The Impression’s “People Get ready” Reviewed
In February 1965 the Impressions released People Get Ready, in March 1965, 200 Alabama State Troopers attacked 525 civil rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama, as they attempted to march to the state capitol of Montgomery. People get Ready is not a political album, it is, in fact, a business as usual Impressions album, Johnny Pate arranged the horns, Curtis Mayfield wrote the songs and took the lead, Sam Gooden was a tenor and traded lines with Mayfield, Fred Cash was a baritone and held the bottom still. Like so much of the Impressions, album # 4 opened with a Sam Cooke soundalike, “Woman’s Got Soul,” but unlike so much of Curtis compositions, the album sparkled but very darkly. “Sometimes I Wonder” is urban soul cresting towards blues with a funky back, in a world of ambiguousness, “Can’t Work No Longer” is the ghost of doo wop on a very sad and beautiful lost love, “I’ve Found That I Lost,” is 50s style ballad with Curtis tearing up his falsetto in a raw pain, “Get Up And Move” is swing and an iteration away from protest, so close to a “Keep On Pushing” vibe. “You Must Believe Me” uses his guitar to deny infidelity, the lick that follows two of the chorus lines is almost pained. Song after song is just so sad, the entire album is a bummer. But it is a great bummer, it retreats into itself because it exists in a world where society is encroaching in on it, People Get Ready isn’t about its title, the civil rights battle is on but the life of those fighting it is a constant, painful inhalation, the album finds hope in a train to freedom it can’t find in its social being.
It is easy to miss out on the album, to fail to figure its place in Curtis mindset and history, but Curtis was a man of intense spirituality and faith and the album itself is perhaps the one that shows it least. When listening to People Get Ready, when thinking about People Get Ready, you lose sight of the album. While it is part of Curtis the story teller, the man who sees through the illusions of power so thoroughly on Super Fly, this leads him to a sharp and honest exploration of love and romance: Curtis is stuck between the Church and the State and retreats into a form of emotional nihilism.
None of that matters because whatever Curtis got from the album the only thing anyone could hear was his ode to his Grandmother, “People Get Ready”. “People Get Ready” was the third in a trilogy of eyes on the prize Chicago Civil Rights anthems, and the best. His arrangement of “Amen” moved the cotton fields to the Midwest. “Keep On Pushing” was Jim Crow come to life. And “People Get Ready” was both. Echoing his Grandmother’s Great Migration, when she didn’t take any baggage and ran off in the quiet so as not to be stopped, the woman, a preacher, headed east, on that train to freedom. Yusuf and I wrote about this very same trip on “The New Day,” it has become part of the myth of black America, and, for Curtis, the train took him and us to freedom and to heaven, away from bondage like Moses and the Jews: the same precise inclination.
“People Get Ready” is a lo fi and quiet spiritual as soul song, it is a huge song, probably Curtis and certainly the Impressions biggest. It exists next to “Give Peace A Chance” and “Blowing In The Wind,” ahead of “A Change Is Going To Come”. Bob Marley’s Rastafarian apocalypse vision may have hurt “One Love” (though not the chorus) and yet there is “People Get Ready” Bob echoing Curtis: “ There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner whom would hurt all mankind Just to save his own…”Perhaps, though as a Christian Curtis must have known better, the “hopeless” portion is iffy. I once spoke with French director Claire Denis about her movie, “I Can’t Sleep,” the story of a man who murdered elderly women for their money. I suggested he had lost his humanity and she corrected me He was a murderer but that didn’t mean he wasn’t human. The hopeless sinner maintains his humanity, an his hope for redemption.
Moral parsing and yet relevant to the mood of the entire album, there is such immense pain in the words, in the love songs, for all its urban black crossover it is singularly about not quite getting it right. The truth is, as MLK and Curtis understood, that there is redemption for the hopeless sinner. If Curtis was evolving between the train to freedom that his Grandmother rode (a metaphor of course, but clearly so) and the train to freedom for Black Americans who would embrace the song on their marches for justice, and the train to eternal freedom in heaven, it still was a pained hope.. Curtis covered all of this and in return “People Get Ready” has been performed by many, many people, as a song of hope and freedom.
But that’s what we bring to it, it isn’t a song of freedom the way “Amen” was, it wasn’t a beautiful noise as such, Curtis’ entire album was seeped in doubt and uncertainty. It was 1965, of course it was.