“Keep On Pushing With The Impressions” Reviewed
Yes, “Amen” and, yes, the title track “Keep On Pushing,” but the drums are lower in the mix all through the Impressions third album, released in 1964, and the blues solo on “Somebody Help Me” is where Curtis Mayfield wasn’t and was going: for all of Mayfield’s myriad of gifts, his greatest may well be his guitar playing: it is Curtis as guitar hero that remains the ultimate destination of his pop music. Curtis was the harbinger for 1975’s Mothership Connection, not ten years into soul, it was ready to jump ship. Curtis Mayfield was ready to change the game. Of course, “Somebody Help me” was Chicago twelve bar blues, except it wasn’t, the horns were Great American songbook, and the harmonies were pure soul post-doo wop harmonizing. But the overall effective was a distillation of something that hadn’t yet. All informed by, naturally enough, hindsight.
In 1964 the hugely successful Keep On Pushing was the sound of soul in all its manifestations: “Dedicate My Song To You” a Sam Cooke re-write, “I Love You (Yeah)” adds Isley Brotherish yeahs to an old school melody, “Keep On Pushing” and “Amen” were highly charged yet peace beloving, Christian Baptist, eye on the prize civil disobedience tracks tailor made for MLK: “Maybe someday I can reach that higher ground, I know I can make it with just a little soul.” If Malcolm X and the Nation Of Islam, Black Panthers, wanted hard nosed confrontation, Curtis Mayfield preached the Gospel of passive resistance and freedom through self-determination. “Keep On Pushing” was a soulful peacenik vision of a move towards the future, like the pointedly stalled car on the cover of the album.
As a vocal trio, The Impressions had been consistently odd, though Curtis certainly had range, it was two tenors and a bass and it changed the arrangements, so it was nothing like neither doo wop or, god knows, Motown. The Impressions at this time in their career were closer to what Gamble And Huff would be doing, it was soul for a very obvious reason, it was soulful. Curtis was the man of course, though Johnny Pate came into his own here, arranging the horns with an impeccable sense of swing and style that didn’t succumb to jazz the way Pate did on The Never-Ending Impressions. By the next album, the Impressions were heralding a changing world which would make Curtis more clearly a partner in the war against institutionalized racism, while “Keep On Pushing” was just open ended enough. It went to # 2 on the Hot 100.
“Amen” was a Traditional African-American spiritual; arranged by Jester Hairston, Mayfield, and Johnny Pate at a time when African music was reaching the charts though still considered nominally novelty numbers like “The Click Song” by Miriam Makeba, which played out as a one off like variant of Harry Belafonte’s 1957 smash “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)”. because no one was attuned to African music, they all sounded like hook lined giggles. “Amen” follows the precipes of making a “a joyful noise”. The 4 – 1 chords , that is pleasing to God, and that The Impressions used to yield the hopes of the moment so high seemed like a prayer as a jumble Gospel carol and later still, the call to God so he could remove the chains, it was also a March and therefore perfect for freedom marches.
Keep On Pushing was a general movement in soul away from doo wop and towards funk, and later, hip hop but you don’t need to know, wouldn’t have realized it at the time. It was revolutionary by people who knew how to attend to their future, it united pop fans in music and let the politics trail it.
The entire album is a miracle of tastefulness, soulfulness, pride and artistic progress. It isn’t a blueprint for the rest of Curtis career, there were more mutations to go, but it was the blueprint for black pop, how to reach a mass audience while remaining true to your African-American roots.