Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dust Off Those Grooves (Chapter Five)

Curtis Mayfield is, of course, incredibly well known as being one of the great figures in soul music history. His work with the Impressions as well as the solo career he launched in the early 70's is legendary but his work as a producer is at times overlooked and undervalued.
One of the finest albums that Mayfield composed and produced is the soundtrack to the wonderful 1974 film Claudine. The group that performed Mayfield's songs was none other than Gladys Knight and The Pips at the height of their power.
The film, which centers on a single mother raising her children, garnered an oscar nomination for its star Dianne Carroll and is widely regarded as one of the finest African American films of the 70s.
Claudine, the album, while a success upon initial release as since slipped into obscurity and is hard to come by. It had a brief cd release in the late 90s but now fetches high prices on Ebay and Amazon. The quality of the cd was poor compared to the original vinyl copies and it's an album that screams for a remastering and re-releasing.
The album kicks off with one of Mayfield's most politically charged and impassioned songs, Mr. Welfare Man. Knight establishes herself as on the great soul vocalists on this cut as she totally inhabits the songs raw anger and frustration. Mayfield would later perform this song himself but it's this original that has the juice, it's simply put one of the most important socially aware tracks of the period.
The heartbreaking To Be Invisible follows with Knight delivering another definitive performance, the Pips continue to show throughout the album that they were one of the great back-up groups. The harmonies and intelligence of the arrangements really shine through throughout this album.
Side one closes with perhaps Knight's two greatest performances with the funky On and On followed by the gorgeous The Makings of You. The Makings of You had already been done in a hard to top version by Curtis on his first solo LP but Knight nearly outdoes him here. The song here becomes the woman's response to Mayfield's original and it stands as one of the great love songs ever written. The biggest hit from the album is On and On and it really smokes. Knight's vocal performance on this one is as funky as it gets and the songs final over the top declaration is one of the 70's most exhilarating moments.
Side two consists of only three songs, the sublime title instrumental, Hold On and Make Yours A Happy Home. The vocal tracks here perfectly echo the films message of family and solidarity against the powers that be that the film focuses on. They are a dare as much as advice and the message Mayfield delivers is still as viable today as ever.
The film, Claudine, features several different vocal takes not available on the album. Including these would be an ideal way to flesh out a deluxe re-issue, as well as including the single mixes that were released. It's a splendid soulful record from two of modern music's finest voices, it's also a socially important document confronting issues that are still as relevant today as they were 30 odd years ago.

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