At the outset of the seventies, Curtis Mayfield became more than just the former co-leader of The Impressions with his first solo record Curtis, further cemented his success with Roots and would enter the soul and pop music stratosphere with Superfly. But I consistently find myself going back to Curtis Live!, a record that largely came from a couple night performances in January 1971 at The Bitter End in New York City.
Perhaps it’s because this record is ostensibly his previous work’s polar opposite. Curtis Live! is remarkably lean and intimate, where the scope of Curtis and Roots were cinematic and lush affairs. In truth, Mayfield always possessed this melodic minimalism, hell, “Move On Up” is a treatise on the subject. There are maybe a handful of great live soul records; Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, Donny Hathaway’s Live and this one, and part of the magic of listening to this visceral cut of an Impressions song is just how well the band swings it. The band had maybe played together for two days before the time of the recording and they’re about as tight as any band might hope to be.
“Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)” is a great introduction to the record, as the band works into the groove for the first thirty seconds before those backing vocals bring the song home. Mayfield had written “Mighty Mighty” as social commentary in 1968, and he does a nice job integrating James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud” in the middle of this version of the song. Also, those drums…that’s some serious pocket, and the drummer Tyrone McCullen deserves all the credit in the world.
Other favorites on this record are “We’re A Winner”, another reworked Impressions song, and “We’ve Only Just Begun”, which is a beautiful rendition of a Carpenters song. I know, but Mayfield sings it with all the conviction in the world.