The Very Best of the Impressions
In these days when various pundits are trying to sort Americans into categories (“patriotic” vs. “disloyal”, “God-fearing” vs “amoral”) which they can use to exclude people from having a voice in our civic life, perhaps the time is right for a revival of the Impressions. Not only did this group make some fine soul music, they also proclaimed a vision of inclusiveness that still calls us to better things.
The Impressions were led by Curtis Mayfield, whose minimalist guitar (“It’s Alright” has an astounding hook built on moving one finger around) and Smokey Robinson-influenced singing were consistently excellent, but Sam Gooden and Fred Cash each took their share of leads, contributing a smokey baritone and a gospelly tenor, plus wonderful harmonies throughout their career. The session musicians heard on this collection are top-notch, too, particularly the drummer, whose jazzy stylings make “You Must Believe Me” swing hard and lift “Woman’s Got Soul” to a frenzy.
But it’s the songwriting, all by Mayfield, that makes the Impressions truly stand out. His melodies are never trite, but always work soul conventions into something new, like the elegant triplets leading out of the verse in “Choice of Colors”, or the off-beat phrasing in “Fool for You.” And when Mayfield is simply riding out pure inspiration, the results are often the best. “It’s Alright” isn’t any more complex than, say, “Mashed Potato Time”, but with the swooping low harmony, the swing of the tune, and the bouncy melody line, it’s a classic guaranteed to lift the listener’s spirit. “People Get Ready” is a compilation of gospel tropes, but it has been justifiably covered numerous times for the simple grace of its tune Mayfield groomed those tangled gospel lines into a spare movement that reminds listeners of both old hymns and classic Tin Pan Alley ballads.
Mayfield wasn’t just an uncommonly good musician, though; he was a keen observer of society, with a commitment to progress. While his love songs are unusually articulate, Mayfield shines when he takes on the issue of integration. It’s not widely remembered (or taught in our schools), but the Civil Rights movements of the 1950’s and 1960’s was closely associated with African-American churches most of the leaders, such as King and Abernathy, were preachers. That’s why “People Get Ready” had such powerful resonance. On one level, it’s a simple call for all people to be saved in the church, but on another level, it speaks to the growing power of the Civil Rights movement, which was slowly clearing legal hurdles to integration. The unstated message is to get with it, or be left behind. That message, which hits home in a political way to white listeners, resounds through other cuts later in the Impressions’ career. Another brushed-under-the-rug element of history is that the goal of integration was not universally accepted among African-Americans; some believed it would undermine the communities they had built, others were skeptical that white Americans would ever offer equal opportunities. Mayfield, however, hit the top 10 three times in 1968 and 1969 with powerful statements about the importance of everyone asserting his or her rights. “We’re a Winner” speaks to the slanders used to insult minority groups (still circulating, now applied to religious and political groups out of the mainstream), and, in a lyric unlikely to be written in these oh-so-cynical times, advises, to “keep on pushing like our leaders tell us to.” “Choice of Colors” is powerful, with a gorgeous string arrangement, and poses a philosophical question to make everyone ponder his or her beliefs: “If you had your choice of colors, which one would you choose, my brother?”
But the song that I want Bill O’Reilly and John Ashcroft to hear is “This is My Country.” Although some people try to resist acknowledging it, Mayfield insists correctly that everyone who chooses (or has been forced) to be part of the American experience has a stake in what happens. We all built this country, and we all deserve to share in its bounty (including that wonderful harvest we know as the Bill of Rights.) He paraphrases Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address to chilling effect: “Shall we perish unjust or live equal as a nation?”
I love listening to the Impressions, and I love that Curtis Mayfield’s lyrics can still inspire us to dream of better things for our nation. May we live to see the day when he is hailed as a patriotic poet, not a reforming prophet.
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