During lunch in the Westhampton Beach High School cafetorium (a sinister-sounding hybrid of cafeteria and auditorium), a portable phonograph is often plugged in at the edge of the stage platform, and the music is piped through the room’s speaker system. So I chomp on my daily peanut butter sandwich to the sounds of the O’Jays, the Trammps (half a decade before they skyrocket to fame on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), and Curtis Mayfield. In the fall of ’72 “Freddie’s Dead” from Super Fly engulfs the lunch period like warm maple syrup. Mayfield’s so-smooth soul singing is a thing of pure beauty, spread across that unmistakable bass backbone with a bit of flute and just the right amount of sweet strings. One could forget the song is actually about the death of one of the film’s characters, Fat Freddie. What can compare to the moment when those strings glissando down like a police siren and Curtis comes back to let us know he’s just tryin’ to find a little love and some peace of mind?
45 years later, HBO has produced an early-seventies time capsule a la their short-lived series Vinyl, this time dedicated to the pimps, prostitutes, and general sleazeball characters of 42nd Street and entitled The Deuce. Now we get to see what was happening here, in da big, bad city, while us kids were eating lunch way out in the Hamptons in the shelter of the cafetorium. And singing the theme song at the start of each episode is…the late, great Curtis Mayfield. His 1970 hit “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” graces the opening credits against vintage shots of Times Square the way it useta be.
Kicking off Mayfield’s debut album, Curtis, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” is an intense eight minutes of Latin-percussion-driven fire ‘n’ brimstone directed to…uh, black and white alike (let’s just say he certainly ain’t politically correct), over one of the greatest fuzz-bass riffs ever invented. While we’re at it, check out the other monster on Curtis, “Move On Up.” For some reason it never charted as a U.S. single despite those classic R&B horn hooks and universal you-can-do-it-if-you-try message.
Mayfield was born in Chicago in 1942 and by 1958 had formed the Impressions with school friend Jerry Butler. Seven years later, at the forefront of the Chicago soul sound, he wrote the legendary “People Get Ready,” among other Impressions hits. In 1970 Mayfield went solo, releasing the above-mentioned gems, as well as work with the Staples Singers and several movie soundtracks. He moved to Atlanta in 1980, recording and performing until a stage accident in 1990 left him paralyzed from the neck down. He continued to write music and record vocals – while lying on his back. Curtis Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 at age 57, leaving us nearly forty albums of his music including twelve with the Impressions.
So don’t worry…if there’s a hell below and we all go…Curtis’ll be there coolin’ it off.
images courtesy discogs.com, rollingstone.com, baltimoresun.com, nydailynews.com, pinterest.com, nytimes.com, ephemeralnewyork.files.wordpress.com, itunes.apple.com