From The Atlantic
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.
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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.
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.”
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.
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.