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Belief in Lyric

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 4, 2013
pp. 171-179 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0118

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We might well one day find forgiveness, those of us who failed to notice Curtis Mayfield when we first heard the first hit by The Impressions. For one thing, the label on the 45-rpm single clearly identified the artists as “Jerry Butler and the Impressions,” and who on hearing Butler’s baritone wouldn’t be forever haunted? “For Your Precious Love,” he sang, going on to enumerate just what love might mean. They were his words, rolling out over the all too familiar four-chord pop ballad form of the day, that seemingly eternal unwinding C, Am, F, and G. We noticed the guitar endlessly picking out that pattern, but there was nothing that particularly stood out about it, as cleanly intoned as it was. We didn’t know it was played by the same man who was adding the high tenor to the mix. That man was Curtis Mayfield, and when Jerry Butler soon went out on his own, it was with Curtis Mayfield on stage beside him, playing guitar and supplying songs, the very songs that made “The Ice Man” so memorable. By the time we heard “He Don’t Love You, Like I Love You,” it was harder to ignore Mayfield, whose high harmonies moved in glorious tandem with Butler through the choruses. That same tandem movement made other songs stand out from the mass of pop molasses, songs like “Find Yourself Another Girl,” “I’m A’Telling You,” and so many more. But it was when Curtis Mayfield became the clear front man for The Impressions that the world began to realize the breadth of his abilities. “Gypsy Woman” was just a hint of what was to come, and when Mayfield joined Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, and others in penning songs that spoke from and to the rapidly gathering storms of social change, he quickly became the very poet of the civil rights era. “Keep on Pushing,” “This Is My Country,” “We’re a Winner” were anthems for an age, and when Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions sang “People Get Ready,” the people got ready. The Impressions crossed over, found acclaim in venues far removed from the Chitlin’ Circuit, and made a lasting impression. Their formula was not new; Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, and so many others had brought gospel and pop together, seemingly reuniting gospel with its sometimes forsaken blues roots, sometimes wedding it to the most earthy of love lyrics. But the ethereal harmonies of The Impressions added, as it were, a new note to that mix, a note that even someone as “out” as Jimi Hendrix would borrow for his soaring “Electric Lady Land,” a song that mimes The Impressions’ harmonies, mining them for soul in an intergalactic psychedelia that in turn influenced late Curtis Mayfield production techniques. In the 1963 film Lilies of the Field, West Indian actor Sydney Poitier plays the role of a man who instructs a group of Eastern European Catholic nuns who have set up shop in the Arizona desert in the proper singing and enunciation of the song “Amen,” a song so instantly recognizable that many filmgoers thought they had heard it, that it was an old spiritual, not the new composition by the writer with the seemingly unlikely name of Jester—Jester Hairston. Poitier won his first Oscar for that film, as well as a Golden Globe, and the film itself won prizes at festivals around the world. Curtis Mayfield saw the film and was determined to cover the song with The Impressions. The resulting record became the first hit for the post-Butler group that Mayfield hadn’t written himself. The Mayfield arrangement of Hairston’s song was meant to point both backward toward the past of black and unknown bards and forward into the new world the civil rights movement presaged; the recording opened to the strains of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and moved to a marching rhythm suited to the determined youth of the day. The song went to number one on the R&B charts and charted at number seven on the pop listings, a significant accomplishment for any black artist in 1964 and one that rode the cresting wave of...



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