ska/funk band Fishbone 16 years after the original due to its iconic status. Heard only as an instrumental in the movie, it gives a seemingly minor character an identity of people having “misused him,ripped him off and abused him”. Curtis then advises “Freddie’s on the corner now,so you wanna be a junkie wow,remember Freddie’s dead” in a beautiful example of funk working cinematically to help heal society’s ills.

 

 

 

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There’s No Place Like America Today: Reflections Into This 1975 Curtis Mayfield Album On Independence Day

Curtis Mayfield’s message to America’s black community is a hard one to overstate. As Jerry Butler stated, Mayfield witness the financial exploitation of many an (often illiterate) blues musician in Chicago as he was coming up in the world. He arrived into Record Row in the late 50’s as a teenager-witnessing these “musical sharecroppers” (as Butler referred to it as) basically having to “sing for their supper” by gigging just to earn a living. As the 60’s came in, Curtis Mayfield became one of the first black American musical figures to change that for himself. And as an example for others to come.

Half a century later, America is still in many ways a developing nation. Its still an autocratic nation in many ways. With many marginalized people remaining so in a nation that should have plenty for all of them. For thoughtful people such as myself,this might make Independence Day difficult to celebrate these days. In 1975, Curtis Mayfield released There’s No Place Like America Today-an album that addressed such concerns.  Its cover art is based on a photograph of black flood victims in 1937 by Margaret Bourke-White. Here’s my review from a couple of years ago about the album.


From what I’ve heard of the man from the beginning of his solo career onward? Curtis Mayfield’s music focused on sociopolitical matters from the point of view of a storyteller. He’d basically tell the tale in his poetically strong manner, and than make either make passing observations or ask a rhetorical question. Always with the idea of setting things up for positive change.

After the events of Watergate and the ensuing oil crisis in the mid 70’s? Curtis’s thematic focus was beginning to change from one of implied optimism to one of the need to face the harsher realities head on, and as they were. From the cover artwork re-imagine a famous photograph onward? This album exemplified the change of focus in Curtis’s music.

“Billy Jack” is a thick,boiling over the edge yet spare jam defined by melodic wah wah bass-with a crying blues guitar backing it up and carried along rhythmically by conga’s and other percussive elements. “When Seasons Change” keeps the that same sound fully intact with a lot more reverb on this very hollow around the middle,but still beautifully crafted hard funk ballad.

“So In Love” brings in the close horns,organ and pretty orchestral strings for a shuffling mid tempo soul ballad. “Jesus” throws down a tick tocking drum with a high liquid bass and yet more organ for a gospel/soul ballad. “Blue Monday People” is another mid-tempo ballad full of that round,reverbed wah wah sound along with the typically powerful melody.

“Hard Times” brings all the elements of the opener for a hard funk number with a strong blues flavor while “Love To The People” brings in both this heavy echoed rhythm section with the orchestration together for a swelling,horn filled mass of funky soulfulness. Over and over again? This album brings in a spare,very glossy funk sound that stands on near perfect ground with the lyrical focus. And of course it finds Curtis taking a look at the darker side of his one conceptual vision.

He is seeing the inequities of racial privilege for exactly what they are. And makes it clear over and over that the black community will have to turn more and more inward to move forward. And that stands on both creative and social grounds as well. Of course with musicians like Phil Upchurch and Henry Gibson as part of Curtom’s backing band of the day? Curtis Mayfield was in just the right place to take his funk to a musically broader and lyrically less certain place.


The idea that America should celebrate its birthday based on unconditionally positive ideas is probably a destructive one. Every year as knowledge becomes broader, American’s learn not only truths of its history. But the less than savory circumstances on its founding. Yet America is also a nation where its democratically based…messiness (as my friend Henrique said once) allows for a lot of positive things to be accomplished.  There’s No Place Like America Today takes this well rounded view of outward and inner human politics and brings it all to the table. And in Curtis’s own funky eloquence too.

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Anatomy of THE Groove: “Summer Hot” by Curtis Mayfield

One thing I’ll say about Curtis Mayfield’s sound is how distinctive his compositions and arrangements were. He love to structure his generally very funky uptempo songs in very much the folk/gospel/blues form. That would a lot of verse/verse type songs whose choruses don’t differ greatly from the songs melodic content. At the start of the 80’s, most music was geared very much towards singers. So melodic choruses were usually distinctly different from the rest of the song. So how would Curtis,still an active recording artist in the 80’s,cope with the era’s emphasis on traditional pop song structure?

Being aware of music around him as he likely was, Curtis probably noticed how funk of the 80’s was about a stripped down sound. There was the boogie and electro funk sounds-the boogie sound used by folks like Marvin Gaye for their comebacks at the time. Then their was the emerging Minneapolis sound,which created string and horn parts using synthesizers and/or guitar lines. Since groups like the Gap Band also got into this groove, Curtis Mayfield sought to find a way to alter the framework of his music while keeping his songwriting stamp intact. Among the results were his 1983 song “Summer Hot”.

