Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Curtis Mayfield 1942-2000:
A Beginner's Guide

Curtis Mayfield wasn't just a genius, he was a hero. He even managed to record 1996's creditable New World Order as a quadriplegic. But as geniuses go he was pretty spacy, his solo work radically inconsistent. As with so many groove artists, his albums only improve with time. Even so, however, accessing his higher-than-gospel croon, stealth guitar riffs, utopian-millenarian political vision, and erotic-domestic romanticism is a messy, compilation-ridden project certain to involve the purchase of multiple versions of "Keep On Pushing" and "Freddie's Dead." Oh well--record collecting holds many worse fates. Herewith a beginner's guide to paying your money without exactly taking your choice.


****

PEOPLE GET READY: THE CURTIS MAYFIELD STORY
Rhino

This high-end option is the only effective way to find out how good Mayfield could be beyond his acknowledged canon. The final disc of the three-disc box consists entirely of post-'76 dribs and drabs, some merely hard to find, others--"Homeless," "She Don't Let Nobody (But Me)"--vintage. Only 12 Impressions songs, though.

****1/2

THE ANTHOLOGY 1961-1977
MCA

Credited to Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions because the stellar harmony group provide 30 of the double-CD's 40 tracks. A few you've never heard are generic postdoowop r&b, Chicago-style. Others you've never heard vividly demonstrate why Mayfield is mentioned in the same breath as Smokey Robinson.

****

SUPERFLY
Rhino

As everyone knows, this is the seminal blaxploitation soundtrack. You don't need the alternate-laden 25th anniversary double. You probably don't need the two (brief) instrumentals, either. In addition to showcasing the oft-compiled "Freddie's Dead," "Pusherman," and "Superfly," it includes the harder-to-find classic "Give Me Your Love" and a worthy opener called "Little Child, Running Wild." And it's history.

****

CURTIS
MSI import

Cut for cut, Mayfield's solo debut is stronger than Superfly. Linked in this version with 1974's Got To Find a Way, which isn't, it's worth scrounging or waiting for. Rare items: the achingly empathetic "Other Side of Town" and "Miss Black America," featuring one of his many children.

***1/2

ROOTS
Rhino

Mysteriously, this 1971 follow-up is easier to come by than Curtis. Its great curiosity is the extended mixed metaphor "Underground," which signifies hell, mines, revolutionary cadres, and sub-rosa discrimination, among other things. Or so it seems.

****

THE VERY BEST OF THE IMPRESSIONS
Rhino

Sixteen career-spanning songs, including three dubious post-Mayfield tracks. Cheap.

****

THE VERY BEST OF CURTIS MAYFIELD
Rhino

Sixteen more career-spanning songs, all good and most great. Also cheap.

Rolling Stone, Feb. 3, 2000