Best Impressions: The Curtis Mayfield Deep Dive
If you love exquisite musicianship, soulful songwriting, and ineffable beauty—listen, rewind, repeat
I’ll try not to repeat the same lede as the review but it does bear saying again: it’s crazy that it took until now for someone to write a definitive Mayfield biography. There was Peter Burns’ Curtis Mayfield that came out of the U.K. in the early 2000s, but while it was a fantastic discographic resource, it offered little on Mayfield’s actual life. Traveling Soul is hardly perfect, but it goes far further than any previous book in trying to give us a sense of Mayfield as both artist and man. Whatever its other flaws, that’s a Very Big Deal.
And hey: the book convinced me to revisit a catalogue that I thought I knew decently well and then proved to me how little I actually knew. Here then is a highly personalized playlist. It’s not meant to be a primer by any means, but rather captures how I moved back through Mayfield and The Impressions’ music in the weeks and months I spent reading and thinking about the biography.
1. The Impressions “Gypsy Woman” (1961) • Available on The Complete A and B Sides
On the one hand, imagine that the group you create with a bunch of doo-wop loosies from across Chi-town manages to land a huge hit right out of the gate: “For Your Precious Love” (1958). But then that insta-success catalyzes the relatively quick departure of lead Jerry Butler and now you look to your guitarist and main songwriter, Curtis Mayfield, who’s all of 16.
It could easily have all gone south for Curtis, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden. Chicago probably had hundreds, if not thousands, of failed soul groups from that same era. As talented as The Impressions were, there’s no guarantee that they wouldn’t have ended up in that same pile of forgotten coulda-beens.
But then Curtis churns out “Gypsy Woman,” an unlikely hit that opens with the clickity-clack rhythm of castanets and takes the listener on an quasi-exotic trip. Now The Impressions had their proverbial foot in the door.
2. Gene Chandler “A Man’s Temptation” (1963) • Available on The Duke of Earl
3. Major Lance “I’m the One Who Loves You” (1964) • Available on Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago Soul)
As The Impressions were trying to build momentum, Mayfield was fast becoming a key architect in what would become known as The Chicago Sound as he wrote and produced for artists at different area labels, especially Vee-Jay (where The Impressions were originally signed) and OKeh, where Curtis was hired on as a songwriter in late 1962. The way Traveling Soul tells it, Curtis had literal bags of songs he was writing and he allowed different artists to rummage around, including Gene Chandler, Major Lance and Billy Butler. (Many of these recordings are compiled on the Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago Soul anthology).
Listening back now, especially on these two songs, the Mayfield influence is incredibly obvious in terms of the style of the song, how the vocals fit together, etc. Gooden and Cash even sang backup on many of these songs; all that was really missing was Curtis’s voice. Even as he became a hit machine for other artists, he and the Impressions were fast moving towards their signature sound.
4. The Impressions “I’ve Been Trying” (1964) • Available on The Complete A and B Sides
Let me start by saying this is one of my all-time favorite things The Impressions ever touched. It’s so simple and unadorned, allowing the trio’s vocal prowess to take center stage. As Traveling Soul points out, the kind of three-man vocal weave that the group practiced was commonplace in gospel, but as with many innovations in R&B/soul, bridging gospel techniques into secular music could sound revelatory. “I’ve Been Trying” powerfully gives Mayfield, Gooden and Cash their own turns on lead, but the sublime magic happens around the 2:00 mark where the three stack falsettos atop one another. The effect is of such ineffable beauty that I feel like I’m besmirching it by saying anything more besides: listen, rewind, listen, repeat.
5. The Impressions “I’m So Proud” (1964) • Available on The Complete A and B Sides
“I’m So Proud” also showcases the group’s budding vocal style, but I focus on this song for a different reason. Before I read Traveling Soul, I never paid that close attention to the lyrics, but now the verse immediately after the main hook is like a thorn hidden along a rose stem. The group, gorgeously, sings “I’m so proud of being loved by you,” and then it switches to Curtis — solo — singing “and it would hurt, hurt to know, if you ever were untrue.”
