Art Doc of the Week | Darker Than Blue

The opening horns of Curtis Mayfield’s 1970 classic hit “Move on Up” drop the 21st century listener into an aching, nostalgia-rouged flashback to the possibility of possibility, when music being made by Black folks captured something of the optimism still flickering post-Civil Rights bloodshed but also documented fallout and side-effects of both centuries of racial oppression and smoldering embers of Black cities that had gone up in literal flames. “Move on Up” is an anthem of uplift. An acknowledgment of the seemingly endless struggle of being Black in America, it captures something of the resilient nature of the Black survival instinct. That two-in-one aspect of the song might well be the essence – if his brilliance can even be boiled down to one elemental strand – of the late Curtis Mayfield’s immeasurable talent.

Curtis Mayfield in concert. Courtesy the artist website.

Curtis Mayfield in concert. Courtesy the artist website.

From his early music career as the creative center of R&B group The Impressions (in which he honed his gifts for shimmering love songs and trenchant social commentary) to his genre-reshaping solo career, Mayfield is one of the most important musicians of the 20th century, and though his influence is absolutely everywhere he doesn’t get a fraction of his due. Underrated as a singer (as a vocalist, Mayfield is what Pharrell wishes he were), he’s one of the best lyricists and producers ever. To get some idea of the depth of his talent, you need only listen to the three landmark soundtracks he wrote and produced: Superfly (1972,) Claudine (1974,) and Sparkle (1976). The first is an empathetic/sympathetic tour through the world and psyche of a pimp, a world of drug addicts, whores and hustlers. Mayfield captures the humanity of all without merely romanticizing or fetishizing their struggles. In both Sparkle and Claudine, he maps the interiority of the feminine with the astuteness of a psychologist and the tenderness of a poet. Claudine stands a high water mark in both his career and that of Gladys Knight, who poured her heart into the songs. Mayfield was a man who genuinely liked women, who listened to them, respected them, let himself see the world through their eyes. It’s why his love songs to women are so powerful, and the love songs he wrote for women to sing are so sublime. His work transcends genre and gender.

Curtis Mayfied and Gladys Knight and the Pips in studio, Courtesy GladysKnight.com

Curtis Mayfied and Gladys Knight and the Pips in studio, Courtesy GladysKnight.com

Mayfield died in December of 1999 from complications from Type 2 diabetes after years of deteriorating health following a freak accident: while  performing at a concert in 1990, part of the lighting rig fell on him, permanently paralyzing him. (He was no longer able to play his guitar but he continued writing songs and singing until his declining health made even those acts impossible.) Caryl Phillips’ 1995 documentary Darker Than Blue is a loving, detailed overview of his life and work, a necessary corrective to the relatively low profile Mayfield has when the roll call of important 20th century musicians (regardless of race or genre) is called.

Check it out below:

Top Photo: Frans Schellekens / Redferns