Disclaimer: This is one of those questionable picks that pepper the list: 16 years of music in a greatest hits double album…. Not sure that’s a particularly fair means of assessment or an accurate picture of Curtis Mayfield as an artist. For the sake of fairness I’d be happy to go straight to the late-‘60s and early ‘70s political flowering and Blaxploitation soundtrack cuts and skip the Motown-esque love songs of the Impressions years, as fine as they are. If, however, Rolling Stone had made the sensible rule against including greatest hits albums (which they really should have done), I’ll happily take Curtis, Roots, or the Superfly soundtrack and put it up against any other album in this general numerical range on the RS list (Curtis, his 1970 solo debut must have been a mammoth shock to the system: the opening cut, “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go…” Holy gawd! Get a load of me! A list of society’s ills followed by the lyric, “Nixon talking about, Don’t Worry.” America is great already.) Now I discover Superfly is already on the RS list at no. 72, one hundred-plus long albums away, despite several of its songs appearing on this anthology. I don’t get it. Anyway, sailing on. End Disclaimer.
In eighth grade, I bought a cassette tape from the bargain rack at Kemp Mill Music (same place I bought Hysteria, my contribution at #464, full price though) with a cool Black Caesar, Fred Williamson-looking dude in a colorful suit holding a gun in one hand and a scantily dressed babe in the other on the cover. It was entitled Greatest Pimpin’ Hits or something similar and anthologized many of the classic soundtrack cuts of ‘70s Blaxploitation-era cinema. Isaac Hayes’s “Shaft,” of course; Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” and Marvin Gaye’s “Troubleman” are other ones I remember, along with Curtis Mayfield’s “Superfly.” Come to think “Pusherman” and “Freddie’s Dead” were on the tape as well. I would imagine three tunes making Curtis the leading representative of Greatest Pimpin’ Hits. If the pimp shoe fits.
I loved this cassette tape. Listened to it all the time. Not because I—nestled in an affluent Washington, D.C. suburb—was particularly aware of the socioeconomic context and political backdrop of these films, or had ever even seen any of them at the time, but because it was damn funky soul music. I remember one summer I was mowing lawns—I hated mowing lawns—despised it with all my heart—and it was a regular in my Walkman. Now for a related embarrassing suburban-white-kid-early-‘90s-cluelessness anecdote: as junior high schoolers it was required of me and my buddies to hang out at the local mall, where we occasionally partook in the activity of “Pimpin’.” This meant we would dress up in ‘70s clothes gathered from the basement, attic, or bargain bin and strut around the mall blaring Greatest Pimpin’ Hits from a boombox. Curtis Mayfield’s smooth falsetto: “I’m your momma, I’m your daddy, I’m that nigger in the alley / I’m your doctor, when in need, want some coke, have some weed” and our long strides around the Sbarro’s and Cinnabon. Nigh 25 years ago in suburban Virginia we thought that was pretty sweet. Nowadays maybe not so much. I recall the people from the Glamour Shots appreciated it anyway, gifting us with some fine 8 x 10 glossies in our pimp gear in exchange for momentarily enlivening the tedious hours of their mall working day. Ah, the foibles of youth.
Having thankfully moved on from my pimping years, I came back to Curtis Mayfield via my preferred genre of metal, courtesy Fishbone’s cover of “Freddie’s Dead.” Thrashing about in the pit at some humid summer festival: hey, I know this song—wait a second, this is from that tape! Then picking up this very anthology I earlier denigrated Rolling Stone for selecting at a used record store in a strip mall in Vienna, VA.
If I had to name my all-time favorite band, Bad Brains would get a better than decent shot at the title (as they will never ever see a list like this, I will include them here). Along with being righteous heavy music, Bad Brains tick all my personal boxes: subvert expectations, crash genre, local boys to boot, but as I think about it, maybe there is also some related connection to my early courtship with Curtis. They are, foremost, city music: Curtis from Chicago; Bad Brains, my own D.C. and later NYC when they were forced to relocate in search of an audience and clubs where they were allowed to play (see: “Banned in DC”). Their music speaks to an awareness and connection with legitimate social concerns developed from real experience and expressed in a kick-ass musical fashion. (The Clash is another band that does this for me—not coincidentally sharing the roots-reggae gene with Bad Brains.) Pusherman and Troubleman and Freddie-on-the-corner are from the same place that led to Bad Brains’ HR (Human Rights) screaming in “Big Takeover,” “Understand me when I say / There's no love for this USA / This world is doomed with its own segregation / Just another Nazi test.” And back to Curtis with another sentiment that hasn’t changed much these many decades later: “We’re all built up with progress / But sometimes I must confess / We deal with rockets and dreams / But reality what does it mean / Ain’t nothin’ said / ‘Cause Freddie’s dead.”