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Music DVD Review: Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

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This two-disc documentary set is being issued in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of The Impressions. Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions were every bit as important in the music scene of the 1960s and 70s as any musician or group of musicians you care to name.

Mayfield wasn’t the glitz and glamour of some of the black pop stars of the day; he was more the gritty reality as opposed to the strawberries and cream, more the philosopher than the jester, and that was his attraction. Mayfield was a pioneer inasmuch as his writing was the musical side of the civil rights story of the day, telling in music what the black political leaders were preaching at the podium. Between his own self-discipline and occasionally with the help of producer and arranger Johnny Pate, Mayfield rode a fine line, keeping his lyrics palatable to both whites and blacks nurturing at least acceptance from most of the US population. Mayfield was the musical persona of Dr Martin Luther King’s talks and speeches.

In addition to writing for his own group, The Impressions, Mayfield had scored hits for Major Lance, Brian Hyland, Jan Bradley, Gene Chandler, Walter Jackson, and the Five Stairsteps, whose music ranged from soul to pop to the 1960s version of funk. He released his first solo album in 1970. Additionally, he owned two record labels and was a partner in a third. He was a sharp businessman as well as a prolific writer.

As far as many people were concerned, 1970-1973 was Mayfield’s zenith. That was the main course, they said, the years preceding and after were the starters and desserts. Solid, substantial “starters,” sure, and the same with the “desserts.” But the year 1972 saw the release of what many consider his best work, “Superfly.” Many consider it one of many masterpieces, including “Check Out Your Mind,” “If There’s a Hell Below …, “Keep On Keeping On,” “We Got To Have Peace,” “We The People …,” “Superfly,” “Freddie’s Dead,” and “Pusherman.” Not to short-shrift those that came before and after, but these were La crème de la crème. And the best part? Not only are they all on these discs, we even get to see two performances of “Freddie’s Dead.”

The first hit Mayfield wrote for his own group, The Impressions, was a song called “It’s All Right.” On break while singing at a Nashville club, Mayfield was “dreaming” to the group, as he called it, talking to them about the hits he hoped to write for them. While he was talking, Fred Cash kept saying, “All right!”, and “Well, all right!” and “It’s all right!” Later, in the car, Mayfield wrote the song.

We also are treated to all new interviews with Impressions Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, producer and arranger Johnny Pate, and Curtis’s widow, Altheida, discussing intimate aspects of the group’s history, Mayfield’s family, and even some technical aspects of the recording process. The performances were filmed throughout the US and Europe, and also includes the only known filmed performance of “People Get Ready.” Additional interviews include Chuck D of Public Enemy, and Carlos Santana, as well as some commentary from the man himself.

This set is first-rate in all aspects. It includes 24 complete television versions of Mayfield’s hits on two discs, totaling out at over two hours. My screener version didn’t include a 28-page booklet with an extensive essay by Grammy® award-winning writer Rob Bowman, as was indicated in the publicity sheets I got. The booklet also includes rare photos and memorabilia including some from the Mayfield family archives that have never been seen before. Each performance used on the discs are the absolute best copies available, remastered from the originals, some of which haven’t seen the light of day for over 40 years. The film audio was replaced by original masters for extra listener enjoyment.

This is another super offering from Reelin’ In The Years Productions, which has the world’s largest music footage library. It is due to be released today.

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About Lou Novacheck