Today’s extract from I’ll Take You There: Pop Music and the Urge for Transcendence by Bill Friskics-Warren is from the section of the book about prophets. In this case, Curtis Mayfield:
It was not only Mayfield’s barely masked encomiums to equality that carried his message of uplift and transcendence. Even a putative love song like “I’m So Proud,” the Impressions’ swooning Top 20 pop hit from 1964, is a paean to black pride—in this case to black womanhood—much as Chuck Berry’s “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” celebrated African American masculinity the previous decade. The word “soul” in the Impressions’ 1965 single “Woman’s Got Soul” likewise is code for blackness (and righteousness), just as it is in “Talking About My Baby” from the year before. “Need to Belong,” a 1963 hit that Mayfield wrote for former Impressions lead singer Jerry Butler, turns on the line, “It hurts to be known as no one.” Here, in a brooding baritone, Butler pines not just for a soulmate. He longs for the day when he can claim his place as a first-class citizen in the nation that his forebears did so much to build. Butler is aching to do what Mayfield would do in “This Is My Country,” where, over one of the bluest chord changes ever, he avers, “I paid three hundred years or more of slave-driving sweat and welts on my back,” before asserting, that blue chord modulating right in time, “This is my country.”
Virtually everything in the Impressions’ catalog can be decoded in this way, all of it steeped in Mayfield’s roots in the church yet all of it very much of its historical moment. A record like “Meeting Over Yonder” might sound like an old tent revival hymn, but it does not paint a picture of some sweet hereafter so much as speak to things in the here and now. In the tradition of the best black spirituals and preaching, it concerns hope for the future and for the present. Whatever its theological import, when the horns resound and the Impressions sing, “The best thing for you, you, and me / Is going to the meeting up yonder,” it doubles as an inducement for people to organize and to march, much as similarly transparent calls from the era like Martha & the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” did. Similarly with Mayfield’s allusions to the River Jordan in “Amen,” its horns paraphrasing the melody of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and in “People Get Ready,” references that serve as much as metaphors for historical freedom as they do for some otherworldly afterlife. Thus does Mayfield’s multivalent message, his blurring of the lines between the sacred and the secular, speak, as the writer Ernest Hardy put it, “both to the avid churchgoer and the person whose faith is drawn solely from what he or she has seen in the ‘real’ world.”
Nevertheless, it was in church, at the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church where his grandmother Annabelle served as pastor, that Mayfield first witnessed how the gospel tradition of call and response could inflame and unite people. It was also in church that he learned to sing (he adored Sam Cooke) and where he met Jerry Butler, with whom he would form the Impressions. Mayfield’s grandmother’s congregation was located on the South Side of Chicago, the focal point for Southern blacks who migrated to the North during the 30s and 40s in search of a better life. The Impressions’ music spoke chiefly to this audience, certainly at first, and mainly of hope and encouragement, even though to many, the North’s promise of social and economic freedom increasingly felt, as Langston Hughes so indelibly put it, like a dream deferred. The Impressions’ records were born of this tension and predicament. Still, as Ernest Hardy observed, “there’s never even the suggestion of defeat [in their music], though there’s frequently sadness and between-the-lines admissions of heavy prices paid.”
“Faith is the key,” the Impressions exhort, in three-part harmony, in “People Get Ready,” and harmony was key, as much to the trio’s social ideals as it was to how their vocal arrangements came together. “There’s hope for all,” they go on to sing, and by “all,” they mean everyone, even white people. As Craig Werner observed, writing in his wonderful book, A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Mayfield articulated “a deeply held vision of redemption that accepted white presence while insisting on the beauty of blackness…. Amid the rapidly polarizing racial climate of the late 60s, [records like] Choice of Colors and This Is My Country held out that hope that Black Power and democratic brotherhood were, however unlikely it sometimes seemed, profoundly compatible.”
