With only a few days to go before the BRC Orchestra spends two nights performing the Civil Rights songbook of Curtis Mayfield, Michael Gonzales reflects on the quiet musical giant.
While Curtis Mayfield was always been considered one of the greatest soul voices to come out of Chicago, his guitar playing was often so understated that rock fans used to the dramatics of Jimmy Page, Prince or Carlos Santana might be weary to cite him as an influence. Yet, since the days when he was still strumming an acoustic while singing churchy sounding songs “It’s All Right” and “Amen” with the Impressions, his playing was an influence on dudes like Clapton, Beck and Steve Winwood.Another fan of the Impressions (and of Curtis’ guitar playing) was Jimi Hendrix. According to Jimi Hendrix: In His Own Words (Omnibus Press, 1994), the voodoo chile rocker once said, “I like the Impressions…they’re some people that need to be really, really respected. See, these are classical composers. I don’t care what their music sounds like today, because today, as things are happening at that particular time, the people that’s in that particular time don’t really know the value of it until it dies off. But now people really have to start learning the value of things as they’re living today.”
Almost makes you wish brother Jimi could’ve lived long enough to see Curtis throwing down with wah-wah, feedback, fuzz and other electro-gadgets that caused strange music to erupt from the speakers. Tracks like “Billy Jack,” Kung Fu,” “Future Shock” and “Freddy’s Dead” captured a whole new level of racial angst and musical distortion in his grooves and licks.
Danny Chavis, lead guitarist for art funk band Apollo Heights, believes that young rock star wannabes could learn from the Mayfield songbook. “A lot of guitarists try to make the instrument too complex, but they should study Mayfield’s simplicity instead of seeing how many chords they can play.”Citing Mayfield’s 1990 “Do Be Down” as a favorite, Chavis continues. “Nothing against the influence of the Bad Brains, but some players need to forget about the fastness of the punk rock ethos and explore the roots found in playing in a gospel style. To me, Jimi Hendrix was just Curtis Mayfield with the sound turned up.”