Let’s just pause on that for a moment…nowhere else in the song except here does he give any indication that his lover is out there creeping. Indeed, the entirety of the song is all about the profound, soul-fulfilling love they share, but then Curtis undermines that entire vibe with one line. As I suggest in my review, it’s like he couldn’t help himself; his insecurities in real life ran so deep to emerge even in the most innocuous of love paeans. Dude had issues.
6. The Impressions “You’ll Want Me Back” (1963) • Available on The Complete A and B Sides
I’m including this mostly because it’s a non-LP B-side (and a lovely one at that) that graced the flip of the group’s most successful single ever, “It’s All Right.”
7. The Impressions “We’re a Winner” (1968) • Available on The Complete A and B Sides
…and this just happens to be my favorite of their uptempo tracks. It’s crazy to me that some white radio programmers found this too inflammatory to play, but it’s a reminder of the politics of the time that proclaiming “we’re a winner” was deemed a threat to the status quo.
8. & 9. The Impressions “I’m Loving Nothing” (1968) + “Seven Years” (1969) • Both available on the This Is My Country/Young Mods’ Forgotten Story CD
If you could only buy one album that Mayfield worked on…cheat and buy both The Impressions’ This Is My Country and Young Mods’ Forgotten Story. As far as I’m concerned, this was a double album that just happened to be split into two (and indeed, there’s a CD reissue that packages them together). They were the first two albums recorded for Mayfield’s new Curtom label and they feature the same key personnel. Besides The Impressions, there was longtime arranger/producer Johnny Pate, plus newcomer Donny Hathaway, who was briefly recruited by Mayfield out of college and stayed around until 1969 when Hathaway struck out on his own (this lead his vindictive mentor to cut off all ties with him).
The production, songwriting, everything on these two albums are exquisite and while I don’t want to overvalue Hathaway’s contribution in such a way that diminishes anyone else’s, I have to think that part of what makes these albums so striking is because he added something extra on the production/arrangement side (though it appears his influence was more felt on the Young Mods’ recordings vs. This Is My Country, where Pate was still working out most of the charts).
In any case, “I’m Loving Nothing” is one of the most devastating ballads I’ve ever heard, a 2.5 minute eulogy to a love affair that apparently has gone very wrong (maybe the lover from “I’m So Proud” finally went untrue). “Seven Years” is also about the end of a relationship, but it sounds so damn… happy that I forgot that it’s supposed to be a heartbreak song. (I’m sure a musicologist out there can explain whether I’m right or wrong about my assessment of the song’s emotional effect). It also features another one of those mind-melting multi-harmony moments — scroll up to 1:55 where the three get their “whoo-whoos” on and it’s the best thing ever. I’m getting chills simply thinking about it.
I could have included half the songs on these two albums — that’s how much I love them — and I’ve already done a dissection of “My Deceiving Heart,” which appeared on Young Mods’.
When I read the other Mayfield bio, I learned that Hathaway and Pate and the Impressions worked on a series of recordings for a third album in that same era: The Best Impressions. You’d be totally forgiven if you assumed this was nothing more than a “greatest hits” LP since the entire B-side is just songs culled from This Is My Country and Young Mods’. But the A-side songs are not taken from their ABC-Paramount catalog; they’re re-recordings of some of the group’s biggest hits. According to Traveling Soul, Curtis wanted to create these new versions so “whenever anyone wanted to license them, they would license his masters [vs. the masters owned by ABC-Paramount], and all the money would go to Curtom.”
It’s an interesting logic though, if I understand how these things work…Curtis was gambling on the idea that someone wanting to license, say “Gypsy Woman,” would rather go with this new version vs. the original and generally, I feel like people would rather license the original because that’s the song they know. Regardless, I picked up this LP because I was curious to hear what the group would do with their classics by adding a few years and some new players (including Hathaway). For the most part, the differences are subtle on most of the songs — “I’ve Been Trying” has more instrumentation hanging on its bones (not an improvement in my opinion) but “I’m So Proud” makes Curtis’s vocals seem even more intimate. I included “Gypsy Woman” here because it’s the most transformed of the bunch. Now the songs open with a dramatic horn chorus and the new take feels more cinematic in build and scope. The castanets are still there, but the arrangement is far fuller and the layers of sound run several layers deeper. Rather than a mere re-recording, this is the one song from the 1969 sessions that sounds most re-imagined.
