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Jun 11

Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: “We’re a Winner”

The Impressions

The Impressions’ “Flying V” formation, later adapted with great success by Canadian geese.

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I’ve been a fan of Curtis Mayfield ever since I was about 7 years old, when I discovered the Superfly soundtrack album in my parents’ record collection. Such powerfully funky songs, even if they are about drug pushers and junkies, are undeniable no matter what your age. I didn’t understand the whole drug thing back then, of course, but I could sense the intensity in the songs and knew that something heavy was going on. As for the movie itself (which I finally saw a couple of years ago) . . . let’s just say that Mayfield’s music is by far the best thing about the film. The sexy bass riff and horn blasts of the title track and the fuzzed out keyboard and wah-wah guitar of “Freddie’s Dead” have the ’70s written all over them, but in a very good way — it’s some of the best music of the day and still stands up.

It was some years later that I finally discovered that prior to his solo career Mayfield was leader of The Impressions, one of the great R&B groups of the ’60s. A trio, singing songs mostly written by Mayfield, they had many hits, ranging from the romantic early-’60s R&B pop of “It’s All Right” and “Gypsy Woman” to songs influenced by (and that in return influenced) the civil rights movement — such as, perhaps most famously, “People Get Ready” (and if you’ve only heard the bland 1985 version by Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart, please check out the original!). For some reason, though, it seems like The Impressions have taken a back seat in the public memory to the Motown and Atlantic artists when it comes to ’60s R&B, but they were among the leading lights, and Mayfield one of the great songwriters, of the era. You just don’t hear them on the radio as much as you might hear the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, or Otis Redding, for example — but their songs have certainly stood the test of time just as well.

Probably my favorite of the Impressions’ songs is “We’re a Winner,” released on their 1968 album of the same name. It starts with a cheer and a blast of horns, and then the pulsating bass kicks in, underpinning the upbeat groove. The lyrics, with the “movin’ on up” and “keep on pushin'” vocal riffs (clearly themes for Mayfield, given the 1964 Impressions song “Keep On Pushin’,” and “Move On Up,” from his 1970 solo album Curtis), are so positive and encouraging that they make you feel like anything is possible. Mayfield’s smooth, soulful voice is one of the greatest in popular music, and the combination of all the song’s elements literally sends a chill up my spine nearly every time I hear it. The next sunny day that comes along, throw open your windows, crank this song to full volume, and let it carry you away.

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