Few artists have ever married sunny positivity with hard-hitting social commentary quite as well as Curtis Mayfield. Over a career spanning five decades, he helped shape and direct soul music, delivering some of the funkiest, most soulful records of the 20th century. Whether as a member of The Impressions or a solo artist, a performer or a songwriter, there was no one else quite like him. Here, we look back on some of his finest moments with our pick of the ten best Curtis Mayfield songs of all time.
10. Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here
If you don’t remember the movie Short Eyes, you’re not the only one. The film adaption of Miguel Pinero’s Broadway play about the harsh realities of life behind bars was released to little fanfare and even less acclaim in 1977, fading into obscurity even before its theatre run ended. But even if the film was a dud, Mayfield’s score was anything but. The uncompromising, bluesy funk of Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here is a particular highlight, even if the charts were too busy bopping to disco at the time to notice.
9. Future Shock
Mayfield’s fifth solo album, Back to the World, might not have been as powerful as his earlier efforts, but it’s certainly not without its merits. One of its chef highlights is Future Shock, a delicious shiver of socially conscious funk inspired by Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book of the same name. The album went to number one on the R&B charts, while the single climbed to number 11.
8. Get Down
Roots, Mayfield’s second solo album, was a sensation, with All Music describing it as an album that “soars on some of the sweetest and most eloquent… soul sounds heard up to that time.” Widely acknowledged as one of the best examples of classic ’70s soul ever released, it’s a treasure trove of gems, ranging from the soaring loveliness of Beautiful Brother of Mine to the rallying cry of We Got to Have Peace. Get Down is another highlight – released as the first single from the album in 1971, it peaked at number six on the Billboard R&B chart.
7. Right on for the Darkness
For Back to the World, Mayfield sang from the perspective of Vietnam vets struggling to adjust to civilian life on their return home. It might not have delivered any big hits or packed quite such a killer punch as many of Mayfield’s other albums from the ’70s, but judged on its own merits, rather than compared to earlier masterpieces such as Roots, it’s still an excellent album, and one most artists would kill to have in their catalogs. Its most ominous moment, Right on for the Darkness, is a minor masterpiece – a bleak, desolate song with a bitter message that speaks of the hopelessness and longing for oblivion many soldiers felt.
6. She Don’t Let Nobody (But Me)
The 1982 album Love is the Place found Mayfield experimenting with his signature sound in ways that didn’t always work. But even if the album isn’t a roaring success, its tracklist still yields several gems, including the reggae-influenced She Don’t Let Nobody (But Me), which reached number 15 on the US Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart on its release as the album’s lead single.
5. Keep on Keepin’ On
You could close your eyes, point a finger in the direction of Roots’ tracklist, and whatever song it landed on would turn out to be a classic. Keep on Keepin’ On is particularly lovely, combining Mayfield’s call for constancy with a lush arrangement of harps, horns, strings, and saxophones. For a stripped-back take that puts the focus firmly on Mayfield’s honied falsetto, check out his 1972 performance on the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test.
4. (Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go
(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go finds Mayfield fretting over race relations in America’s inner-cities over a delirious backdrop of conga drums, fizzy basslines, and wah-wah guitar. Funky, frightening, and utterly fabulous, it’s an exercise in maximalism that even now, 50 years later, sounds as groundbreaking as ever. Released as a single from Mayfield’s debut album, Curtis, it reached number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 3 on the Billboard Hot Soul Singles chart.
3. Freddie’s Dead
Next up is a single from Mayfield’s 1972 Super Fly soundtrack album, Freddie’s Dead, which reached number 2 in the R&B charts and number 4 in the Pop charts. The following year, it picked up a nomination for a Grammy Award for Best Rhythm and Blues Song. The Super Fly soundtrack is one of the very few in history to outgross the accompanying film – on the strength of this, it’s easy to see why.
Despite his record label’s concerns that Super Fly had next to no prospect of commercial success, it proved a massive and instant hit, topping both the Pop and Black Albums chart and receiving a rapturous reception from the music press. The album’s four singles sold over 2 million copies between them, with each climbing into the upper echelons of the pop and R&B charts. Its title track was particularly well-received, eventually earning selection by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.”
1. Move On Up
As The Guardian notes, Mayfield would never sing optimism with such an exhilarating lack of complexity as he does on Move On Up, the second single and undisputed highlight of his debut solo album, Curtis. It might not have charted, but its undiluted message of hope and positivity has turned it into a timeless classic, and the crowning glory of Mayfield’s rich recording history.