Great Fucking Albums #26: Curtis

Since embarking on this open-ended mission to compile a list of Great Fucking Albums, I’ve realized that, if I weren’t such a lazy bugger, I could easily introduce a related feature called Great Fucking People, in which every post would tell you about some legitimate musical hero. That feature would undoubtedly include the late, great Curtis Mayfield (I realized this morning that if I could resurrect only two dead musicians, they would be Joe Strummer and Curtis Mayfield). But, since I’ve yet to invent the Great Fucking People feature, you’ll have to settle for reading about Mayfield’s 1970 solo debut, Curtis, which is absolutely a Great Fucking Album.

After a successful decade with the Impressions (they charted 26 singles in nine years), Curtis Mayfield decided to stop touring with the group in order to focus on running Curtom Records, a label he had started in 1968 with Eddie Thomas. According to the liner notes for Rhino’s 30th anniversary reissue of Curtis, Curtom Records was “essentially the first successful label established by a black recording artist,” and that was due in large part to Mayfield’s decision to focus more on running the label than on being a full-time Impression (he didn’t officially leave the group, allowing himself a kind of failsafe should Curtom go belly up).

In September of 1970, while law-and-order president Richard “Dick” Nixon was polishing up his enemies list, Curtis Mayfield released Curtis, a forty-minute, eight song, blast of funk, soul, and fury that opened with arguably the must substantive R&B track recorded up to that point: “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go.” Over a pulsing bass line, we hear a woman urging us to read the Good Book before Mayfield begins the sermon: “Sisters! Niggers! Whiteys! Jews! Crackers! Don’t Worry/ If there’s Hell below/ we’re all/ gonna go.” And then a scream gives way to wah-wah guitars and funky horns before Mayfield settles in for nearly eight minutes to warn literally everyone of the consequences of intolerance. But “Don’t Worry” isn’t just a song about the need for racial harmony – it’s a forceful expression of Mayfield’s serious (and entirely reasonable) doubt that Richard Milhous Nixon was really going to do anything to help black people escape from the ghetto (there’s a reason nobody refers to Nixon as “our first black president”).

What makes Curtis, which often explicitly deals with the realities of African-American life in the two years following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., such an astounding work of musical art – an unqualified masterpiece or, as we like to say here at Bollocks!, a Great Fucking Album – is the unrestrained beauty of the music itself. Though he mostly sang in a falsetto, Mayfield’s voice was strong when it needed to be and vulnerable when that’s what the song required (“The Makings of You,” later a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips, is a fine example of this). The guitar and bass parts are exactly fifty percent “funky” and fifty percent “fresh” (aspiring bass players, take note: Curtis will tell you how to do it right). The string and horn arrangements (by Riley Hampton and Gary Slabo) are nothing short of lush and the rhythms are complex and downright propulsive; side two of the original vinyl release opened with “Move On Up,” another long-burning funk number that you might remember as Cutty’s jogging music from The Wire. If you can listen to “Move On Up” without at least nodding your head, it is entirely likely that the funky part of your soul was removed at birth and you should definitely have that looked at.

About eight months before Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, Curtis did for funk/soul/R&B music what the Clash would do for punk by the end of the ’70s – that is, the album injected a social conscious into a popular style of music. Of course there were tracks like James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” but Curtis was a start-to-finish successful marriage of style and substance that is very rarely achieved in music, largely because it’s really fucking difficult. Some musicians get the social/political passion part down and forget to turn that into great songs and – I think more frequently – some musicians just want to sing pretty notes, play some bigass stadiums, and cash their checks (here, because I think it’s appropriate for some reason, is a short list of songs I would like to hear on the next season of American Idol: “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go”; Bikini Kill’s “Double Dare Ya”; any Minor Threat song; and “White Riot” by the Clash).

Because Mayfield was so adept at covering topics like race relations (he calls for minority unity on “We the People Who are Darker than Blue”), feminism (he salutes the beauty of black women when imagining his daughter growing up to be “Miss Black America”), and the power of active youth (“Wild and Free”) in songs that are – still, forty fucking years later – best described as “fresh as hell,” it should come as no surprise that Curtis was a smash hit by pretty much every metric you can imagine. It spent five weeks at number one on the R&B charts (it spent 43 weeks on that chart), spent 49 weeks on the pop charts, reaching number 19 on the Billboard Pop Album charts. Even more impressive to me is the fact that the single “(Don’t Worry) If There Is a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” went to number three on the R&B charts and number 29 on the pop charts. That a song with such a blunt and bleak outlook would make the pop charts at all is pretty fucking awesome.

Part of the goal of having a list of Great Fucking Albums is to passionately argue against the notion that all of the great music was made decades ago, but it’s also to expose Bollocks! readers to music from all genres and decades that perhaps you’ve not had the opportunity to hear. Lists of the fifty or hundred or five hundred Best Whatevers of Whenever, to me, attempt to quantify and rank something that is far too subjective and complicated to simply slap a number on. I don’t know where Curtis ranks on anybody’s list of the best albums ever recorded and I don’t care; it’s enough that it’s a stunning, soulful debut from a man who was not only an undisputed master of funk but also a keenly socially aware individual who cared very deeply about giving a voice to those who had none. If you want to know about soul, if you want to know about passion and compassion, if you want to feel the funk and the fire, you want to fucking listen to Curtis and you want to listen to it over and over again.

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3 thoughts on “Great Fucking Albums #26: Curtis

  1. Pingback: The Bollocks! Summer of Badass Women: Nina Simone « Bollocks!

  2. Agree that Curtis is a great fucking album. One of the most courageous albums too, considering that he was offering a devastating critique of life in Nixon-era America. Every song here is brilliant. It is one of the best concept albums of all time, though I rarely see it included when lists like that are drawn up. It marked the beginning of a remarkable run for Curris that lasted till 73 as a solo artist and 76 as a songwriter. He is truly missed, they just don’t make them like King Curtis anymore.

  3. Pingback: Bollocks! | Sky Ferreira and the Dubious Math of the Sexiest Man Alive

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