Tuesday, February 5, 2008
New World Order is a gorgeous testament to the resilience of the human spirit. Curtis Mayfield recorded it six years after being paralyzed when a lighting rig fell on him. He was 54 years old at the time (1996).
It features every attribute that made Mayfield sparkle. For starters, there’s that unforgettable falsetto. A lovely instrument in itself, his voice bounces over his text—and, as always, the lyrics are fantastic. He is one of my favorite songwriters.
Then there’s just the sheer musicality of this album. A part of Mayfield’s legacy is his originality in terms of presentation—he could play guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, and drums. He learned to play guitar by tuning it to the black keys of the piano, and his open F-Sharp tuning became a trademark.
There is such integrity to Mayfield’s work. His résumé as a producer is impressive, but I want to focus on his songwriting.
On New World Order he sings a love duet called “I Believe in You” that is simply delicious. It starts out bold and direct (“I believe in you/and I plan to love you longer”) and unwinds so silky soulfully that you’re drawn in immediately. You will then be spellbound by the exchanges between Curtis and his partner (Sandra St.Victor). Oh, that heartfelt growl as St. Victor prepares to reach her vocal heights. It’s bewitching!
Curtis’s versatility helps his music transcend any easy label. Sure, it’s R&B, but he’s infusing it with other rhythms. There’s a delightful Caribbean drive to “The Got Dang Song,” the sprightly harmonizing on the bridge to “It Was Love That We Needed,” and one of the few songs in my personal collection in which I find rap palatable (“Just a Little Bit of Love”).
Social consciousness is always flickering through his lyrics, and it puts them on such a higher ground. More than just pillow talk here. Witness the title track, of course (“A new world order/a brand new day/a change of mind/for the human race”) and the “message” songs about the dangers of life on the street.
New World Order also includes songs from Mayfield’s catalog—he performs “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue” (1970) and “The Girl I Find Stays On My Mind” (1969). It’s an amazing work—especially when you consider that Curtis was paralyzed and on his back throughout it!
This was Curtis’s last album. Three years later he died. (In the same year that he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately he was too sick to attend the ceremonies.)
In the words of Aretha Franklin, “Curtis Mayfield is to soul music what Bach was to the classics and Gershwin and Irving Berlin were to pop music.”
Do yourself a favor and devote some time to learning and admiring his work.
Additional facts about Curtis:
1970: Curtis Mayfield leaves the Impressions to launch a solo career. His debut album, Curtis—released on his own Curtom label—enters the charts in October. It contains frank, topical songs like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” and “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue.”
1972: Curtis Mayfield hits #4 with “Freddie’s Dead (Theme from Superfly).”
October 21, 1972: “Superfly” tops the Billboard’s album chart for the first of four weeks. This soundtrack to a film about a Harlem drug dealer’s attempt at a final “big score” delivers two major hits: “Freddie’s Dead” (#2 R&B, #4 pop) and “Superfly” (#5 R&B, #8 pop).
1972: Watch Curtis perform "We Gotta Have Peace."
August 1, 1974: Curtis Mayfield makes the pop Top Forty for the last time with “Kung Fu,” which precedes Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fighting” by two months. However, he’ll crack the R&B Top Forty a dozen more times between 1974 and 1981.
July 1, 1975: One of Curtis Mayfield’s most unflinchingly realistic and downbeat message albums, There’s No Place Like America Today, is released.
October 1, 1982: Honesty, Curtis Mayfield’s strongest album in years, appears to positive reviews.
August 13, 1990: Curtis Mayfield is paralyzed from the neck down after high winds cause a lighting rig to fall on him at a concert in Brooklyn, New York.
1996: He was unable to play guitar, but he wrote, sang and directed the recording of his last album, New World Order. Mayfield's vocals were painstakingly recorded, usually line-by-line whilst lying on his back.
March 15, 1999: Curtis Mayfield is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the fourteenth annual induction dinner.
December 26, 1999: Curtis Mayfield dies in Roswell, Georgia.