A rocking 4/4 drum beat comes in with some clanking percussion opening up the groove. After a few lines of this naked rhythm,the main theme of the song rolls right in. It’s built on a sustained polyphonic synthesizer orchestration with a snaky synth bass weaving into it. Some tight Caribbean style horn charts play each instrumental statement made by the synthesizers. The horns play less of the role while Curtis is singing. On the bridge of the song, the song strips back down to the drums/percussion Marvin Gaye style with Curtis’s vocal chanting. The orchestral synth leads back into the choral refrain right into fade out.

To be honest, I really didn’t have any conception of what Curtis Mayfield’s music would sound like during the early 80’s. This song helped me to realize the answer: his sound really didn’t change at all. Structurally this song isn’t at all dissimilar to “If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go” from his debut 13 years earlier. Aside from the sunny vacation themed imagery of the lyrics, the differences in the songs are the then modern electronic touches that keep it instrumentally contemporary. The fact that is absolutely sounds like a Curtis Mayfield song showcases just how well his musical sound was able to update itself.

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Filed under 1980's, Boogie Funk, Curtis Mayfield, drums, elecro funk, horns, naked funk, percussion, synth bass, synth brass, synth funk, synthesizers, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here” by Curtis Mayfield

There was a concept perpetuated in much literature I read for years about Curtis Mayfield’s music. This had to do with Curtis’s music going on something of a slow decline after the mid 70’s-in similar manner to Stevie Wonder during the mid 80’s. Looking back on it all now,a lot of this might come from a popular/commercial standpoint. As independent as Curtis Mayfield was creatively,nothing he did stopped radio and chart formats from being racially divided. As based in Chicago blues,funk and soul as his music was Curtis continued to maintain his ceaselessly committed following among the black soul/funk listeners.

Curtis dealt with this head on when recording his second soundtrack album for the movie 1977 ‘Short Eyes’. This was a Robert W. Young adaptation of the Miguel Pinero. The film’s story revolved around the racial divide in a largely Hispanic and black men’s prison in New York-centering around a white middle class pedophile. Curtis himself made a cameo in the film as an inmate-performing the hit single taken from the film. It’s a song I first heard as an edited single on the compilation CD The Anthology 1961-1977. The name of the song in any version was “Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here”.

A grinding percussion accented funky drum opens the album-punctuated by an approaching wah wah guitar and a down scaling bass. The vocal part of the song opens with the refrain-finding the wah wah and bass accenting the vocal lines with a thick bed of fuzzed out blues/rock guitar in the back-round. Suddenly the song reintroduces itself with an orchestra of up-scaling strings. Then the song cuts down to the percussion and drums with that rocking fuzz guitar playing a spicy,bluesy solo over it. Then the chorus comes in,the backup singers doing leads with Curtis as the refrain/chorus repeats to it’s fade out.

“Do Do Wap” definitely has a stripped down funk aestetic all the way. The orchestral strings have a very menacing quality about them that advances the cinematic quality of the song. It’s also a strong reminder of the fact that the songs on Curtis Mayfield’s two soundtrack albums often tended to be on the stripped down side rhythmically. Especially when it came to the uptempo,funkier ones. In a lot of ways,this is my favorite Curtis Mayfield song of his solo career during the 70’s. And the continued re-use of it’s rhythmic break over the years showcases just how musical an impact it made.

 

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Filed under 1970's, blues funk, Chicago, cinematic funk, Curtis Mayfield, drums, Funk Bass, message songs, percussion, rock guitar, Short Eyes, Soundtracks, strings, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar

Anatomy of THE Groove: “Future Shock” by Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield has one of the most important legacies to black American music of his era. He was probably the first to fully recognize recording contracts in his day as a form of creative slavery. And formed his own label Curtom in the 1968. He inspired artists  ranging from Stevie Wonder to Prince in terms of taking similar actions in their careers. By the time he began his solo career in 1970 with his iconic debut Curtis,he had already developed his melodic style of psychedelic funky soul into fine musical wine. And with each forthcoming album,his music just continued to develop in terms of breadth and scope.

Curtis’s choice of creative independence really paid off when he scored the 1972 Sig Shore film Superfly. It helped make Curtom an enormously successful indie label with it’s commercial success. Especially with Curtis’s songs for the album deliberately countering what he saw as the films promotion of cocaine. The next year Curtis released his fourth solo album Back To The World. It was a similar thematic concept to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On-only as a third person perspective of the post Vietnam War America. The song that really pulled it all together for me personally is “Future Shock”.

