My Pop Life #79 : People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

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People Get Ready   –   Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions

People get ready – there’s a train coming

You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board

All you need is faith to hear the diesel hummin’

Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord…

I bought The Impressions Anthology double LP at some point in the late 70s during my soul conversion years.   The album collects songs from 1961 to 1977 and every one is a classic, but one song stood out for me as head and shoulders above the rest.  More like a hymn than a pop song, this is one of the reasons why pop music is so potent.  To take a church form and turn it into a gospel/political plea of this simplicity and strength takes skill, it’s like a William Blake poem or a Martin Luther King sermon,  it hits you right between the eyes, and goes straight for the heart.

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Black American music has long used biblical imagery in the context of freedom – the crossing of the River Jordan, the walls of Jericho, let my people go (from Egypt) – the language of slavery from the Moses era of the Old Testament perfectly fit the plantation south.  Trains have also been prominent in freedom songs.  The Underground Rail Road was the name for the hidden path to freedom for escaped slaves, a series of marks on trees, directions remembered, safe houses, places to avoid.   The songs Wade In The Water, The Gospel Train and Swing Low Sweet Chariot all refer to the freedom train, or the underground railroad.   Harriet Tubman was one of the main conductors on this train, freeing hundreds of slaves to the Northern states.   The Gospel Train (Get On Board) was sung by contralto Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when she was denied entry to the Constitution Hall in 1939 by the “Daughters Of The Revolution”.

With the aid and support of Eleanor Roosevelt she sang an outside radio broadcast to 75,000 people with millions listening on the radio.   She was later the first black performer at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955.  Incidentally she has also sung “Erbarme Dich” from the St Matthew Passion (see My Pop Life #76).

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Marian Anderson

So Curtis Mayfield‘s song is in a tradition, it may have the appearance, melody and structure of a gospel tune, and the subject matter of a religious song about God, but Black American music always has significant symbolic aspects of freedom hidden in plain sight.   People Get Ready is very much a song of the Civil Rights era, two years after the march on Washington, and released in the same year of the Selma to Montgomery marches.   A year ealier the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public places – the “coloured” drinking fountains and rest rooms, bars and restaurants, but in some parts of America it was impossible to register to vote.  The freedom train was coming though.   Lyndon B. Johnson‘s presidency was actually more radical than Kennedy’s before him and created many of the institutions of America still existent today – Medicare and Medicaid, public broadcasting, voting rights and public housing.

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The arrangement of the song is special – a choir hums the intro with a xylophone and strings, then the Impressions – Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler and Fred Cash – sing the song.  Guitar lines, trumpets and vocal harmonies grace the key change and then we get taken home, musically.  Something about the chord structure answers a deep yearning for completions and resolution and the song rose into my all-time top ten within a year of buying it.  I put it onto Jenny’s Soul Tape (see My Pop Life #29) along with Gladys Knight, Bobby Bland (My Pop Life #28) and others, and then in the early 1990 we saw Curtis Mayfield live at the Town & Country in Kentish Town Road.  I think most people’s highlight was Move On Up (and fair enough, what a tune), but when he played People Get Ready, in the same arrangement as the original, simple and direct, we melted.    A few months later a lighting rig fell onto him in Flatbush New York and he was paralysed from the neck down.  He still continued to write and play until diabetes lost him the use of a leg.  He died in 1999.

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 His output remains an inspiring and uplifting body of work, from the early Impressions songs through Pusherman and Freddie’s Dead to the last LP New World Order, and perhaps no other artist has contributed so many black pride anthems, from Keep On Pushing through to Move On Up.   But he also managed to balance the righteous freedom politics with an uber-cool image that peaked with Superfly in 1971.

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I’ll just briefly note in passing that Bob Marley is among the artists who covered People Get Ready.  And Stevie Wonder played it with India Arie last month in Brooklyn (see My Pop Life #39).   A towering song.

