Curtis Mayfield We People Darker Than Blue

Curtis Mayfield We People Darker Than Blue


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Curtis, man, he called it way back in the sixties but he actually started the shout in the fifties.

And even after the 1990 accident, a bank of speakers falling and breaking his back,

paralyzed from the neck down, Curtis was still recording



Curtis Mayfield: We People Who Are Darker Than Blue

 Breath of Life Music Commentary by Mtume ya Salaam &  Kalamu ya Salaam

My man Curtis Mayfield. The first record I ever won on the radio was “I’m So Proud.” I gave it to Terry’s sister, Vivian, who lived in the next block. After the army, I listened all day sometimes, over and over, to Back to the World. And of course I listened to all the Superfly stuff, but even earlier than that I listened to the Impressions. Dancing in some El Paso hole in the wall to “We’re A Winner” and “Moving On Up,” with that raising the roof upward hand thrust motion we all did screaming in unison on the hook: “Moving on up”! 

Curtis Mayfield. We got ready with a consciousness soundtrack. We knew there was hell right here. “Here” being wherever we landed, hell was our after-birth. Curtis, man, he called it way back in the sixties but he actually started the shout in the fifties. And even after the 1990 accident, a bank of speakers falling and breaking his back, paralyzed from the neck down, Curtis was still recording, leaving us music more upright than a thousand standing motherfuckers who didn’t do nothing more than prove Negro minstrels was far from dead. I mean have you dug Curtis’ last album, New World Order? So here we have, in addition to the original “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” three re-interpretations of the Mayfield classic. First from Curtis/Live, a small combo version by the man himself. Then the same track from Curtis’ last album, New World Order. And finally, a jazz version (featuring a Amira Baraka sermon) that manages, somehow, to be both funky and far out. 

The Curtis/Live set is, to use Mtume’s terms, simultaneously “dark” and “ethereal.” The hardness of the band throwing down a deadly groove atop which floats Curtis’ angelic falsetto. And since Curtis was a black angel, the lyrics are a clear-eyed picture of the hell below and at the same time a rallying call for us to rise above the worst of ourselves. No one was sweeter at preaching fire and brimstone. No one, except perhaps Malcolm X and I never heard X croon. I doubt he could blow in the treble clef like Curtis. Mayfield was the master, no one else could so eloquently lay into the downsides of our psyches and still inspire us to move on up. Listen to the lyrics. This is way past wanna-be poetry. Unlike most pop-poets who settle for, at best, witty similies, Curtis casually dropped jewel-bright metaphors: “High yellow gal / can’t you tell / you’re just the surface of our dark deep well.” I’ll drink to that. In 1996, twenty-six years after he first wrote the song, Curtis recorded a new version produced by Roger “Zapp” Troutman and due to his paralysis, Curtis did so from flat on his back. 

Whereas Zapp grooves were usually monster-mashes, this has to be the most elegantly refined get-down Roger ever recorded. I mean, a harp interlude on a Zapp tune! Who would have thunk it? But it’s there along with the talkbox, the computerized handclaps and damn everything else with the Zapp signature on it. The liner notes say Roger played keyboards, guitars, bass, drum programming & talkbox. I wonder, did he sweep up afterwards? 

In 2007, a group of avant garde jazz musicians under the indefatigable leadership of bassist William Parker presented an out-ish interpretation of Mayfield songs. With the put-on jive of journeymen hipsters, Parker dubbed his set “The Inside Songs Of Curtis Mayfield.” Inside outer space. The rhythm section alone is an enterprise. Dave Burrell, the “wow, WTF-is-he-on-to-play-like-that” pianist shows how adept he is at pounding out a mix of barrel-house, Little Richard and Sun Ra. It’s not easy to fit all of that into 88-keys. Then there is Hamid Drake on drums, popping a solid one-drop while snapping off-kilter asides. Drake never rushes the tempo, thereby keeping it funky while never settling for a plodding backbeat. Hamid supercharges the complexity of the moment with the deftness of a sidewalk hustler working the shells, hiding the pea or flipping that ace back and forth so fast you can never tell how he did it, you just know he’s working that shit. And William Parker holds down the bottom on bass; that’s not easy to do in a “free” context when anybody is liable to play anything at any given time. The horns are Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Darryl Foster on tenor, Sabir Mateen on alto & tenor. All doing double duty. Locking hip riffs atop hard grooves on the funk side, and screaming and free playing on the outside. Able to do both on one song.   Leena Conquest is the lead vocalist. Sister-lady is working her thing. There’s something simultaneously going for broke about the way she emotes and subtle and cunning about the way she works through the changes not missing one modulation, not ever registering a conflicting note across the quickly changing harmonic sequences. This is more than twenty minutes of music making but these jazz cats pull it off. Of course it helps to have the impish razor of Amiri Baraka’s tongue calling the shots. Amiri Baraka’s mack is from another solar system. “Negroes older than anything!” “Motherfucker wouldn’t have no generic name if it wasn’t for Negroes.” “Negroes know shit they don’t even know they know.” This is not just a re-interpretation, this is a whole goddamn mystic encyclopedia. What is amazing is not the performance alone but the fact that it’s built on the foundation of Mayfield-ian insightful music. It was like Curtis cleared a landing field for the mothership. If jazz was dead, call these cats (& lady) Lazarus, cause they are sho-nuff rising up with this set recorded live in Italy. Here are three totally different interpretations of one brilliant R&B classic from the seventies.  Mtume, I think this qualifies as one of the most brilliant sets of cover songs ever dropped on BoL. What sayest thou?

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Get the music here:

Curtis Mayfield – Curtis/Live / Curtis Mayfield – New World Order / William Parker – The Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield Curtis Mayfield – Curtis

—Kalamu ya Salaam

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Rivals the original         What sayest I? I think you might be getting a little carried away, Baba. I will say that Curtis’ live version rivals the original classic, and that’s saying something. The live version is absolutely fantastic. I love it. (Kalamu already told you what I said about the mix of the ethereal vs. the earthy, the voice vs. the rhythm.)

The problem with the other two versions isn’t that there’s much of anything wrong with them, it’s just that they can’t compare with that live version. I heard that one first, and after hearing it, I was pretty much waiting for the other ones to end so I could hear the live version again. The most brilliant set of covers ever on BoL? Uhhh, no. At least one cover that’s among the most brilliant tracks every posted on BoL? I’ll go with that.

—Mtume ya Salaam

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posted 12 March 2008



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