The drums kicks off into full funkiness-with Curtis duetting with himself on deep wah wah and higher sustained guitar tones. This is accompanied with a phat bass line scaling down and back up in the opposite direction. The horn charts sustain heavily on the fanfaring refrain. The bluesy chorus and refrains have a very close relationship-with Curtis guitar tones,the bass line and the drums getting all of their melodic responses from the darting horns maintaining the heavy instrumental conversation. By the final bars of the song,the flute plays the gentler elements of the melody as it fades out.

“Future Shock” is a superb example of a funk era tone poem. Curtis’s lyrics declaring “we’ve got to stop all men from messing up the land” sets the tone for the songs lyricism. On the refrains he states poverty,apathy and racism as all being a sinister triad that’s keeping humanity from taking care of the planet Earth. It’s a message that resonates up to today’s climate change problem. Curtis literally makes his guitar whimper and weep throughout the song-setting up the tone poem by the musical tracks of his tears. And throughout the groove preaching the ecological gospel to the people.

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Filed under 1970's, Chicago, Curtis Mayfield, Curtom Records, drums, Funk Bass, funky soul, horns, message songs, rhythm guitar, Uncategorized

People Music: The Soulful Evolution Of Sound For African America

People Music is a term Henrique and myself often use to describe message songs recorded during the soul/funk generational cycle-specifically by black artists. Political and creative liberation was a key factor in this too. It was my father,however who inspired me to write this by asking me what the most significant song was during the 50’s and 60’s civil rights movement. The most obvious choice for that was “People Get Ready” by The Impressions. Lead singer/songwriter/guitarist Curtis Mayfield was an early champion for black musicians to have creative and business control of their art. And this 1965 ballad became a huge anthem for the movement as a whole.

As the 60’s progressed,the civil rights movement seeking racial equality evolved into a concept that assumed equality of person. Especially the idea that Afrocentric qualities were beautiful and must be appreciated as such. This became known as the black power movement. The completely rhythm based genre of funk developed during this time as well. As Henrique pointed out,funk continued to be the soundtrack to the black power movement well into the 1970’s. James Brown,who laid the foundation for funk, also recorded the genres earliest and most enduring anthem for racial empowerment entitled “Say It Loud (I’m Black And I’m Proud)”.

The 70’s funk era was chocked full of message songs. All of them reflected ideas that derived from the NOI and Black Panther Party from the mid/late 60’s that black American’s required a more positive understanding of themselves and their futures. 1974 was a year that dashed a lot of the 60’s hopes in general-especially for black Americans. Still funk and it’s tributaries through jazz,soul and rock music was at it’s strongest point. Even during the post Watergate recession. The poet/singer Gil Scott Heron,who five years earlier had given us the black power anthem “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” offered up this 1974 song in reflection of a potent present but less certain tomorrow.

Hip-hop’s presence as a commercially successful entity wasn’t yet four years old when The Furious Five released what is very likely the beginning of what is known today as conscious rap. Musically based in the synthesizer based electro funk of the period,this song found Grandmaster Melle Mel dealing directly with the state of affairs of urban black America during the early years of the Reagan administration. The song takes the futuristic sounding electronic grooves and mixes in tales of urban decay and neglect. Of particular note is Melle Mel stating “don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge/I’m trying not to lose my head/it’s like a jungle sometimes/it’s a wonder how I keep from going under”.

Though theoretically released at the end of the previous decade,Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” did some very significant things for black message songs at the head start of the 1990’s. It established hip-hop as a major archival medium for funk,in particular James Brown’s,through the use of electronic sampling. Not only that but the realization Chuck D and company had that “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp” showcased an empowering message for black Generation Xers as to just how much misrepresentation black American’s had to deal with over the centuries. And also by offering them a direct call to get involved and “fight the powers that be”.

Message songs within the black community seemed to disappear (or go totally underground) during the post 9/11 years. They were replaced by either reactionary (and often racist) patriotic anthems or simply musical silence. Suddenly a couple of years ago,longtime hip-hop/soul producer and singer Pharrell Williams emerged with “Happy”. Musically it hearkened back to the stripped down soul jazz trio sound of the mid 60’s. While it’s message was very all encompassing-asking the listener to “clap your hands if you feel that happiness is the truth”,it did open the door for black American artists to deliver new political anthems in music that were even more direct.

As I write this article,Beyonce’s performance of her newest song “Foundation” at the Superbowl,a strong pro black anthem, is generating similar controversies as were bought up during the height of the Black Panther Party and the black power movement in general. So the mid/late 2010’s are seeing black American message songs leap back into life in a huge way. Even though many people today are convinced no piece of music has any power to change the world,looking back on this history in the context of what is happening right now proves otherwise. That when it comes to being black in America, musical art is always at the forefront of the political.

