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Curtis Mayfield - People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story

When Berry Gordy gave Marvin, Stevie, and The Temps the freedom to explore in song the realities of African-American life at the turn of the ‘70s, Curtis Mayfield already had been writing and singing concise pop statements of strength and self-determination in the face of oppression for about a decade with The Impressions. It was in those heady days of true state of the union addresses like What’s Going On, Innervisions, and Puzzle People that Mayfield gave his voice, guitar, and acute songwriting sense to solo work that echoed Sly & The Family Stone in its combination of danceability and social relevance and moved the whole thing on up to a transcendent new level.

As the most thorough distillation of an influential solo career that logged 21 albums from 1970 to 1989 (an amazing 18 from ‘70 to ‘82, though several were live LPs), this three-disc box is a necessary document. The 39 solo tracks gathered show an artist in full command of his powers. There are the lushly orchestrated, epic statements of empowerment and self-examination—"Move On Up," "Beautiful Brother Of Mine," and "(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go." There are "Freddie’s Dead" and "Superfly," the breakthrough blaxploitation soundtrack hits. And there are the exquisite expressions of love, "The Makings Of You" and "So In Love" among them. He covered so much stylistic ground, it’s no surprise his songs have been covered by En Vogue and Fishbone as well as The Jam and The Housemartins.

The emphasis here on the solo years does mean ten years of incomparable work with The Impressions are represented by a scant dozen cuts. It is on those early two- and three-minute pop gems like "It’s All Right" and "I’m So Proud" that Mayfield cut his songwriting teeth, and though none of the hugest hits are omitted, the lack of lesser-known sides like the sublime "I’m The One Who Loves You" makes it impossible to label this box definitive. MCA’s Anthology 1961-1977, two discs with 30 Impressions songs versus 14 solo recordings, is an essential supplement, and perhaps even a better overall purchase.

Later this year on Warner Brothers, Mayfield is ambitiously planning to release his first album since the 1990 accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Acquiring this set before the new album materializes could hardly be a bad idea. Judging from his one-verse vocal turn on a 1994 version of his own "Let’s Do It Again" recorded with Repercussions, he still has the fire.