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My Pop Life #39 : Knocks Me Off My Feet – Stevie Wonder

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Knocks Me Off My Feet   –   Stevie Wonder

…but there’s something ’bout your love… that makes me weak and knocks me off my feet…

It is an indication of how musically unformed I was at the time that I didn’t rush out and buy Talking Book when it came out in 1972 –  I saw Stevie Wonder singing Superstition on Top Of The Pops one Thursday evening.  I liked it – and ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life‘ – but it wasn’t until I was 16 and hanging around with girls that the magic started to work it’s course under my skin, into my bones.  Tanya Myers was in the year below me and friends with other girls that Simon knew mainly called Jane.  We were at Tanya’s house in 1973 – she was gorgeous but I was with Miriam Ryle at this point – and we listened to Innervisions from start to finish.  Quite soon after that I bought it, and Talking Book, then late in 1976 Songs In The Key Of Life, a double album with an extra single inside the packaging, 21 songs in all.  By then I had also heard Fulfillingness’ First Finale since Mumtaz owned it and we listened to it a lot, I think at some point in my mid 20s (the soul years) I bought Music Of My Mind from 1971.   

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Thus we have the run of LPs from 71-76 that represent a Himalayan mountain range of musical excellence, with Songs In the Key Of Life being most folk’s pinnacle moment.  It’s hard to have favourites with Stevie Wonder, but mine is Innervisions.   And if you go back to 1970 there’s another superb LP called Where I’m Coming From which was his final LP under the first contract with Tamla Motown and is the true beginning of Stevie making the music he wanted to make, rather like Marvin Gaye his label stablemate, who made What’s Goin’ On in the same year, with the same desire to stretch out beyond the pop confines of Motown.  And beyond 1976 is the pause for breath before the brilliant but uneven indulgence of Secret Life Of Plants in 1979 and 1980’s genuine masterpiece Hotter Than July and on into the 1980s with more wonderful music (Overjoyed is outright stunning) right up to the present day.  A Time 2 Love was released in 2005 and is a five star piece of writing and singing, a really great LP that everyone inexplicably ignored.  But critical focus has always been on that run of five albums from 71-76 when Stevie wrote every song (some co-writes) played almost every instrument, arranged and produced every song after teaching himself how to play every instrument (and he’s an excellent drummer as youtube will testify).  Of course the list of credits on Songs.. is as long as your arm though, trumpet players, vibes, harps, singers.

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I’ve spent a reasonable amount of time sitting at a piano trying to play Stevie Wonder songs.  There are chord books.  I’ve got three of them.   Before the internet of course.  I think “Golden Lady” was the first one I could play all the way through.  I learned about complicated music via Stevie Wonder.  The Beatles Songbook taught me the major, the minor, the sixth and occasionally the seventh or major seventh.  Stevie Wonder taught me the minor 9th(last word of “you are the sunshine of my life), the diminished 5th (My Cherie Amour), the Gminor7th/ Eb bass (Golden Lady), the Bbminor9(11) (Lately).   You’re into an arena where each chord voicing can be written any number of ways.  I had to count down the stave to find out  what they are.  The chords sound amazing, stretched, deep, rich.   Apparently he learned keyboards at Hitsville USA in Detroit singing hits with The Funk Brothers, (Motown’s backing band of jazzers who played on every song the label produced) “he’d come up to me and ask me ‘what chord is that – show me'” said Earl Van Dyke the main keyboard player.

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I’ve seen Stevie live three times.  First time : Wembley Arena, 1990.  Second time 02 London 2009. Third time last Sunday April 12th 2015 Barclays Centre Atlantic Avenue Brooklyn.  It’s a basketball arena so it’s like sitting inside a nutshell, tight, steep sides, all great views.  We had floor seats because we’d missed this show in October at Madison Square Garden, thinking a friend would be able to get us in, sometimes in life You Have To Buy The Ticket.  So these were “expensive” in the vernacular but I would have paid triple, quintuple.  It was overwhelming.

