Roots, which came out in 1971, found the great Curtis Mayfield momentarily catching his breath, collecting himself between peaks of achievement. He had already made his mark with the Impressions in the Sixties, blending the fervor of the black church with the optimistic conviction of the civil-rights movement on such masterpieces as “I’m So Proud,” “Keep on Pushin’,” “People Get Ready” and “Amen.” Then, in 1970, he successfully went solo, releasing Curtis, followed by Curtis/Live! the next year.
The background explains the confidence, poise and stylistic range so evident on Roots. Mayfield explores the sources of his inspiration, as well as the influential song form that he helped invent — expanded, soulful meditations on subjects personal and political. The album’s high point is “We Got to Have Peace,” an anti-war dance jam that, in perfect Mayfield fashion, combines an uplifting message with an unstoppable groove. “Beautiful Brother of Mine” delivers an impassioned plea to the African-American community (“Together we’re truly black power/Learning to trust by the hour”) in the wake of the previous decade’s social gains. “Now You’re Gone” binds a bluesy, hypnotic spell on the theme of lost love, while “Love to Keep You in My Mind” ends the album on a luxurious note of fulfillment.
Throughout Roots, as throughout his entire career, Mayfield sings in that signature voice of his: a sensuous tenor croon that glides effortlessly into a swoon-inducing falsetto. It’s a complex sound simultaneously imbued with calm and urgency, one well suited to a singer-songwriter committed to the subtlety of every situation and emotion. On Roots, Mayfield was beginning to appreciate the full reach of his talents. And Superfly was lurking just around the corner.