It’s 1970. The Vietnam War was still raging, the new decade looked bleak. Flower power was failing. Nixon was in the White House, and Kent State was in the headlines. It was the end of peace and love.
Also in 1970, a 28-year old Curtis Mayfield left the Impressions and released “Curtis,” his solo debut. “Curtis” highlights many of the darker thoughts and feelings that were inside Mayfield’s head at the time. From the opening greeting of (Don’t Worry) If There’s Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go to the closing of Give it Up, the record shows Curtis tapping into something more personal than what we had seen with the Impressions previously.
Lyrically, the album addresses the political and social concerns of Black America at the time. If There’s Hell Below… is nothing short of a stern warning on the state of race relations at the time. Clearly scared of where the world is headed, he sings,
People running from their worries
While the judge and his juries
Dictate the law that’s partly flaw
Cat calling, love balling, fussing and cussing
Top billing now is killing
For peace no-one is willing
The Other Side of Town, the album’s second track, documents the reality of depression, poverty & hunger on the other side of the tracks.
It’s hard to do right
In this filthy night
Just plain simple comfort
Is completely out of sight
Then there’s We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue. Curtis is clearly disappointed at the inequality of the world, but also disappointed in some of his fellow brothers and sisters for their own part in it.
We people who are darker than blue
Are we gonna stand around this town
And let what others say come true?
Get yourself together
Learn to know your side
Shall we commit our own genocide
Before you check out your mind?
As we turn the record over, Side B is less political, and more personal. It starts out being significantly more uplifting than Side A, with Move On Up – the nine minute centerpiece of the album, and the most upbeat song on the record. The track showcases the famous horn arrangement along with Mayfield’s uplifting message of brighter days ahead, sung with that signature gentle voice we all love.
Curtis continues on with Wild & Free:
Wild and free
Is the way I wanna be
Making a new day
Leading in a new way
Respect for those people
Power to the people
The album ends, however, with the very sad, but sweet Give It Up, a song dealing with ending his relationship at the time.
We’ve got all the comforts of life
A few kids and you are my wife
And I tell it like it is
I must confess I’m gonna have to give it up
The 28-year old Mayfield had gone through a lot in his life by the time “Curtis” was released – more than most people do in a lifetime. In the following years, he would continue to create socially conscious music that was inspirational to millions, both as a solo artist and as a producer. The follow-up to this album, 1971’s “Roots” is equally amazing, but his commercial peak as a solo artist didn’t come until 1972’s “Superfly.” 1973’s “Back to the World” saw Mayfield concerned with Vietnam vets coming back home to a jobless America. Then in 1976, we went on to work with Aretha Franklin, writing the soundtrack to “Sparkle.”
But in 1970, Curtis Mayfield was just getting started.
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