There's No Place Like America Today
No Place like It Back Then, Either
Curtis Mayfield's fingerprints are on some of the most stirring and significant popular music ever made. During the Motown explosion of the mid-'60s, the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and producer developed his own take on Temptations-style group harmony, by way of smooth swaying singles ("Gypsy Woman") and mountains-moving calls to consciousness ("People Get Ready," a hymn of the civil rights movement). When message music began to infiltrate the pop charts, Mayfield served up the subversive soundtrack to Superfly, which counters the blaxploitation film's message with sorrowful, gritty sketches of inner-city poverty and violence. When funk began getting freaky in the early '70s, Mayfield put together one of the era's tightest bands (see Curtis/Live!), and with his weeping wah-wah leads and chicken-scratching rhythm guitar, he showed subsequent generations the fine points of groove production.
No single album fully captures the contribution of Mayfield, the perpetually underestimated genius who was paralyzed in 1990 when a lighting truss struck him on a concert stage in Brooklyn. This ironically titled 1975 gem might just be the best appetizer from the enormous Mayfield menu. Though it offers no big hits, it's got stellar examples of his primary song types—from abiding affirmations of faith (the proud gospel-tinged "Jesus," "Love to the People") to celebrations of romance ("So in Love") to laments about poverty and violence ("Hard Times," "Billy Jack"). Each is sung from a perch slightly above the scrounging streets, and most feature at least a bit of Mayfield's trembling falsetto, which knits anger and empathy into a unified expression, the thoughts of an uncle dismayed by a wayward nephew.
Of the songwriters who made it their business to testify about the brutality of America's inner cities, Mayfield is the most effective. His songs are educations in themselves. Anyone seeking perspective on the African American experience from the 1960s onward should know about this rare poet, who speaks powerful truth even as the music around him drips with sweetness, grace, and compassion.
Released: 1975, Curtom
Key Tracks: "Billy Jack," "So in Love," "Hard Times."
Catalog Choice: Curtis/Live!; Superfly
Next Stop: Donny Hathaway: Everything Is Everything
After That: Outkast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
Book Pages: 485–486