Curtis Mayfield: Curtis/Live!

Curtis Mayfield is confusing his strengths with his weaknesses these days. As the composer and lead singer of the Impressions he proved to be first and foremost, a beautiful melodist. After that, he often wrote extremely personal and sensitive lyrics, although for every good one he came up with, there was also an inept and pretentious counterpart. His own voice sounded brilliant when pitted against the fabulous harmonies that Sam Gooden and Fred Cash used to supply. And Johnny Pate's arrangements were the perfect vehicle for the instrumental side of his music.

Since leaving the Impressions, Mayfield has ignored his melodic gifts while turning out a series of Sly Stone-Norman Whitfield influenced tunes that have been singularly undistinguished. He concentrates more on the lyrics these days and those have become increasingly political and pretentious. May-field's high voice covers roughly the same territory as those of Eddie Kendricks and Smokey Robinson. Like those two fine singers, it sounds best as part of a blend. By itself it lacks punch and dynamic range. On Live!, the only vocal support comes from the band, which hardly compares with the original sound of the Impressions. The band itself, on this album, is an exceptionally fine quartet but simply cannot supply the coloration and breadth that Curtis' music requires.

So what are we left with on Live!? The songs are equally divided between solo material and Impressions' hits. The new things are just so much' eyewash. They require nothing of him melodically and seem to go on forever lyrically. There are frequent moments of embarrassment, such as when Curtis offers us this unthought-out piece of wisdom, in "I Plan to Stay A Believer":

We're over twenty million strong,
And it wouldn't take long to save the ghetto child
If we'd get off our ass,
$10 a man yearly think awhile
Twenty million times $10 yearly
Would surely then set our brothers free.

This from the man who wrote "People Get Ready" and (included here in a version grossly inferior to the original) "We're A Winner"?

The real embarrassment of Curtis Mayfield comes when he sings some of the Impressions' big hits. "Might, Mighty" had such a powerful chorus on the original, and it sounds so empty and ordinary here. "Gypsy Woman" is little more than a shadow of its original self. And "We're A Winner." even with its never-heard-before final verse, has none of that incredible drive and punch (the original drummer was beyond belief) of the hit single.

So we get back to the original proposition: that Mayfield is confusing his strengths with his weaknesses. Surely a man who has created so much of genuine beauty will find his artistic sell again. In the meantime, it's sad to report that on Live!, Curtis Mayfield, solo artist, just ain't happening.