THE ALL-too-brief, spur-of-the-moment appearance of Curtis Mayfield at London's Speakeasy club must surely rank as a historic event in the history of soul music in this country. Historic because it was the first time Mr. Mayfield had played in front of a British audience (albeit a totally unrepresentative one) and historic because it proved that if the term "superstar" still has any meaning (the word has been misused so much that the true number of "superstars" is infinitesimal), Curtis Mayfield is already there.
Because so much has been written about him and so many soul people have hailed him as the new soul master, I approached his performance with some reserve. Any doubts that I might have harboured were completely dispelled by this genius' musicianship and soul.
With his excellent four man backing group (all American, consisting of Henry Gibson on bongos, Tyrone McCullins on drums, Lucky Scott, musical director on bass, and Clay McMullan on rhythm guitar), Curtis Mayfield provided one of the finest hour's entertainment ever. Leading off with the familiar 'Move On Up' (his current maxi-single topside), he displayed his brilliant vocal talent to the full. This featured some fine bongo work at the climax of the song and it set a perfect atmosphere for 'The Other Side Of Town' which is one of the highlights of Curtis' debut album. Once again, the man cannot be faulted vocally and in addition he indicated what a fine guitarist he is, with some really fine bluesy chords. Then, to shouts of recognition, the immortal 'Gypsy Woman' – faster than the original Impressions' version.
LYRICAL GENIUS At this point, it sunk in that this man was the same man who led the Impressions for a decade through successive hit records; the same man who has written many, many soul classics ('People Get Ready', 'Amen', 'Woman's Got Soul' and 'It's Alright' to name just a few); and the same man responsible for some really fantastic production work on The Stairsteps, Major Lance and Baby Huey amongst others. Probably the most significant factor about Curtis' work is his lyrical genius. Apart from his obvious musical talent as a vocalist and guitarist of the first order, his lyrics are profound, honest and never trite. A case in point: 'Mighty Mighty Spade and Whitey' – the flip of the Impressions' 'Choice of Colours' single. Lines like "your black and white power will become a crumbling tower" should not be taken lightly and a sad aspect of the whole performance was that the audience was really not the kind who could appreciate the depth of meaning in the man's words of wisdom. 'We've Only Just Begun' is not the kind of song you would generally expect a soul man of Curtis' standard to perform. He has taken what would normally be considered a middle-of-the-road 'pop' song and added a new dimension. In relation to the racial conflict and the new awareness of black Americans, the song makes more sense – or rather it takes on a new and more hopeful meaning. Another Impressions' favourite, 'We're A Winner' (which is also Curtis' record label motto) was greeted with cheers of recognition and invitations to clap along, which were quickly taken up. After a brief but telling monologue along the lines of "...you know who I'm talking about, there's no need to point fingers or to have fingers pointed...", the maestro featured a controversial song from his Live album, 'Stone Junkie'. Once again some pretty strong, but meaningful lyrics which more than likely passed over the heads of most of the 'showbiz' audience.
SENSE OF PRIDE Along with many top soul stars, Curtis Mayfield is aware of where he's coming from and who he is. He has a very evident sense of pride in his origins and doesn't mince words. In this way he reminded me somewhat of Nina Simone, without the bitterness and anger, but with all the meaning there. 'We People Who Are Darker Than Blue' states the case perfectly. Every man is the same colour underneath despite the implication that some are less equal than others. Curtis chose this moment to introduce his very capable musicians who provided some excellent and very sympathetic backing. After a few bars of 'Check Out Your Mind', Curtis climaxed the whole performance with the expected and brilliant, 'If There's A Hell Below'. Again instant shouts of recognition and some members of the audience added their own help by echoing the chorus line as on the record!
This was naturally supposed to be the closer, but, of course, the man had to do an encore. He chose a completely new song, 'We Gotta Have Peace' which he said could well be a future release. It is certainly in the best Mayfield tradition and, again, has some very pointed and topical lyrics. Despite repeated demands, he did not do another encore but left us with his band who continued for some fifteen minutes with some really excellent work.
So it was over in a flash. Curtis Mayfield's only date in front of a British audience – he had played American forces' bases only during his brief stay here. It struck me as very unfair to the many, many fans who missed out – many who have supported him all the way through his illustrious career and who would undoubtedly have appreciated the man's talents even more than the rather select gathering at the Speakeasy. However there is always the possibility, in view of his excellent reception by the audience, that he will return for a proper, public tour in this country which will give the converted a chance to see this genius in action and will also attract many of the yet-to-be-converted.
It has often been implied that Motown's Smokey Robinson is "the greatest living poet" (the quote is reputedly from Bob Dylan!), but, when it comes down to dealing with today's problems, Curtis must come tops. If this one single appearance is anything to judge by, he should have been top male vocalist in this year's Blues & Soul poll and if there is any justice, he will top the poll next year. In the meantime, to quote a track from his just-released Live album (which will have to suffice until you see the man live), 'I Plan To Stay A Believer'!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.