By the late 60s, however, with Martin Luther King gone and the civil rights movement beginning to fragment, the glory-bound train of “People Get Ready” had begun to derail. Mayfield continued to resist separatism, and his vision of community remained as open and inclusive as ever. Yet increasingly—and much as Marvin Gaye did with What’s Going On and Trouble Man—Mayfield painted a darker, more turbulent picture of America. “Sisters! Niggers! Whiteys! Jews! Crackers! Don’t worry! If there’s hell below, we’re all gonna go!” he shouts sardonically to open his 1970 solo debut. The seismic rumble of bass guitar that follows conjures images of an abyss yawning beneath the nation’s feet. Much of the music on Mayfield’s early and mid-70s albums sounded a similarly tumultuous note. There were exceptions, notably the bromidic—and, if saccharine, then at least earned—likes of “Miss Black America” and “The Makings of You.” Predominately, though—even on visionary, uplifting tracks like “Beautiful Brother of Mine”—Mayfield’s arrangements were built around fuzz-toned bass, wah-wah guitar, and aggressive, percussive rhythms. And they often were driven by pungent horns and strings. His music reflected the malaise of a country stuck in a war that it could not see its way out of, and of deteriorating race relations at home, where for many in the inner city, “moving on up” had devolved into a venal distortion of the gospel impulse to “get over.”
Superfly, the 1972 movie for which Mayfield provided the soundtrack, was all about getting over, and not by way of Jordan or the mountain top, but by means of a treacherous underworld of greed, drugs, and betrayal. Gordon Parks Jr. directed the film, which sensationally depicted the very real desperation of ghetto life and became, along with the likes of Shaft and Sweet Sweetback’s Badaaass Song, a touchstone of the then-emerging subgenre of “blaxploitation” movies. Mayfield, however, would have none of Parks’s proto-gangsta glamorization of sex, guns, and cocaine, no matter how much the “Pusherman” might have served as an archetype of black male ascendancy after the fashion of Staggerlee or Railroad Bill. Yet true to dialogic form, and much as he had been doing since his earliest days with the Impressions, Mayfield did not attack the premise of Parks’s story outright, but instead created an album’s worth of music that functions as a “masked dialogue” with it. With the sobering, string-washed disco of “Freddie’s Dead” and “Little Child Runnin’ Wild,” Mayfield exposes the pusher’s false promise of transcendence and speaks, as Robert Christgau wrote, “for (and to) the ghetto’s victims rather than its achievers.”
Not that moviegoers heard words of judgment like “His hope was a rope / And he should have known,” which Mayfield leveled at the murdered drug dealer Freddie. Mayfield included just an instrumental version of “Freddie’s Dead” with the music that he submitted for the movie, only later releasing the take with the lyrics on the soundtrack album that he put out on his Curtom record label. Yet in a move as streetwise as that of any pusher, he released the record three months before the film opened, the upshot of which was that audiences had internalized Mayfield’s anti-drug message long before they saw Parks’s sympathetic portrayal of the dealer’s underworld on screen.
“Freddie’s Dead” went to No. 4 on the pop chart in 1972, enabling Mayfield’s message to get over like never before. Not only that, on the closing vamp of the album’s title track, which also made the pop Top 10 that year (the Superfly soundtrack reached No. 1), Mayfield reclaims the gospel notion of getting over, vindicating the movie’s protagonist, who, despite his season in hell, stays true to himself and gets out alive. Even this, though, was but a qualified sort of uplift. Getting out alive certainly was a long way from the train to glory of “People Get Ready,” but with the idealism of the civil rights and Black Power movements giving way to cynicism, materialism, and fatigue, survival seemed like all that anyone struggling to get over could hope for. Mayfield drank more deeply of the blues, where transcendence has more to do with keeping on, with just living to see another day, than with the gospel promise of getting over. With Back to the World, the album that he released after Superfly, he took a hard look at the black experience in Vietnam. On his soundtrack to the 1977 movie Short Eyes, a record that was anchored by the chilling “Doo Doo Wop Is Strong in Here,” he ventured into the depths of prison life, which increasingly had become an alternate ghetto for the urban black males who populated Superfly. That is, at least for those whose number did not come up in the lottery for the draft.