9.2 (Bonus): The Five Stairsteps “Don’t Change Your Love” (1968) • Available on The First Family of Soul
I’d be remiss in not pointing out that Curtom had its own stable of artists besides The Impressions and Mayfield. The Five Stairsteps were a family R&B group that Mayfield had discovered early on, signing them to his old Windy C subsidiary before bringing them over to Curtom for a few years (and before the group departed to go over to bigger success with Buddah Records). “Don’t Change Your Love” is perhaps best remembered today for the opening drum break that dozens would go onto loop (I feel like every West Coast hip-hop artist in the early 90s used it at least once) but it also bears Mayfield’s obvious touch, especially on the vocal arrangements. According to Traveling Soul, because the Stairsteps were signed to Curtom, it lead the label to pass on another family soul group who had briefly auditioned for them: The Jackson 5. Oops.
10. Curtis Mayfield “Give It Up” (1970)
Available on Curtis
To be sure, there’s far more consequential songs off of Curtis’s magnificent, self-titled solo debut LP. “We People, Who Are Darker Than Blue” is an incredible accomplishment both musically and thematically and if you’ve never heard the entire, full version of “Move On Up,” it’s worth sitting through it a few dozen times so you can marvel at everything Curtis layered into it. But I choose “Give It Up” here because, like “Seven Years,” it sounds like a “happy song that’s actually sad.” And once again, it’s about the complete disintegration of a relationship… in rather specific detail. Todd Mayfield muses in Traveling Soul that the song was really about the end of the marriage between Curtis and his mother, Diane, and that makes total sense in the context here. Notably, Todd points out that the song ends the album, almost like an emotional counterpoint to the intense energy of “Move On Up.”
11. Curtis Mayfield “The Makings of You” (1971) • Available on Curtis Live!
I generally prefer studio originals to live versions given the complexities of trying to capture good sound in a live setting but in this case, “The Makings of You” on Curtis’s double-LP live album from ’71 is far and away my preferred version. The sheer intimacy of the song, the way Curtis’s guitar is foregrounded, the subtle impact of the congas in the background, the noise of the crowd… every element here works in perfect concert with the other.
12. Curtis Mayfield “Think” (1972)
Available on Super Fly
When Curtis was working on the Super Fly soundtrack, he brought in Johnny Pate again. However, Pate felt that on the album’s two instrumentals, including “Think,” his contributions were so extensive that he deserved a co-writing credit. Mayfield disagreed and refused to grant one. Pate — whose talents had graced Mayfield recordings since the early 1960s — never worked with Curtis again.
13. Curtis Mayfield “So In Love” (1975) • Available on There’s No Place Like America Today
There’s No Place Like America Today is arguably the last great ’70s album that Mayfield put out. I may be biased though since it has “So In Love” on it and that song alone would elevate practically any LP. Especially with all those other heartbreak songs I’ve highlighted earlier, “So In Love” feels almost like an exception: an unqualified, earnest love song of the most sensuous order.
14. Curtis Mayfield “Baby It’s You” (1985) • Available on We Come In Peace With a Message of Love
Like so many of his peers from the 60s, the latter half of the 70s were…unkind to Curtis. Disco messed up many a soul giant’s game by forcing them into recording in a genre that they clearly had little feel for, and Curtis was no exception. His career continued its fade into the 1980s as the traditional sound of soul became further minimized in the rising sounds of boogie, electro and eventually hip-hop. It’s hard to find much from Curtis’s catalog in this era worth noting, but then I stumbled on “Baby It’s You,” which ranks amongst the best of his quiet storm output from the era. The production has that 80s sheen, but like Curtis’s best ballads, everything is stripped down, letting his falsetto do much of the work. The song also boasts a great vocal hook despite those 80s horns (or maybe because of them?).