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.