Most people, asked to name a Curtis Mayfield song, will come up with something from Superfly, the superlative title track, spectrally funky “Freddy’s Dead” or the ethereally ominous “Pusherman”, both classics of the ‘70s funk era. There’s no question that these are great songs, full of biting social commentary and lacerating funk grooves. Yet for Mayfield, a serious, thoughtful man with long roots in the civil rights movement, it must have rankled that his best, most commercially successful songs were from the soundtrack to scenes of drug abuse and social degradation.
Ironic, yes, that the soul singer dubbed ‘the preacher” or “the reverend”, whose luminous “People Get Ready” became an unofficial anthem of the Freedom Rides, should be so closely associated with the fallout years, that post-Vietnam period when heroin took over the black neighborhoods. Movin’ On Up, an expansive documentary, tells both halves of these interlocking stories: the early years when Mayfield, along with Impressions Fred Cash and Sam Gooden sang high, eerie harmonies about a better world; and the later ones when his incendiary funk band sketched a nightmare scenario of poverty, dysfunction and crime.
The split for Mayfield, as for many soul musicians, came in 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated. “Curtis who had sung about the triumph and the glory of us coming together as a people was now faced with a reality that I was faced with. Life without a Martin Luther King. Life without a Robert Kennedy. Life without a John Kennedy or a Malcolm X,” says Andrew Young, in an interview. “All of these were people who were voices of hope and they shared a vision. And we’ve been floundering ever since in some ways.”
The darkness that descended can be heard in Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Going on and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and in Curtis Mayfield’s post-Impressions body of work. And, in many ways, these are the classics of ‘70s R&B and soul, prophetic and chilling and physically irresistible.
The documentary starts with Sam Gooden and Fred Cash reminiscing about their earliest days with Mayfield, Cash young enough to have to ask his mother for permissions when the other two drove up in a big car and asked him to join the Impressions. (She said okay.) The two surviving Impressions are natty and soft-spoken, recalling without much evident rancor, how the profits from early hit records never seemed to trickle down to the band. They dress as sharply as they did in their earliest performances, a 1965 clip of “It’s All Right” zooming in on a very young trio in three-piece suits singing high, swoon-inducing harmonies and snapping fingers. Johnny Pate, the jazz musician and producer who crafted the band’s lush, horns-and-strings embellished sound, recalls initially looking down on pop songwriters, armed with only a chord or two.
The Impressions’ sincerity, and their ability to nail upper register harmonies won him over. He recalls that during an early recording session, “On the end of ‘I’ve been trying’, the group went into some high falsetto harmonic things that were really unheard of…Nobody had done it before,” he says. Later, while recording “I Need You” the trio tried it again. “The amazing part,” Pate remembers. “It’s all in tune. In perfect harmony, in tune…This began to be a signature thing for the Impressions.”
Pate worked with the Impressions on a string of ‘60s hits, including the gospel-influenced “People Get Ready. (The only footage that can be found shows the band in a sort of pleasure boat, paddling around a pond as they sing its lovely melody.) Andrew Young is the first to introduce the idea that Mayfield was more than just a musician, but a political figure of sorts, inspiring and giving voice to the hopeful elements of the fight for racial equality. “You have to think of CM as a prophetic, visionary teacher of our people and of our time,” he says, and given his stature in the movement and the black community, it is a rather remarkable statement.
“People Get Ready” was the first in a series of politically-messaged songs, a string that included “We’re a Winner”, “This is My Country”, “Choice of Colors” and “Meeting Over Yonder”, as Mayfield introduced as much social consciousness as he could into songs meant for a mainstream audience. The juxtaposition of entertainment and politics sometimes makes for some weird images. The Impressions perform “Meeting Over Yonder”, in one clip, in front of an all-white audience, with two gyrating go-go girls flanking them. Later, they are almost prevented from singing “Choice of Colors” on the Joey Bishop show by an overweening producer. Bishop, hearing the argument, finally comes out and tells them to play their hit. They do, and it is a stark and wonderful song, performed, somewhat incongruously, in front of Vegas-y flashing lights.