He came onstage with India Arie guiding him and stood still – to a standing ovation naturally.  He thanked us and said it was his honour to be able to play the show tonight for us.  It made me wonder how old he is, a question that went up and down our row of seats throughout the show.  When he smiles he looks under 40 years old.  At other points, singing blues, he looked 80.  He spoke softly about wanting to play us the whole of his 1976 masterpiece Songs In The Key Of Life, then sat down at the keyboard and the concert began.  Immediate goosebumps, eyewater and hairs on the back of the neck rising as the singers moaned the opening harmonies to Love’s In Need Of Love Today. “Good morn or evening friends, here’s your friend the announcer…”  I was crying by this point, 30 seconds into the show.

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So hard to place into readable words what was happening at this show.   So just a few facts before I melt into hyperbole.  Village Ghetto Land had a twelve-piece string section.  Contusion showcased the guitar players in a red-hot jazz funk workout.  Sir Duke destroyed the building when the six horn players stood up and stabbed it to death – we could feel it all over, everyone was on their feet dancing and stayed there for the irresistible groove of I Wish when we all transported ourselves back to childhood for the song.  Then I was in tears again for Knocks Me Off My Feet which is one of the first songs I learned on the piano, and is in my Stevie top five.   Then he took a noodle on the piano and started making the singers copy his vocal trills.  One at a time, talking to them, mimicking their voices, making them sing complex vocal melodies that he made up on the spot.  At one point the three women stage right – who were all unfeasibly gorgeous and busty by the way – broke into En Vogue’s Hold On before Stevie stopped them and told them to be quiet.  He was in such a great mood.  Then he got the lead violinist – a local chap – stand up and play, solo.  Believe me when I say he took his moment, astonishing work.  Then Stevie stood up and took the mic and the sharp sad strings of Pastime Paradise sliced through the arena, as the band were joined by a choir for the final heart-rending moments.

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Summer Soft was immaculate, Ordinary Pain was fierce, then on came India Arie in a science fiction dress and hat to help him sing Saturn, one of my favourite songs.   Then Stevie stood up unassisted and walked across to the stand-up joanna, or tack piano, honky-tonk to you.   A ripple of relieved applause made him turn “What you clapping for?  You think I’m not gonna make it?”  We laughed.  “I been lying about being blind for the last two years – I can see y’all!’  and into latin-jazz showtune Ebony Eyes, complete with talkbox tube guitar effect and cracking sax solo and we were into the interval.

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Everyone’s eyes were glazed, people were smiling, Tony Gerber and I were stunned, sat down, Lynn Nottage and Jenny went to the ladies together.  The french harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet who played the opening to Have A Talk With God was talking with his friends just in front of us and I thank him for the gig, he thanks Stevie.   Stevie was trying so hard to be ordinary, joking, using a faux english accent, messing about musically but then in the middle of a song I would find myself staring at him singing and thinking “OH MY GOD IT’S STEVIE WONDER”.

Part two opened with Stevie introducing us to his grand-daughter who is about 2 years old and said ‘Hello’ which took us into “Isn’t She Lovely” and the greatest harmonica playing I have ever witnessed in my life.  More tears, another highlight.  Somehow the next song – un-noticed by me usually – was even better, even more emotional.  Joy Inside My Tears became a church-hall testimony as Stevie pounded the keyboard and shook his fists at the sky and the crowd roared its approval.  Amazing moments.  Black Man continued the hot-tempo passion as the band moved into funk workout mode and steam started rising from the stage.  Jenny shouted “Harriet Tubman – A Black Woman” at Lynn at the appropriate moment.  Now they were using some of the original sounds and quotes from the LP and as we slid slinkliy into All Day Sucker, which is funk cubed, the roof was being raised.   Stevie then stood up with his harmonica and walked over to the side of the stage and performed the quirky exotic instrumental Easy Goin’ Evening with the other harmonica player and the sax player.  This was a moment to treasure, I’ve never heard anything like it.  It sounded like a gypsy lament.  You could hear the proverbial pin drop.  India Arie and singer Jessica Cruz joined him for Ngiculela – Es Una Historia – I Am Singing which was beautiful and joyful and happy.  All the actual songs from the LP Songs In The Key Of Life – the 21 jewels in the crown – were presented with incredible attention to detail, real passion and love and clearly the players were all experts.  They each had a place in the sun, a moment to themselves, and they all took it with pride and aplomb.

