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The Boston Phoenix Curtis Mayfield


By Michael Freedberg

JANUARY 10, 2000:  Master soul musician Curtis Mayfield died Sunday, December 26. He was only 57 years old, but the past several years he had lived paralyzed from the neck down, the result of a bank of stage lighting's having fallen on him during a concert. He was a minister's son. The classic imagery and gospel sound of black Chicago church music, from Albertina Walker and Thomas A. Dorsey to Clara Ward and Martha Bass, were in his falsetto, his guitar licks, his language. His was a tiny but fierce voice, of hope and love and tough love -- a prophet's song with a chorus attached.

Curtis Mayfield mattered. Few pop musicians impact more than a few years of space. Mayfield was a major presence for more than two decades. From the late 1950s, when with Jerry Butler he founded the Impressions (Butler sang deep baritone lead on 1958's "For Your Previous Love"), to the 1960s, when with the Impressions -- sans Butler, now a solo act -- Mayfield singing lead on his own compositions represented the pinnacle of soul-music idealism. From the first part of the 1970s, when he wrote the Superfly soundtrack, to the late 1970s, when his Curtom label spawned disco hits, including Linda Clifford's ("Runaway" and "If My Friends Could See Me Now"). In all these pop-music eras Mayfield's lyrics sang of inner strength, joyous romance, grace under pressure. Sometimes he focused all three ideas into one unduplicatable hit like "Woman Got Soul," "Keep On Pushing," "I'm So Happy," and "People Get Ready."

The Impressions were a vocal group in an era of vocal groups, when the pop audience's attention was instinctively given to songs that told a story or delivered a message or extended a hand in comfort and consolation. Without such audience loyalty it was unlikely that the Impressions' sound -- Mayfield's sound -- of falsettos over falsetto, delicacy and strength backed by an equally high-octaved chorus of voices and strings, could have succeeded. Unlike the up-and-down Miracles (with Smokey Robinson) and the twin-towered Temptations (led by falsettoist Eddie Kendricks and baritone David Ruffin), the Impressions all but eschewed lower registers. They sang as angels on high, without bittersweetness and, in their ballads, without rhythmic contrast (though not in "Woman Got Soul," with its heralding trumpet riff). Angled so sharply to the high octaves, Impressions' songs were acts of faith, defenseless against an abyss of get-downs and bottom beats. Yet Mayfield's keening cool falsetto supported by the other Impressions' falsetto harmony never looked down. He sang what he believed -- no, knew -- to be true, and it was enough. Not for him the tears-of-a-clown style of Smokey Robinson, the swooping gymnastics of Jackie Wilson, the oohs and aahs of Gene "Duke of Earl" Chandler (a Chicago soul contemporary). Mayfield's Impressions were pure power of grace without eye winks or ear glitter.

An entire school of vocal-group and solo soul music came into being imitating the Mayfield sound. Most of it was recorded in Chicago and so became known as the "Chi-Town Sound." From Gene Chandler to Billy Stewart, and from the reconstituted Dells to the Chi-Lites, high falsetto singing and orchestrated dreaminess in ballad tempo became the standard for expressing soul's righteous intensity, in both romance and message songs.

When the new black-power intensity came into movies, Mayfield was there with Superfly and its central lament, "Freddie's Dead," in which his ineffables expressed both loss and transcendence of loss. And soon thereafter, in "Don't Worry, If There's a Hell Down Below" and its successors, he found a new tone of voice, a secular voice very different from his masterful spirituality. The new Mayfield spoke a drollery that imbibed the pain of a drug-addicted black urban youth and made it grin and even dance. He became a house-party and early disco icon, and with Linda Clifford, starting in 1977, he became for a time a canny producer of the delicate and gaudy femininity-for-femininity's-sake that was so liberating a part of the disco experience.

In the 1980s Mayfield faded from view. He moved to Atlanta, where he continued to write new songs and, sometimes, to tour. It was during one such tour that, while he was performing his new, personal music, a stage lighting structure fell on him and left him immobilized. Yet he went on. Only recently he completed a new CD entitled New World Order. He had more music in him, droll and idealistic at the same time. This music will now be there for those who have forgotten Mayfield and for those who never knew him to listen and savor.

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