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.
If you’ve never heard Jorge Ben Jor, don’t worry, you’re (mostly) not to blame.
The man who wrote “Mas, Que Nada!” is, after all, not the same man who popularized it, but despite being responsible for one of the most famous bossa nova songs, Jorge Ben is not a name that gets brought up frequently in the music world.
It’s often that The Beatles are given the label of saving rock and roll, and usually that’s for overblown reasons. Yes, they were incredibly creative, fully embraced technical advancements and managed to propel popular music into a more advanced form. However, it’s perhaps most important that they always had their own particular identity.
Early rock and roll was largely “race music”– gritty and visceral–often only a few steps removed from blues numbers that had traveled up the Delta. While The Beatles were influenced by Elvis Presley and Eddie Cochran, they were just as much, if not more appreciative, of black artists like Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander, and Barrett Strong.
McCartney may have covered “That’s Alright Momma,” but The Beatles covered far more songs from black groups. In fact, all of the covers from Please Please Me (“Chains, "Boys”, “Baby It’s You”, “A Taste of Honey”, “Twist and Shout”, and “Anna (Go To Him)”) were done originally by black artists, and only “Til’ There Was You” a number from the Broadway play The Music Man was an exception to the rule on With The Beatles. Lennon would later recall, “We didn’t sing our own songs in the early days – they weren’t good enough – the one thing we always did was to make it known that there were black originals, we loved the music and wanted to spread it in any way we could.”
Of particular note is “Anna (Go To Him)” which stands as perhaps my favorite Lennon cover outside of “Twist and Shout”.
Originally written and recorded by Arthur Alexander, “Anna (Go To Him)” was released on September 17, 1962.
Alexander’s version is maudlin, even slightly off-kilter, given the knee-jerk rhythm and the placid nature of Alexander’s vocal. Though Lennon insisted “it was only natural that we tried to do it as near to the record as we could – i always wished we could have done them even closer to the original,” The Beatles rendition of “Anna (Go To Him) has two distinct differences.
Perhaps most obvious is the piano’s melodic hook being shifted to a very clean guitar hook, and more importantly, they shifted the key up a step to D major.
It was February 11th, 1963, and Lennon was battling a rather nasty case of pneumonia, but this was a time of 4-track tapes and no sure road to stardom. What remains from this day’s session of recording is probably some of the most passionate singing Lennon has on record.
It should be noted here that most contemporaries who were doing what The Beatles were doing, e.g. The Rolling Stones, typically tried to emulate the exact vocal performance of the original. "Mercy, Mercy” is a fine example (and originally recorded by the criminally unknown Don Covay).
Already starting around the top of his vocal range, the emotional heft of the song and the strain on his vocal chords bring an additional resonance to Lennon’s delivery–it crackles and wails, pleads and begs. And it’s his own.
“Twist and Shout” would be the last song Lennon sang that day after chugging a glass of milk to soothe his throat, but that’s a story for another day.
Particularly great vocal harmony work on “Anna (Go To Him)” from the hauntingly sultry “Aaanna” call and response in the beginning to the more traditional backing vocals that try to steady Lennon’s emotional waver in the refrain.
Don Covay’s “Mercy, Mercy” would be one of the earliest appearances Jimi Hendrix ever made on a record (though uncredited)
Covay would also be responsible for this great hit
Most of Lennon’s quotes here come from a quickly scribbled letter he had written on a plane in 1971 in response to a New York Times article titled ‘So in the End, the Beatles Have Proved False Prophets’. While Lennon’s memories were famously suspect, his “P.S. What about the ‘B’ side of Money?” line manages to both reference something he held dear and be relevant to the discussion at hand. The ‘B’ side in question? “Oh I Apologize”.