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Troubled man

How Curtis Mayfield was led from the light of optimism

by Charles Taylor

["Curtis On the Saturday morning during the week of the 1993 LA riots, I was driving to work, listening to WILD's soul-oldies program The Time Tunnel, when the DJ played Curtis Mayfield's "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Going To Go." Somehow the song, which was a pop and R&B hit in 1970, had escaped me back when I was a kid and my little Panasonic radio was always playing AM Top 40.

So here I was, 23 years later, driving to work, when out of the radio came the voice of what sounded like a slightly deranged preacher, impassioned yet taking his time, making sure every word sank in, and each one booming out in a deep, throbbing echo: "SISTERS! NIGGERS! WHITEYS! JEWS! CRACKERS!/DON'T WORRY, IF THERE'S HELL BELOW, WE'RE ALL GONNA GO!!" And then came a bray somewhere between a scream and the laugh of someone presiding over an inferno. It was a warm, sunny day, and my blood turned to ice water. Everything -- the spring weather, the nagging tension of the scenes from LA that had been playing and replaying on TV -- was sucked into Mayfield's song. This was Rodney King's quavering question -- "Can we all just get along?" -- come back as mockery. Mayfield's twist on Benjamin Franklin: if we stand apart, we will surely burn together.

The most interesting parts of the new three-CD box People Get Ready!: The Curtis Mayfield Story (Rhino) show what happens when events conspire to darken the heart of a resolute optimist. Mayfield, who has been paralyzed from the neck down since 1990, when a lighting rig fell on him at an outdoor concert, has always been a frustrating, sometimes brilliant performer. His initial work with the Chicago group the Impressions remains some of the gentlest and most distinctive soul of the '60s. His gorgeous and tremulous tenor, a match for Marvin Gaye's, was the foundation of the group's harmonies, just as his songwriting -- the backbone of the Impressions' 16 Top 40 hits before he went solo in 1970 -- translated gospel tradition into smooth pop on numbers like "Amen," "Have a Good Time," and "People Get Ready" (the last so delicate it seems to have been made out of wind chimes). That title and those of other Impressions hits included in the box ("Keep On Pushing," "This Is My Country," the ineffable "I'm So Proud" -- his greatest love song) tell the story. He conceived of his songs as three-minute sermons stressing brotherhood, salvation, strength, self-respect, pride.

Unfortunately, when Mayfield went solo in the late '60s he began conceiving of his songs as eight-minute sermons, and his work became increasingly preachy and simplistic. Once again, the titles tell the tale: "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue," "Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)," "Beautiful Brother of Mine," "We Got To Have Peace." One of the pleasures of the largely disposable third disc (which ranges from 1976 to 1990, an era in which he tried to stay abreast of the advent of funk and disco) is hearing Mayfield simply trying to create party music. He doesn't sound quite at home, but he's not straining to make a statement, either.

Preachiness and length notwithstanding, what makes his early '70s numbers work is the music. I wouldn't want to bet on who's the more sampled, Mayfield or Sly Stone, but listening to numbers like "Stone Junkie" or "Give Me Your Love," you can hear the slow grooves that have become the staples of rap and trip-hop. There's an element of urban tension present in these songs. You never know when the string section's elongated notes are going to break up in sharp bursts that compel you to attention like the sound of footsteps trailing you after dark.

The place where Mayfield put it all together was his 1972 soundtrack to the blaxploitation hit Superfly (his best work and one of the decade's essential albums). Maybe it was disgust at the way the film glorified the pusher hero, or maybe bitter frustration over the splintering of black politics and life under the gun in Nixon's law-and-order America. Whatever it was, "Superfly," "Pusherman," and "Freddie's Dead" remain his paramount achievement, as hard and pitiless as any music ever to make the charts. There's a constant battle in "Freddie's Dead" between the dread-laden guitar line and the soaring strings. Mayfield himself seems to be discarding his optimism as the song unfolds, in favor of blasted fatalism ("Everybody's used him/Ripped him off and abused him . . . A terrible blow but that's how it go") and deadpan disgust ("If you want to be a junkie, wow").

"Pusherman" goes even farther. Mayfield's falsetto has never sounded so seductive, his grooves more insinuating. You're into the rhythm of the song when the lyrics hit you like a cold smack in the face: "I'm your momma/I'm your daddy/I'm that nigger in the alley . . . Want some coke?/Have some weed/You know me/I'm your friend . . . I'm your pusherman." He finishes that last line up with an ambiguous laugh that seems to mean "trust me" and "sucker" in equal measure. Dealing death has never sounded so groovy. And it's hardly his fault if his brotherhood politics can't stand up. I don't wish to seem harsh or ungenerous toward a man whose musical career has reached such an abrupt, terrible impasse (it's reported that he's writing a new album), but the toughest moments of Mayfield's music make you wish, to paraphrase Flannery O'Connor, there'd been someone there to make him pessimistic every minute of his life.

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