No word of a lie, I was listening to a new compilation called People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook when I came across this photograph of me interviewing Curtis in January 1972, during the edition of The Old Grey Whistle Test in which he and his band so memorably performed “We Got to Have Peace” and “Keep On Keeping On”. It was the first time I’d interviewed him (last year I wrote about the second occasion, which took place in very different circumstances, here) and he was as wise and courteous as I’d been led to expect from all of the songs of his that I’d listened to over the years. You’ll have to forgive me putting the photo up here; it’s a precious memory.
The 24-track album, compliled by Tony Rounce, kicks off with the Impressions’ version of “Gypsy Woman” and includes Mayfield’s “Keep On Keeping On”, but otherwise it consists of versions of Curtis’s songs by third parties. A few of them he also produced, such as Jan Bradley’s charming “Behind the Curtains”, Barbara Mason’s “Give Me Your Love”, Gladys Knight’s “The Makings of You”, the Staple Singers’ uncharacteristically lubricious “Let’s Do It Again”, Aretha’s “Look Into Your Heart”, Patti Jo’s irresistible “Make Me Believe in You” and Walter Jackson’s majestic “It’s All Over”. But some of the finest moments come when outsiders are looking in on the material.
Rounce suggests that Dionne Warwick’s version of the much loved “People Get Ready”, recorded in Memphis in 1969, is the closest to Curtis’s original with the Impressions, and he’s right, but it’s different enough to make it a marvellous complement. The Techniques’ “Queen Majesty” and the Gaylads’ “That’s What Love Will Do” are chosen to illustrate the huge impact the Impressions had on Jamaican vocal groups (I think I’d have added the Uniques’ “Gypsy Woman”, with its gorgeous Slim Smith lead vocal).
My only other suggestions would have been to find a place for the Opals’ “You Can’t Hurt Me No More” and to omit Major Lance’s over-familiar “Um Um Um Um Um Um” in favour of the lesser-known “Delilah”, his first single for OKeh in 1963, with its great piano from Floyd Morris, Al Duncan’s kicking drums and little touches of Curtis’s guitar. Lance’s first hit, “The Monkey Time”, appears in a version from the Miracles’ Mickey’s Monkey album, allowing us to contrast the significant difference in feels between Duncan’s drumming on the original and Benny Benjamin on the Motown version.
I was pleased to be introduced to the Jackson 5’s intense and long-buried 1970 version of “Man’s Temptation”, produced by Bobby “Does Your Mama Know About Me” Taylor, its lead switched between various brothers, and to Keni Burke’s “Never Stop Loving Me”, which is early-’80s Quiet Storm music at its suavest. The version of “I’ve Been Trying” by Jerry Butler, an ex-Impression, may not be quite as sublime as the group’s original — the B-side of “I’m So Proud” — but what could be? It was their finest hour.
It’s always good to be reminded of the mark Curtis left, not just as a singer and composer but as a man who believed in taking control of his own destiny when so many in his position were being robbed of it.
* The photo was sent to me by Tim Dickinson, to whom many thanks. People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Songbook is on the Kent label.