Curtis Mayfield was a musical giant. He started his own independent record label in the late 1960s, wrote more than one hundred original time-tested songs, and carried with him one of the most influential electric guitar styles and singing voices in popular music, as mimicked by Jimi Hendrix’s squirrely guitar trills and Prince’s famous falsetto, to name a couple of examples. Mayfield’s career spanned generations, from the 1950s to the 90s—from his humble doo-wop beginnings in Chicago’s iconic Cabrini-Green housing projects, to the peaks of success with The Impressions and his solo career, to his final decade of life, paralyzed from the neck down from an onstage lighting rig accident—making music all the while that adjusted stylistically with the trends of the day but always bore his consistent socio-political messaging and distinct musical touchstones and essence.
In a career rife with stellar albums, The Impressions’ 1968 record, This Is My Country, stands out among Mayfield’s output but remains somewhat overlooked. As pointed out in the 2017 biography, Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield, The Impressions’ messages of racial equality and justice were sometimes met with criticism or dismissal for either being too soft and friendly for some (see “Choice Of Colors” which positions race as a hypothetical choice in order to get across its message) or too militant and extreme for others (see “This Is My Country” with more direct lyrics about America’s deep-seated history of racism and oppression: “I’ve paid three hundred years or more of slave-driving, sweat, and welts on my back. This is my country”). This same concept of “in-betweenness” permeates throughout the many elements that make up This Is My Country—musically, thematically, interpersonally—and very much defines the album. For some, this is the music’s weakness and what has led to its being undervalued, but for others with hindsight it proves, instead, to be one of its greatest artistic strengths.
This Is My Country marked a time of transition for Mayfield and company—it stylistically bridged the 60s to the 70s, The Impressions to Curtis Mayfield the solo artist, was the first Impressions album on Mayfield’s newly established record label, Curtom Records, and was the first Impressions album to include an all-new backing band. While on tour in the South, The Impressions’ backing band, who were traveling in a vehicle separate from the three singers, careened off a bridge and into a ravine. The entire backing band died on the spot—a monumental tragedy that remains grossly underreported and unrecognized in the annals of pop culture and music history. Needing to assemble a new backing band in the wake of this tragedy, The Impressions hired on Joseph “Lucky” Scott, the nephew of Impressions singer Sam Gooden, as their new bassist. It’s on This Is My Country that Scott first appears, his basslines, punchy tone, and bouncy feel proving to be the secret weapon of the album, propelling every song rhythmically while reinforcing each phrase melodically. Scott would remain by Curtis’ side as bassist and musical director long after The Impressions’ split and into Mayfield’s solo career, Scott’s bass playing becoming one of the most prominent and memorable features of the Mayfield sound.
The lyrical content on This Is My Country mostly focuses on the topics of love and heartbreak, but the album is flanked by two invigorating songs of Black empowerment and a call to action (“They Don’t Know” and “This Is My Country”), resulting in a work that is not conceptually clearly all one thing or the other. As well, the music of this album straddles stylistic lines—some songs recalling the harmonies and romantic doo-wop of The Impressions’ earlier output (“So Unusual” and “My Woman’s Love”), one song touching on the in-vogue psychedelic craze with harpsichords and bubbly flower power (“Love’s Happening”), and some songs hinting at Mayfield’s soon to be solo career with leanings toward pentatonic blues scales, tinges of funk, and prominent solo falsetto lead vocals from Curtis (“Fool For You” and “They Don’t Know”)—making the overall sound something more “in-between,” and a transition from one era to the next.
All of these conflicting elements could easily amount to a messy splay of ideas, sounds, and moods like unconnected puzzle pieces scattered about on a tabletop, but somehow in this moment and at the hands of Mayfield and his cohorts, the pieces fall neatly into place creating a colorful and cohesive image in mosaic. While The Impressions’ albums before and after This Is My Country (We’re A Winner and The Young Mod’s Forgotten Story, respectively) are products of the same transitional period and offer up some all-time great singles for the group, they somehow don’t congeal with the same seamless concision and are spottier albums on the whole. It is of this author’s opinion that in capturing this specific fleeting moment of multi-faceted transition, Mayfield and The Impressions simultaneously captured some of the best elements of their past and future, and created one of the most thoroughly enjoyable albums of their careers.
This Is My Country is available through hoopla. The rest of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions’ albums are available to stream through hoopla. Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield, written by Curtis’ son Todd Mayfield, is available to check out from the Library To Go service and to borrow as an e-book from hoopla. For a detailed and engaging history of the Cabrini-Green public housing project where Curtis Mayfield grew up you can check out High Risers: Cabrini-Green and the Fate of American Public Housing, available to check out from the Library To Go service and on audiobook from hoopla.