As his songs became more political, Mayfield was also striving to become more self-reliant economically. He left the Impressions in 1970 and founded Curtom Records, a label which released his own solo material, subsequent Impressions records (with Leeroy Hutson taking the lead), some Staple Singers recordings and others. His solo material took a far more serious, ominous tone during the ‘70s. He assembled the killer funk rhythm section that defined his sound: Josephh “Lucky” Scott on bass, Henry Gibson on congas and hand drums and Tyrone McMullen on kit drums.
You can hear the stark contrast, starting on disc two with an early Mayfield solo single “Hell Below”. The video for this cut is pure ‘70s funk, images of armed police, American flags, angry faces, even Disney ears, interspersed with shots of Mayfield walking, back to audience, through a grassy, tranquil place. You don’t see Mayfield’s face until near the end, and he’s not performing, just staring moodily away from the camera. White people are not grooving on camera or following whimsically in boats in this world. They are arguing with each other, talking emphatically with their hands, mouths drawn tight…not sympathetic types at all, clearly the enemy.
Chuck D of Public Enemy is, perhaps, the most trenchant observer of this shift, not just in Mayfield’s career, but in the world at large. D recalls uncles who might once have snuck a reefer in some back corner now battling full-fledged heroin addictions, Vietnam veterans struggling to find a place in neighborhoods that had turned more violent since they’d left. “What Curtis was doing in the seventies was talking directly to someone who might have came back from Vietnam….[The sound] was darker for some reason…but the groove was so thick,” D recalls.
Mayfield seems to have been somewhat ambiguous about his role as a spokesman, in a 1987 interview stating that, “I’m an entertainer first. I don’t claim to be Martin Luther King or a preacher or anything else, even though maybe there are signs of these things in my lyrics. Everything – love appreciation and anything else – starts out first with respect. If I can establish some identify as to making you respect me as a human and then accept me as an entertainer, then let’s do that.”
But there is no denying that Mayfield found his broadest canvas in the strife of the early ‘70s. His soundtrack to Superfly was widely recognized as far better and more socially conscious than the film it supported. Movin’ On Up offers only still photographs from the movie, but it does include clips of Mayfield performing three of the soundtrack’s best known songs, “Superfly”, “Freddy’s Dead”, and “Pusherman”. The footage of “Superfly” is nothing short of stunning, Mayfield in a kango hat, playing in an arena somewhere, the heat of the rhythm simmering under the chill of his unearthly high falsetto, wah wahs twitching, bass player grooving hook-fingered over the low strings. The band is sweating, Mayfield looks perfectly cool and collected, rocking almost imperceptibly from the hips, as he plays his guitar.
Superfly was Mayfield’s biggest commercial success, and afterwards, with the onset of disco, he lowered his profile, working mostly on soundtracks and taking time off to raise his kids. He continued to play and record through the ‘70s and ‘80s, and was performing in Brooklyn in August 1990 when a freak storm knocked a lighting rig over on him and paralyzed him from the neck down.
Movin’ On Up includes some very moving segments of a 1996 interview, where Mayfield talks about his regrets, how every human being ought to be able to leave this world whole, but sometimes that doesn’t happen. And Chuck D who spent time with Mayfield during this late period, recalls, “When he told me his biggest regret was not being able to play the guitar, that was something that stuck with me for years because it says that…you know, don’t take any of your gifts for granted.”
But as the title may imply, Movin’ on Up doesn’t spend a lot of time on the tragic coda to Mayfield’s life, instead preferring to concentrate on his life and music. His widow, Altheida Mayfield, recalls that at some point early on in his years as an invalid, Mayfield made a point of listening to every song he’d ever written, one after another, in chronological order. This documentary gives ordinary fans much the same opportunity, summing up an extraordinary life through music.