When I grow up, I wanna sound like Curtis Mayfield.
Not as a singer. I’m not giving back all this bass. But his voice, the one he writes with? That’s what I’m going for. Curtis was so straight to the point, blessed with a keen eye for finding the shortest distance to what he was thinking or feeling. He had a gift for finding a common denominator, and not in the way people typically think of pejoratively. He didn’t find what would attract the most people. He found what connected them, what could resonate over any beat, in any time, sung by any gender.
He just seemed to get it. The delicate balance of what was worth celebrating, and what was a reason to fight. He sang and spoke with such self-esteem, such pride in his blackness and was so encouraged by what we could do together. We would, eventually, get to where we deserved to be.
But the right now of his time? Yeah, that shit kinda sucked.
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Just check out the two singles from Curtis, his 1970 debut LP. First was “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go.” Next was “Move On Up.” For now, we’re complicit in our own destruction. But it’s cool. We’re getting it together, and we’ll do better. Of course, the “we” that’s messing everything up involves everyone. The “we” that’s getting better is black people, in a position where self-reliance is the only answer. Black folks’ cheering section would always be themselves and no one else, and not even the pessimism reinforced by reality could be allowed to shake their dedication.
That’s Curtis Mayfield in two tracks. Somehow, hope never blinded him to the truth. Even more stunning was the fact the world he lived in — centered in his hometown of Chicago — never stopped him from being hopeful.
The Chicago of his time is the one that gave birth to the one that’s so sadly violent today. Mayfield and his contemporaries came of age while so many moved from the South looking for Chicago’s opportunities, only to find themselves confined to the city. The suburbs were effectively off-limits, with freeways built for the express purpose of getting white people into town and, quickly, the hell back to their neighborhoods. They took advantage of the Federal Housing Administration’s proliferation of 30-year loans, rode with the senseless devaluation of property that came when black folks tried to integrate neighborhoods, and the result was one of the most segregated cities in America. Those who packed up everything they had in search of advancement quickly found the decks up North were stacked, too.
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But there was hope. Segregation, in an obvious-yet-peculiar way, almost begs for self-reliance. The full spectrum of blackness would be in front of you, for they were all in it together. You still feel that, to a degree, in Chicago. You can get that vibe from how different things can be just by going two blocks. With the good and bad comes the beauty of humanity, and it’s almost impossible to think things can’t get better when we’ve all got each other. People, throughout history, have proven to be every community’s most valuable resource.
Here’s the thing, though — they can only be precious if appreciated as they are. That was Curtis’ most special gift, one that I see in my father that continually wows me. Both of them could appreciate the toll struggles takes on people. Even most doing their worst are doing their best. They carry burdens, struggle with obligations both self-inflicted and inherited, and largely find ways to get from day to die.
That’s the quality that makes the Superfly soundtrack so good. The story goes that Mayfield feared the movie glorified drug dealing, so he wanted to make a dark record that would reflect such a dangerous lifestyle. The trick, though, was doing so without being judgmental. The dope dealer with a heart of gold doesn’t really exist in real life. Even if the heart started as gilded, it can’t help but tarnish over time in such a world. There’s no way an honest person could portray the trade, especially as presented in Gordon Parks, Jr.’s classic film, as anything but the dope man. You could call it good because of the money and suits, or one could call it bad because of the sociopathic behavior it requires. You could be resigned, like Carl Gordon’s character, to dealing because “it’s the only game The Man left us to play.” But you couldn’t call it simple, certainly not with the pictures Mayfield painted.
I leave Superfly with an admiration for his willingness to be honest, the hallmark of the Mayfield catalog. It’s not necessarily in big, heart-wrenching ways. It’s sincerity tinged with an understanding that any lie would be discovered anyway. The truth is told because, really, there’s no good reason not to. Lying won’t get us anywhere, and the truth is no reason to stop hoping.
He manages to pull off the impossible — making the listener more aware of the world while simultaneously feeling better about what’s coming next.
Except, wait…y’all hear that all the time in church, don’t you?
Yeah, see…this is church music for cats like me. There’s no ascribed morality. There’s an understanding that, from time to time, people are gonna get lit to ease the pain. Sins of varying magnitude are understood rather than condemned. This is secularized gospel, a combination of the Testaments into something timeless. Just check the raps and interludes on his brilliant, uniquely intimate live album from The Bitter End in 1971. This is a church I’d go to, save for the people snorting cocaine. Nah, I ain’t about that.
But listen to how moving he was with so few words. How much it would fill you up if “The Makings of You” were about your makings. The ability to empathize with the weary faces on the train on “Stare and Stare.” The double-edged decision to close the show with “Stone Junkie.” I mean, this is life and death and the best and worst of them both.
Don’t let your mind become offended miss
Lady, ’cause you ain’t no better than our typical Sadie
You just got money, you can spend out at will
But when comes aches and pains, you still use the pill
Oh, he wasn’t done.
I know everybody whose heart is still thumping
Is drinking, shooting, snorting, smoking on something
Now that might sound funky and I don’t mean to mislead
So you can retract the thought
Of you on drugs or on weed
That ain’t my business
You know what you do
I’m just sayin’
for the majority of you
No running from the truth. Not even on the last song, not even if you’ve got no reason to deny it. Curtis was the conscience that kept you honest, but did not nag.
He also wrote incredible love songs, shorter on romance than emotion, more amorous than clever. And he got love, sex and where the two meet so well that he wrote two of the greatest love songs a man wrote for women to sing, “Let’s Do It Again” and “Something He Can Feel.” Or, put differently — Curtis managed to make Aretha sound sexy, which is pretty difficult for someone who usually sounded like somebody’s mama.
So why did I say, in the beginning, I want to sound like this? Because life is so much easier just acknowledging what’s in front of you. It’s more powerful to love someone in spite of their faults than it is to ignore them. Disappointment means more when it’s accompanied by love. The real is always best, even if we’re not always able to handle it.
The confidence in Curtis’ voice, both writing and singing, was so reassuring. It had a delicacy I wish I could recreate, and a force I wish I could wield. He just chose his words perfectly, his inflection always right on time. And somehow, even the hardest things to ear were soothing.
That’s how you get shit done right there. And get it done, Curtis did.