Curtis Mayfield’s The Impressions Eponymous Debut Album Reviewed
This is the fifth time rock nyc has decided to tackle an artists entire album output. It follows in the footsteps of Elvis Presley and Prince (both completed) and Frank Sinatra and Paul McCartney (both ongoing). But unlike three of the previous four, Curtis Mayfield begins closer to the beginning. Paul McCartney had already been with the Beatles for an entire career, Presley had been recording for Sun before his albums kick started with RCA, and Frank Sinatra had sung lead with Tommy Dorsey and other bandleaders for a decade before he went solo. Prince was right at the starting gate and Curtis Mayfield wasn’t as fully formed as he appears on The Impressions, August 1963. As the gestation period (the twelve songs were recorded between July 1961 and March 1963), it is much more a collection of four hit singles, and seven new songs, and a novelty number, ten of which were written by Mayfield himself and one of which, “Gypsy Woman,” he wrote at the age of fourteen.
These fully formed musical sensibilities are visible from the very beginning of Curtis’ career. The Chicago native was raised in the notorious public housing projects on the Near North Side of Chicago. Mayfield’s father left the family when Curtis was five years old and he was raised by his maternal Grandmother and mother (very similar to Kanye West -also raised in Chicago’s project’s without a father and if you can’t see Kanye’s Mom behind Kanye’s sampling Curtis every other song, you’re not paying attention) and began singing, where else, with the Church Choir. This is a story as old as slavery, Gospel as the building blocks for black soul music.
It is also a Chicago story, because it is a Sam Cooke story. If you want to hear Curtis Mayfield’s primary influence for The Impressions, look no further: 1960’s The Wonderful World of Sam Cooke is huge. But if you add doo wop to the mix, if you add Frankie Lymon, and if you add Curtis’ own unique vocal arrangements, and docile and sweet mood music for urban audiences with a chance to crossover, you have the essence of The Impressions. This isn’t the rough and tumble of Harlem, or the motor city teen rev up of Detroit; it is a manifestation of the North Side of Chicago, poor but godly, and if you stretch early Curtis you arrive at Chance The Rapper.
Any man raised in a matriarchy can go either way, there is either a misogynistic bent or a Madonna complex, Curtis had the latter: music was black and feminine, like the mother who taught him piano and let him sing with the church choir at the age of seven. James Brown, to choose a name at random, made the move from juvenile delinquent.to choir singer. Curtis’ first band when he was fourteen years of age (also the age he wrote the second song on The Impressions) sang gospel, and the same year, 1956, he joined Jerry Butler’s group The Roosters (with brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks).
Curtis composed, sang back up, arranged the vocals, he was the man. In 1958 the Roosters changed their name to the Impressions. Jerry Butler was the lead singer. In 1958, the Impressions hit the pop charts with “For Your Precious Love,” and again on the r&b charts with “Come Back My Love,”. Both written by Curtis, both sung by Jerry Butler. subsequently, Butler went solo and Curtis took over the band as a trio.
The Impressions signed to ABC-Paramount Records, a huge recording company who would be renamed ABC Records in 1966 -aka an arm of ABC Network…. so immediately they were not part of any indie-chitlin circuit, but smooth practitioners of urban crossover. Helped by two players, producer Johnny Pate (responsible for the horns on “It’s Alright”) and company man Rory Glover, Jr, who put a flea in Curtis ear over the twist (Sam Cooke himself loathed the twist). The August 1964 eponymous debut album featured Curtis on guitar and lead as well as tenor Fred Cash and Sam Gooden singing baritone and bass. The trio also added the brothers Brooks singing back-up. Before it was even released, the Impressions had charted pop three times with “Gypsy Woman,” “Grow Closer Together,” and “Little Young Lover”. The Impressions fourth song off the album, the October 1964 “It’s Alright,” broke them through.
These songs were recorded between 1962 – 1963, so we are well out of the 1950s, President Kennedy was dead, the civil rights movement was in full swing, peace and love had not yet morphed with peaceful protest but Martin Luther King had just delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech. Southern Baptists were aiming at non-violence, the Nation Of Islam was less sure, Chicago blues had gone electric, Chicago Jazz was high as a kite and Chicago soul was sweet and soulful. Curtis Mayfield was a son of the Church, and the first song on the first record found smooth sensuality and unforced joy in the urban world of people of color. How far away from the start did Curtis reach in the end? He honed his skills but remained a decent man. From 1964’s “It’s Alright,” his first smash: “When you wake up early in the morning feeling sad like so many of us do, hum a little soul, make life your goal and surely something’s got to come to you,” to as a paraplegic in 1996 his final hit “Back To Living Again”: “Summer, winter, or just cold, through the rain and through the snow, let’s get on back to livin’ again, right on.” Go ahead, Mayfield, as Aretha Franklin put it at the time.
The Impressions doesn’t quite hang as an album, it starts at the top, and for the next three songs circles modern smooth soul, with huge respect for Sam Cooke on “You’ve Come Home” and Ben. E. King on “Gypsy Woman”. Those were, hardly coincidentally, the first four singles. The band is very sharp and Curtis really placed his stamp on the Impressions with the proto-disco “Little Young Lover,” a smooth and exciting sound, the strummed guitar would be studied by the likes of Jimi Hendrix as he learned his craft, and the proud snapped finger beat sounded like the future. Rory’s house band was both bland enough to keep out of the way so the trio could sing yet nearly as quick witted as Berry Gordy’s Motown family.
The album trails off a little but it is still more consistent than it has any right to be, and ends with what you can assume was a Rory money move “Twist And Limbo” and which Curtis still knew to imbue with enough musical Jamaican twists to make it more than pop fodder. This wasn’t a first step for Curtis, after the first couple of singles and writing solo hits for Jerry Butler, it was a third step, early but moving on up.