Wednesday, September 21, 2016

I Is For...

26 days, 26 artists, from A to Z....

The Impressions / 
"Woman's Got Soul"

Of course I know who Curtis Mayfield is. He did the soundtrack for Superfly, right? "This cat from the slum / Had a mind, wasn't dumb" -- yeah, that song has a whole backstory for me. (When I write the book...)

But in 1965, when this single was getting tons of airplay in Indianapolis, I didn't know who Curtis Mayfield was. I knew the title track from the album even better -- "People Get Ready," one of the civil rights movement' iconic tracks, along with Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come." Still, I doubt I had any idea who the Impressions were, and I certainly didn't know that Curtis Mayfield was their lead singer.

Mayfield, full of restless talent, was probably already moving past the suave Impressions sound. They'd started out in 1958 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, but when Chicagoans Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield joined the band, their doo-wop and gospel sound got a serious overhaul. This number, like their previous Mayfield-penned hits "It's All Right" and "Keep on Pushing," were full-on Chicago soul, with a distinctive swagger and a boatload of horns. (By this time, the trio consisted of original member Sam Gooden, Mayfield, and Butler's replacement Fred Cash, who came on board in 1960.) On one level, this song doesn't have the social consciousness of a track like "People Get Ready." But underneath the plush sound, there's plenty of consciousness-raising going on.

I can't help hearing this song as a soul version of Rodgers and Hart's "The Lady Is a Tramp." Listen to that first verse: "She may not be the best lookin' woman / I ever did see / Nor have the charms of the ladies / Of high society." Yeah, that high-falutin' stuff's not for him -- "I don't need a Cadillac car / Or diamonds and such."

Yet there's also a Black Pride subtext here, as he swings into the lilting chorus: "But the woman that I hold / She's got to have soul / And then I'm richer than the richest gold / If the woman's got soul." In 1965, "soul" was a loaded and coded term. You either had it or you didn't, and if you didn't, you wanted it.

And he's skeptical of phony notions like "class" ("Because class in a woman / Don't mean she's gonna last."). What really matters is, well, you know, the sexy basics: "I need a kind of woman / That when I hold, she fits up tight, yeah / Oh, and when she throws it on me / I give in without a fight." Mayfield works that melody for all it's worth, teasing out all sorts of innuendoes.

Maybe this track was insurance for the Impressions. Just in case some listeners weren't ready for the "People Get Ready" message, they could relax here. Lord, how this track swings; those pillowy back-up harmonies keep everything in lush mode, and the horn section moves confidently from uptown to downtown  and back again. This is not a song for the civil rights battlefront, but whoa, it warms the home fires like nobody's business.

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