Tuesday, 12 January 2010

A Man Like Curtis Mayfield

For anyone who is reading this near the time it's being written (12 January 2010) a four-part radio series about Curtis Mayfield, A Man Like Curtis, began last night on BBC Radio 2 in the UK. You can listen to it online for one week then it will be replaced by Part 2 and so on. Unlike a DVD about the Impressions which I'll discuss below, Jerry Butler contributes, and there are pleasing small details in the first episode, such as tales of the young Curtis being a pest in his zeal to learn about singing and be part of a group, and the fact that when he found a guitar in, I think, his grandmother's house he instinctively tuned it to a certain key (related to the black keys on the piano, as he later discovered) which subsequently meant that if the greatest guitarists in the world ever were so forward as to borrow his axe even they would struggle to get anything decent out of it. And presumably it was that tuning which helped make his playing the liquid, lovely thing it was.

Although I suppose my first exposure to Curtis Mayfield would have been my eldest brother singing some vaguely obscene variation of the lyrics of It's Alright (and, I think, playing the single around the same time, along with Chris Montez's Let's Dance), the first time I really became aware of Curtis Mayfield was when listened to a recording was on that same budget Springboard International LP, ORIGINAL OLDIES Vol. 18, which introduced me to Golden Teardrops.

(If you read the earlier post about this, I didn't make the pilgrimage to Paris over Christmas, tarrying instead with some female surrealists at Manchester Art Gallery but did artist Francis Baudevin extract as much richness, I wonder, from his engagement with the subsequent volume?).

The song on this cheapo album of licensed Vee-Jay material was Jerry Butler's Find Another Girl and that guitar playing, rich and resonant as Butler's voice was, seemed - to coin phrase - the other half of the sky.

Probably this first episode, covering Vee-Jay and recordings immediately afterwards will be of the most interest to the likely readership of this blog, but the whole series will certainly be worth a listen. (One final, irresistible detail: did you know that Gypsy Woman was written after Curtis had been watching a cowboy film?)

As mentioned elsewhere here, Radio 2 did an excellent series on doo wop, Street Corner Soul, and in general the station presents intelligent, well researched music documentaries. If you're unfamiliar with BBC radio in general then Radio 2's peculiar power is that former listeners to Radio 1, the youth-oriented BBC station which was originally willed into being in the late 1960s to combat the evil of pirate radio, have grown older just as the extreme end of the natural listenership of Radio 2 has begun to die off, to put it rather too bluntly. So what had been a station aimed at a much earlier nostalgia market - the 1930s onwards and the politer side of pop pap, essentially - has gradually come to embrace a broader audience, banished from their former home of Radio 1 (following an infamous culling of dinosaur deejays), and of an age and an inclination to explore more fully the music they grew up with. Parts of Sundays are still reserved for the old Radio 2 with British Dance Bands of the thirties, etc, but by and large most types of popular music are covered at least some of the time, especially at night when the station is less likely to act as aural wallpaper. So try it.

And in addition to Curtis Mayfield, readers may enjoy Shake, Rattle and Roll presented by Mark Lamarr - the programme is rock'n'roll in general, but always with some doo wop, and with lots of enjoyably odd obscurities. He may not be much of a singer, as evinced by the Leiber and Stoller concert, but his vast personal collection of platters, musical knowledge and audible enjoyment of all he plays must be more than somewhat of a consolation. There are only six programmes in the current series which ends mid February, and like all programmes on BBC radio, you can only listen to it up to one week after its original broadcast, so as with A Man Like Curtis, please hurry.
Also recommended is this well produced DVD which tells the story of Curtis Mayfield's career both with his group the Impressions and his successful solo years. Not much on his personal life (though his widow is among the contributors) but plenty about his music in the context of the times (60s and 70s) - Ambassador Andrew King is on hand to link his songs firmly to the civil rights movement.

Unlike some other music documentaries you get the full performances of songs in the TV show extracts and promos. Most bizarre is the one existing clip of People Get Ready, recorded for the Dick Clark show: the trio are filmed lipsynching to the song on a paddleboat in a lake with lots of touristy types in similar boats. Dignified it ain't, but it's all that's available - although the floaty, ethereal sound of Mayfield's music almost justifies the choice. Almost.

Interesting to hear that Mayfield was attuned to the times but also cupped an ear to his rivals' music, so the change in style when he went solo which led to songs like Don't Worry If There's a Hell Down Below We're All Going to Go came about through listening to Norman Whitfield's work with the Temptations. The surviving Impressions contribute (although Jerry Butler is conspicuous by his absence) and arranger Johnny Pate, whose use of brass enhanced the Impressions' sound, is given an appropriately sizeable chunk of time; one of the Impressions dubs him the fourth member of the group, a comment also made in the Radio 2 programme.

There are no dissenting voices in this documentary but it doesn't feel too much like a puff by the record company, though some other commentators like Carlos Santana sound like besotted fans - understandable though that may be - and don't add a huge amount. Mayfield himself features in archive interviews. There was, a few years ago when Mayfield was still alive, a programme on BBC TV by Caryl Phillips which included conversations with Curtis's mother and was a much more personal, "authored" piece, so this DVD documentary isn't the last word on this remarkable musician, but as an introduction to the range of what he's done - and with those all-important uninterrupted performance clips (including his appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, another semi-religious programme for myself and some of my brothers), it's understandable if the tone is essentially celebratory.