Then, Stevland Morris, 64 years old (Jenny correctly guessed) back centre stage, produced an odd-looking lap instrument – a zither ? that appeared to have at least 12 strings and sounded like an electric guitar with effects, but he played it like a piano.  Although it had a fretboard.  He started chatting to us.  He started playing notes, anything, noodling.  “We’re musicians, we like to jam”.  It’s called a harpejji.   I heard Yesterday, Mrs Robinson, and many other snatches of melody that I can’t remember already – two days later ! – before settling on the four-chord cycle of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘People Get Ready’ and India Arie joined him as he covered the whole song.  Then he asked India to sing “Wonderful” her own tribute song to Stevie.  He liked that. He asked us if we liked it, and we said yes, so he asked us to sing along to ‘Tequila‘ a 1958 hit from The Champs (!)  (You’ll know it.)  Next was Michael Jackson’s The Way You Make Me Feel and we were in Stevie Karaoke land.  He made us sing (ladies first, then gentlemen) a melody line that he’d just made up.  We belted it out.  These excursions into covers, improvisations and chat seemd like a way of taking the monumentality out of the show.  A hugely influential double-LP played live as if it were a classical piece  – which it is obviously – interrupted by rehearsed jams.  Chat.  Jokes jokes.  But they only served to deepen the intimacy already present in our  knowledge and love for the LP, carried inside us for years as a treasure, now unfolding before us, not as an edifice, but as an old friend, a jam session in Stevie’s sound world.  His continual reference to his blindness had the same effect : “I see it how I hear it” .   But the monumental feeling remained : the temple of love was real.

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And then we were hushed and Stevie explained that the world’s premier harpist who’d played on the album in 1976 – a black woman called Dorothy Ashby – would be accompanying him on If It’s Magic, but that since she died in 1986 they would be using the original music from the LP as a backing track. Stevie sang it perfectly, mimicking his 26-year old self – more tears, more vulnerable open hearts, more hand-holding as Jenny and I and thousands of people melted together.

Every time you hate on somebody you are blocking your blessing.  And your family’s blessing.  Your street’s blessing.  Your city’s blessing.  The world’s blessing.   We have to release the power of love.  It’s the most powerful force in the world.”

As around the sun the earth knows she’s revolving
And the rosebuds know to bloom in early May
Just as hate knows love’s the cure
You can rest your mind assure
That I’ll be loving you always
As now can’t reveal the mystery of tomorrow
But in passing will grow older every day
Just as all is born is new
Do know what I say is true
That I’ll be loving you always

We’re on our feet, we’re singing, the entire band is on stage – two drummers, bass man Nate Watts (who has been with Stevie for decades) three guitars, two more keyboard players, six brass & woodwinds, two percussionists, six backing singers, twelve strings, 15 in the choir plus India Arie and Frédéric Yonnet, over 30 people are playing Another Star and we’re going to church in Stevie’s parlour, the joy is infectious and huge.

The don’t leave the stage after Stevie takes his bow and introduces us to every single member of his band, saying “Wow – we did it – we played it all – it’s 11.40”  we looked at our phones – he was right ! “we’re gonna play til midnight.  This is Stevie’s disco”  He had a table with button on it and we got bits of Boogie On Reggae Woman, Jungle Fever, Do I Do, I Just Called To Say I Love You, Uptight, then the whole band sang Living For The City (woo!) and Superstition (wow!) and that was it.

It was midnight and he’d been onstage (with a 20-minute interval) since 8.20.  We were lifted up into the night air and floated home, high.  It was a huge cultural moment, like watching Gustav Mahler conduct his 5th Symphony or Chopin playing the Ballades.   And yet he’d been so humble, so funny, so human. And one of the greatest singers I’ve ever witnessed in a live setting.   Knocked off my feet.

Songs In The Key Of Life.