Fifty years ago, Curtis Mayfield faced a crossroads. The Impressions, the soul group he’d guided since 1958, had gone from a small Chicago doo-wop outfit to one of the most beloved bands in R&B. Martin Luther King Jr. had personally adopted The Impressions’ 1965 hit “People Get Ready” as an anthem of the civil-rights movement. Its hymnal plea for both mobilization and peace was sung collectively in the late 1960s by freedom marchers from Birmingham, Alabama, to Washington, D.C.
But by 1969, Mayfield—the lead singer and primary composer of The Impressions—was exhausted. The group’s touring schedule had hampered his ability to write songs, produce other artists, and run his label, Curtom Records. So he made the decision to leave the band, resulting in his 1970 solo debut, Curtis, which was just reissued as part of the Rhino Records box set Keep On Keeping On. The album’s only two singles, “Move on Up” and “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” paralleled Mayfield’s crossroads: one song a hymn to empowerment, the other an ode to Armageddon.
“Sisters! Niggas! Whiteys! Jews! Crackers! / Don’t worry / If there’s a hell below / We’re all gonna go!” The opening lines of “If There’s a Hell Below,” the first song and first single from Curtis, must have felt like a gut punch to Mayfield fans upon initial listen. The Impressions had been impassioned and outspoken, even angry on occasion, as they wove together immaculate harmonies and melodious soul. “If There’s a Hell Below,” on the other hand, seethes like a violent sea. The bass is gruesomely distorted; the vocals echo, ghostlike. A woman reads from the Book of Revelation while Mayfield begins his tirade against the twisted state of the world. Pollution, politicians, ignorance, injustice, apathy, police: They all get an alarmist cataloging, like a checklist of social ills made by a doctor delivering a terminal prognosis.
“When I was just coming up, I always wanted to be able to perform to a large crowd with a symphony,” Mayfield said in 1971. With “If There’s a Hell Below,” he did exactly that. The producers of Curtis—Gary Slabo and Riley Hampton—arranged orchestral layers of strings and horns over Mayfield’s churning funk. The result is Wagnerian in its gravitas. At eight minutes, the song was by far the most epic track Mayfield had ever recorded, and his spoken-sung verses anticipated the onset of rap just as prophetically as his contemporaries The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron did.
Formerly clean-cut and baby-cheeked, Mayfield grew a beard. A holdout of sobriety and wholesomeness amid the hippie counterculture of the ’60s, he finally started smoking pot. Paranoia and despair permeate “If There’s a Hell Below,” but its psychedelic urgency didn’t signify a bad trip as much as it heralded a bleak future. At the time, Marvin Gaye was recording What’s Going On, and Sly and the Family Stone were working on There’s a Riot Goin’ On—two R&B albums that became instant masterpieces of socially conscious pop music. It’s hard to imagine that those artists weren’t paying astonished attention to “If There’s a Hell Below.”
Like a light switch flipping on, the second side of Curtis begins with “Move on Up.” The song is the yin to the yang of “If There’s a Hell Below”; where the latter descends, the former ascends. At almost nine minutes, it’s even longer than its counterpart, and Mayfield uses every second of “Move on Up” to reinforce the song’s essence: the idea that hardship will be overcome and redemption will come to those who deserve it. He replaces the dark, funky brimstone of “If There’s a Hell Below” with a lightness and sweetness that hark back to his time with The Impressions. In fact, “Move on Up” was originally intended to appear on Mayfield’s final album with the group, 1970’s Check Out Your Mind!. Instead, it became a platform for a new kind of motivational soul: “Move on up and keep on wishing / Remember your dream is your only scheme / So keep on pushing.”
“Keep on Pushing” is the title of an Impressions hit from 1964, second only to “People Get Ready” when it comes to the group’s songs that helped soundtrack the civil-rights movement. It makes sense that Mayfield name-checked it in “Move on Up.” Although he had gone solo, he didn’t want to distance himself from his former band; he’d continue to write, produce, and release their music for years to come. Mayfield’s generosity of spirit bled over into his professional life as well as into his music. It’s everywhere on the heavenward spirals of “Move on Up,” an irresistibly danceable song hoisted high on intricate polyrhythms and bursts of ecstatic brass.
Mayfield weighed which of the two songs he wanted to put first on his album and to make its first single. “Move on Up” would have made more sense—it’s upbeat, pretty, and sounds much closer to The Impressions. Instead he made the risky move and went with “If There’s a Hell Below.” It paid off, with the single going to No. 3 on the R&B singles chart and helping Curtis reach the top spot on the R&B album chart. Mayfield had successfully launched himself as a solo artist, and he did it by harnessing the forces of light and dark, heaven and hell, that he saw fighting for the soul of humanity.
This year is not only the 50th anniversary of Mayfield’s momentous announcement that he was going solo. It also marks the 20th anniversary of the musician’s death, in 1999, the same year he was inducted for the second time into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Dusty Springfield, and The Staple Singers, a group Mayfield himself had helped bring to stardom with his Curtom Records label. (He had already been inducted in 1991 as part of The Impressions.) Mayfield died of diabetes, but the indirect cause was a stage accident he had suffered in 1990, which rendered him paralyzed for the remainder of his life. He spent his last years bedridden and unable to play guitar, although he continued to compose, sing, and record, ultimately releasing his final album, the multiple-Grammy-nominated New World Order, in 1996.
The album’s name could be read both hopefully and ominously; the title song itself borrows the conflicted outlook embodied years earlier by “If There’s a Hell Below” and “Move on Up.” In a 1997 interview, Mayfield remained modest about his songs—a body of work that inspired artists such as Prince and Kanye West. “I don’t like to appoint myself to nothing, knowing I’m no better than anybody else,” he said. “But it always makes me feel good to know I try to do the best I can, and those who might observe say, ‘Hey, I can take a little something from that person.’” “A little something” was how he humbly summed up his music, which shed light and uplifted millions even as it warned against a darker tomorrow.