When singer songwriter Curtis Mayfield died the day after Christmas in 1999, he left a legacy of socially conscious funk and psychedelic soul that 30 to 40 years later still transports you to a time and a moment when life was hard but good.
On Friday night, Atlanta and the National Black Arts Festival celebrated Mayfield and the timeless gifts of music he shared with people around the world.
As perfect as Symphony Hall is for a classical orchestra, the venue was less than perfect for many of the night’s performers or their 18-piece band. Fortunately, even less than optimal acoustics couldn’t diminish the magic of the man or his music.
From the moment Frank McComb sang “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” to the full company’s sway at the end of the night to “Move On Up,” fans were treated to a sampling of Mayfield’s greatest hits at the 2010 Legends Celebration: To Curtis With Love. See photos here.
The Impressions (formerly The Roosters), the group that gave a teenage Mayfield his start as a musical performer, brought giddy fans on their feet with “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing” — two songs that became anthems for Civil Rights Movement. The trio captured Mayfield’s falsetto with beautiful harmony, adding a hint of gospel and frolicky doo-wop.
Also featured was Van Hunt, whose voice fits like a glove into the Mayfield sound. As Hunt sang and danced his way through “If there’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go” and the classic “Pusherman,” he seemed to be in his own groovy zone. (And was that a tribute to Mayfield in the interesting mohawk he was sporting?) It was almost as if he was having Tom-Cruise-Risky-Business moment, feeling at home in his living room, totally caught up in the music and its maker.
Speaking of caught up, that would be Eddie Levert, lead singer of the legendary Ojays. Levert, who came onto the stage dancing and strutting even before the music started, was clearly prepared to party by himself if need be. “Little Child Running Wild” could have been Levert’s own testimony as the animated singer worked himself into a sweat with “Freddie’s Dead.”
As much as Mayfield is known for writing songs about social justice and racial unity, he also penned beautiful songs about love. And that’s where the two female performers, Dionne Farris and Joi Gilliam, came in with the passion-filled “The Makings of You” and “Something He Can Feel,” respectively. As Reggie Torian of the Impressions earlier stated midway through “I’m So Proud,” “Lots of babies were made off that song.”
But with a catalog as extensive as Mayfield’s, Friday night’s tribute as nice as it was, was a mere appetizer to the full course life of a musical genius.