Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions: The Anthology,’ a two-CD, forty-song set, is a remarkable document. Lovingly assembled by Chicago-soul authority Robert Pruter, this collection connects a decade’s worth of gentle Impressions singles with the power and invention of Curtis Mayfield’s solo career.
The side-by-side pairing presents a stunning picture and casts Mayfield’s often-undervalued solo work in fresh critical light. Like few pop stars before or since, Mayfield was able to redefine his music successfully, creating two unique styles that stand together and apart. In each case, with the Impressions and on his own, Mayfield’s songs exerted a profound influence on black music, an influence that continues to this day in the work of Lenny Kravitz, Ice-T and Arrested Development, among many others. The passing of time can only enrich our appreciation of this special artist.
The Anthology begins appropriately with the landmark “Gypsy Woman” (1960), a dreamy fairy tale set to the Brazilian baion rhythm Mayfield borrowed from the Drifters. But it wasn’t until 1963 that Mayfield and the Impressions really hit their stride. Revitalizing the Impressions’ sound with moodier gospel harmonizing, Mayfield’s spare guitar tremolo (the springboard for a number of Jimi Hendrix ballads) and occasional horn fanfare from arranger Johnny Pate, the group became a dominant force in soul music. Though Mayfield was adept at crafting aching love songs (“I’m So Proud,” “I’ve Been Trying,” “Woman’s Got Soul”), it was really a succession of singles beginning with “Keep On Pushing” and the inspirational masterpiece “People Get Ready” that defined the Impressions’ image. Often exuding a quiet dignity, these songs moved a generation of Americans.
Beginning with the Impressions’ single “Check Out Your Mind” (1970), Mayfield’s music changed radically. His first solo singles, influenced by the elongated psychedelic soul of Motown’s Norman Whitfield and the ever-present funk grunge of Sly Stone, replaced the stately, uplifting harmonies of the Impressions with jagged bass lines, wah-wah guitars and a frenetic percussive attack. The message changed as well: Declamatory exhortations of racial pride replaced softer statements of civil rights. There’s No Place Like America Today, the sarcastic title of a mid-Seventies Mayfield album, spoke volumes.
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A horrible accident on a Brooklyn stage in 1990 has left Mayfield paralyzed and his creative future in deep doubt. At the very least, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions is a fitting testament to his music’s guiding light.