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1960's, 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, 2010's, Curtis Mayfield, Funk, Gil Scott Heron, Hip-Hop, James Brown, message music, message songs, Pharrell Willaims, Public Enemy, Sampling, Soul, soul jazz, The Furious Five, Uncategorized

Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk for 5/4/2015: “Supernatural Thing” by Ben E. King

For much of my life? I have,as is the case with many,known former Drifters leading man Ben E. King for one song. The song was of course “Stand By Me”. It was re-purposed so many times over the years. Including the 1986 Rob Reiner/Stephen King film of the same name. On the other hand? That narrowness of perception on my part led me to neglect some very important music King made during the 60’s and beyond.

Having recorded for a variety of labels in the 60’s,many spin-off’s of a parent,King began recording for that main label Atlantic in the mid 70’s. By then the label was both iconic and legendary for it’s rich history in bringing soul music and it’s many tributaries to the American public-with artists such as Ray Charles. At this point? The focus of King’s music was changing. And it was very strongly reflected in the title song to his 1975 release Supernatural Thing.

This is one one of those songs that just starts it’s groove right off the bat. It’s a slow tempo drum with conga accented dance rhythm. With that is a higher pitched rhythm guitar-with a liquid high bass line playing the bluesiest of changes. Right in the middle? A subtle organ basically extends deeply on the bass. After King’s main vocals receive the call and response treatment from the female backup vocalists? There’s a repeated,jazzy swing drumming on the bridge before the song fades on the main theme.

With Ben E. King’s sad recent passing at the age of 76? This song came up in my conversations with Rique. Never heard it before though. One thing I noticed about this song is that it adds a light Latin percussion flavor to what basically amounts to the same sort of cleanly produced “united funk” one might hear with James Brown on “The Payback” or Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead”. Especially with the higher pitched bass playing the blues. Only unfortunate thing for me personally is that I never heard this song while the man was alive. Still it’s a very very strong groove from the funk era and showcases another side of this artist.

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Filed under 1970's, Atlantic Records, Ben E. King, Curtis Mayfield, Drifters, Funk, Funk Bass, James Brown

Anatomy of THE Original Super Heavy Funk for 4/27/2015: “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)” by The Impressions

One of the important things I’ve learned about Curtis Mayfield over the years is the extent of which his social consciousness evolved. This was also an important factor in America’s silent generation as a whole-extending across the nations color and economic lines. Starting out as mainly the composer/guitarist for The Impressions,Curtis soon became the bands lead singer as well. He became something of a windy city whiz kid-writing and producing for other acts as well. This not only changed the entire trajectory of his musical career. But re-focused the thematic priorities of himself,Sam Gooden and Fred Cash as well.

Throughout the 1960’s,this Chicago powerhouse vocal trio continually churned out songs such as “Keep On Pushing”,”Amen” and of course “People Get Ready”-all anthems of the civil rights movement and released between the march on Washington and the murder of Malcolm X. With later songs such as “We’re A Winner”? It was clear the confidence of the civil rights movement was evolving into the black power movement-for America and The Impressions. In 1969,following the murders of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy a year before? Donny Hathaway co-produced the bands 1969 album The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story,which included another powerful song in “Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)”.

First thing heard on this song is an enthusiastic,youthful applause before a thundering drum roll inaugurates the calling outcry of the Memphis soul style  horn section that does a call and response dance with Curtis’s gurgling wah wah guitar. Throughout the main body of the song? The rolling beat is accented by a JB style mid pitched rhythm guitar. Before the horn sections emerge again,there’s a brief low blues guitar as well. On the chorus of the song,a sustained gospel style organ comes in to keep pushing the main melody of the song forward. Towards the end of the song,before the chorus closes out the song,the vocals of The Impressions completely recede while Curtis does a full Albert King style amplified blues solo.

In all honesty? Today is the first day that I’ve ever actually heard this song. Sometimes however? A first impression (pun more intended than I was hoping it to be) can say a thousand words. On two very important levels? This song speaks to two viewpoints of the cultural changes in race relations at that time. Musically the song is just about at the perfect intersection between the contemporary funk explosions of James Brown and the Chicago style urban blues that was coming out of the Chess label only a decade earlier. Lyrically it’s a similar situation. On one hand Curtis is very earnest in schooling the young that the power structure of America will be weakened as “we’re killing up our leaders” and “we all know it’s wrong”. By the end of the song he muses “if your cut you’re gonna bleed/might I get a little deeper/human life is from the semen seed”. This song musically and lyrically speaks so deeply into the primal nature of racial violence? It deserves to be understood in 2015 as much as in the late 60’s.

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Filed under 1960's, black power, Blues, Bobby Kennedy, Chess Records, Chicago, civil rights, Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash, Funk, funk guitar, horns, James Brown, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Sam Gooden, The Impressions, wah wah