Movin’ On Up : The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

curtis_mayfield_movin_up.jpgMovin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressionsis a fascinating look at the musical evolution and transformation of the late Curtis Mayfield. 

For music fans only familiar with Mayfield’s later work, the early footage and interviews with Sam Gooden and Fred Cash, his sidekicks in The Impressions, are very revealing.  From Mayfield’s prominent buck teeth to the matching suits that were very typical of ‘50s-era soul singers, this is not the “Pusherman” with which many music fans associate him.  Through the clips and interviews it is apparent that Mayfield had two clearly defined musical careers – one as leader of a soft-spoken soul trio that conformed to what was expected of a black artists at that time, and his own solo career which pioneered a new style of ‘70s rhythm and blues.

Although Gooden and Cash were left behind when Curtis Mayfield struck out on his own, they don’t seem the least bit resentful.  It was clear to them, even early on, that Mayfield was an innovator – he insisted on owning the rights to his own music and even had his own record label at a time when that was virtually unheard of in the music industry.  Liberal doses of their commentary are also joined by interviews with Altheida Mayfield, the late artist’s wife; Ambassador Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta where the Mayfields lived in their later years; and even Chuck D from Public Enemy, who gives Mayfield much praise for inspiring and influencing a whole generation of artists.  Although not all of Curtis Mayfield’s songs are overtly political, Young, in particular, draws strong links between tunes like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” and “We’re a Winner.”  With the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War as a backdrop, Mayfield found ways to address the topics in a way that simultaneously soothed the American consciousness and inflamed passions.

Most of Mayfield’s music is positive and upbeat, despite the heavy themes that run through the material.  The soundtrack to the Blacksploitation film Superflyis what many associate with Mayfield, and although he was proud to have been chosen to create it before the movie was released, Altheida reveals in interviews that he was distraught to see how much drug use and stereotyping was in the final cut of the move. The song “Freddy’s Dead” was actually written after the movie was released as a cautionary tale in response to the bad example set by the title character.  Mayfield often pointed out in his concerts that if you deal and take drugs like Freddy did, you could wind up with the same fate.

Overall Movin’ On Up:  The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressionsis a fascinating DVD with the perfect balance of interviews and source material, combined with historically entertaining live performances to satisfy even causal fans of R&B music.  It proves that there is and was more to Curtis Mayfield than meets the eye (and ear), and serves as an important piece of social commentary; a musical testimonial to the originality of Curtis’ Mayfield’s work and the inspiration and influence leant to many artists that have followed. 

Movin’ On Up is out now on Hip-O Records.