Caryl Phillips, incidentally, wrote a radio play about Marvin Gaye's time in Ostend, produced by Ned Chaillet. Based on a single hearing, I'm not sure whether the play was perfect, but my judgment in this matter may well be suspect, for the following, rather embarrassing, reason - but hey, honesty if not dignity (there's probably a Latin tag for that) ...

I recall finding a description of Gaye's relationship with his father in a glossy magazine once, available for general perusal on the shelves of a cafe at the Brunswick Centre in Russell Square, London. In the moment of reading it a play, or rather the promise of a play, unfolded itself to me, so perfect and terrible was Marvin's description of their being locked together, and only a few lines long - but (as I fear is becoming a motif in this blog) my intention to write it down or steal the magazine was not translated into action ... or I threw away the paper on which I may have scribbled some indecipherable note. Or something. Parlons d'autre chose, as M. Baudevin might say.

Anyway, the play - the real play, that is, actually written by someone who laboured over it and brought it into being rather than some lobster-sluggard idly considering the possibility of doing all manner of things - dealt with the father-son relationship in between the cracks of describing the protective, fatherly figure in Belgium and his relationship with the resting superstar. So it was neatly done. And I think Marvin's mother was given a line at the end about the Belgian bringing him home, or allowing him to come home, or simply words to make him understand that the soujourn in Belgium was truly over now that Marvin was being laid to rest with his family. There was a poetic neatness and precision about those final words of the mother that makes me want to listen again to the whole thing before I venture any further opinions. It was called A Long Way From Home, and you can read details about it on the BBC Radio 3 website here, although that online-for-one-week-only rule works for all the BBC's stations so you won't be able to listen to it.

A final thought, as I listen yet again to Find Another Girl: how to describe that guitar playing properly? Impossible, other than by listening, but as this whole blog is about the idea that there's a worth in trying, if only to help make the experience of listening keener, I will say that it's distinctive, probably for the reasons outlined above - self-taught before being of an age when selfconsciousness could creep in - but it's not ostentatious: an accompanying voice which doesn't insist on its equality but draws the attention anyway. And presumably that's his actual voice in the background too: Curtis's widow, I think, talked about recognising his voice, his flavour, in lots of the recordings he did with others in those early Chicago days.

And one of the songs played on last night's programme was Monkey Time. Simple, or simple-ish, yet sophisticated. As may be another motif, the more I add to this blog, I can't remember the source, but I seem to recall reading or hearing of someone, possibly in America rather than Britain, facing a tough class - possibly a trainee teacher taking a lesson where he had to regain control or go under - and he brought in a guitar and played, acoustically and quietly, Monkey Time. I don't remember how well or badly it went, for sure - though I think it was badly - but I understand and applaud the impulse: here's this little bit of perfection; try to absorb it and learn from it. And just as the English singer who sang Marvin Gaye's Wherever I Lay My Hat said of Sam Cooke's songs that when you sing one you feel as though a great weight has been lifted, I'd like to think that whatever happened to that teacher, even if he got battered to a pulp, that he didn't lose faith in the song, his talisman, and that the message of hope and optimism which permeates so much of Curtis Mayfield's work didn't diminish for him.

Lastly, I recall a few years ago staying one night with a friend, now dead, out in the wilds of Scotland - or a few miles, at any rate, from the lights of North Berwick and environs, which amounted to the same thing. Searching through his record collection, he finally pulled out This is Sue, a soul compilation well known in the UK. It would be rather too neat if there had been an Impressions or a Mayfield or even a Jerry Butler-with-Curtis-in-the-background track on that album, but there was a great and deep pleasure in listening to songs which we had become acquainted with separately but we both knew well: the voice of Shirley, as in Shirley and Lee (or Shirley and Company, come to that) was a particular favourite of his, and in another case of double exposure memories, my chance hearing of disco era Shirley's Shame, Shame, Shame in the inappropriately named Cafe Select at Edinburgh's Waverley Station while waiting for my friend on one occasion has nudged earlier memories of cavorting to that and other tracks in the disco above the Glasgow Apollo into the background; now, whenever I hear that track, I remember most my relish, on that day, waiting in a station cafe, and hearing clearly, as I could not have done when bopping in my thirty inch pinstripe flares in 1974 (no images available) all the gospel which infused those two singing voices in friendly combat.

But I digress - and I've rather missed the opportunity for a neat conclusion. But I'll go for it anyway. It's both true and too neat. There wasn't, as I said, a Curtis-related track on the album, but there was Shirley and Lee's Let the Good Times Roll with that squeak to which my friend was drawn; there was Barefootin', there was Bony Moronie (Specialty, so you probably couldn't get those artists together on a CD now), there was You Can't Sit Down ... and there was Harlem Shuffle. My friend said, as though it was a revelation - which it wasn't, except in the sense of really understanding what it meant as we listened together, and were aware of each other's enthusiasm making this occasion more important than idly hearing one of those songs on the radio - "now that is uptown soul." I would like to imagine him listening to any early Curtis Mayfield and saying the same thing as emphatically, as delightedly: not bouyant at some wonderful new discovery but with the kind of renewed recognition that you see, or used to, in some of the less well made TV ads for beer, where he who had strayed from the brand has a foaming tankard raised to his lips and, after a moment, gives a slight nod. Yes. Of course. Monkey Time. Find Another Girl. It's Alright. His oeuvre is practically a dictionary definition of the term.

And in this impossible scenario we would listen, as I have broken off to do so just now, to He Will Break Your Heart, and the lightness and ease of those two voices, then back to the consolation of Find Another Girl and the unique comfort of that oddly tuned guitar which feels like nothing so much as a caress.

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