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Curtis Mayfield: Darker Than Blue

Curtis Mayfield is an icon in the African-American community as well as a founding father of Soul music. Before the freak accident onstage in 1990 that left him a quadriplegic, Mayfield was one of the most prolific composers of our time. From his hits in the late 50's with The Impressions, "It's All Right" and "People Get Ready" to his 70's songs like "Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly," Curtis Mayfield has become a living legend. This documentary is a journey through his mother's memories of his Chicago childhood to his present day working relationship with his children and his continuing optimism for a better life for African- Americans. FROM:



Soul vocalist Curtis Mayfield was born in June 1942 in Chicago, where he grew up listening to local blues and soul musicians. By his early teens Mayfield was fronting the Alfatones, a garage band; he later joined Jerry Butler in a quintet called the Roosters. After changing their name to the Impressions the group scored a hit in 1958 with "For Your Precious Love." The Impressions broke up, but reformed in New York in the early '60s as a trio, with Mayfield as frontman. The single "Gypsy Woman" reestablished the band, which went on to score numerous Top 20 hits with gospel-influenced soul cuts like "I'm So Proud," "Keep on Pushing" and "Mighty, Mighty" that expressed African-American pride.

In 1970 Mayfield began a solo career, releasing his funky debut Curtis to much critical acclaim. He gained an even larger following with 1972's platinum-selling Superfly, the soundtrack to a blaxploitation movie of the same name; Superfly went on to win four Grammy awards. With lyrics that had a political and social message, hard, funky riffs and soulful vocals, Mayfield's albums became classics of 1970s urban music. As the decade progressed his sound became more commercial, has he drifted toward R&B. Mayfield also began producing albums for other artists, including Gladys Knight and Aretha Franklin.

By the mid-1980s Mayfield was recording only sporadically, though he continued touring worldwide. After penning the soundtrack for the 1989 blaxploitation parody I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Mayfield was tragically injured in an August 1990 concert accident while performing in New York -- a broken lighting rig fell on his back, leaving him a quadriplegic. Though he can no longer play guitar, Mayfield recently made a courageous return to singing with the 1996 Warner Bros. release New World Order.

In 1990, at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, N.Y., Curtis Mayfield was hit by a falling lighting rig, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. New World Order is the soul titan's first new studio effort since then, and it is a triumphant return. Produced with a cast of contemporary R&B players, the album doesn't update Mayfield's style; it underscores where his influence is felt – everywhere. Black music as we hear it today wouldn't exist without Curtis Mayfield. His '60s recordings with the Impressions and solo work in the '70s – rumbling funk jams, incisive songs of protest, divinely inspired ballads, the landmark Superfly soundtrack – prefigure everything from rap to the lush R&B of Babyface. More people know Mayfield's sound than they do the man himself; perhaps New World Order can change that.

In the past, as a lyricist, Mayfield could seem didactic at times; here, Mayfield never lets his message outshine his melodic gifts. His high tenor voice is intact, and Mayfield's gospel roots still provide much of his inspiration. When he calls for "a new world order" in the title song, Mayfield's feel-good optimism is buoyed by faith and the humble fervor of his vocal delivery. Even the dated "right on" clichés in "Back to Living Again" gain authority from Mayfield's sly, syncopated singing.

Aretha Franklin breezes through an extremely brief guest appearance on that track. Everywhere else, Mayfield guides his younger collaborators to higher ground. Working with producers such as Daryl Simmons and the Organized Noize team, Mayfield brings grace and good taste to the steamy vibe of Atlanta-style '90s R&B. The haunting tone of "The Girl I Find Stays on My Mind" lingers like an old infatuation, with a bluesy guitar defining the quietly obsessive groove. Mayfield puts over the sweet love-man pleading of "No One Knows About a Good Thing" without being either cloying or obvious.

The core of Mayfield's approach is a serene self-knowledge. He never backs away from uncomfortable truths, in romance or politics. "Here But I'm Gone" articulates the stoned insight of a man trapped in the glass-pipe bubble of drug abuse. In a remake of Mayfield's '70s epic "We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue," he sends a message of black unity and self-respect that is even more relevant than it was two decades ago. "Pardon me, brother/As you stand in your glory/I know you won't mind/If I tell the whole story," he sings in keening, intimate tones. Never flinching, on New World Order, Curtis Mayfield stands tall. (RS 747)