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Best Curtis Mayfield Songs: 20 Super-Fly Soul And Funk Anthems
List & Guides

Best Curtis Mayfield Songs: 20 Super-Fly Soul And Funk Anthems

From political calls to arms, to romantic ballads, the best Curtis Mayfield songs made the Chicago-born singer a global soul icon.

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A giant in soul music and beyond, Curtis Mayfield enjoyed his first hit record in 1958, and his songs still resonate today. So often thought of as a boss of the funky soundtrack, the Chicago superstar’s range actually spread from gospel to R&B, soul to pure pop, and his songbook was bulging with brilliant and thoughtful material that other people turned into hits, including Major Lance, Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Aretha Franklin and Linda Clifford. Mayfield also ran his own record labels and produced numerous acts, making him a pioneering businessman among the most influential Black musicians of his day. Here are 20 of the best Curtis Mayfield songs – proof that this legend of 60s and 70s Black music was one of the truly outstanding figures of the 20th century. Mayfield passed away on 26 December 1999, but the messages in his remarkable songs remain entirely relevant.

Listen to the best of Curtis Mayfield here, and check out our best Curtis Mayfield songs, below.

20: Superfly (from ‘Super Fly’, 1972)

Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly soundtrack both subverted and elevated the Black drama movie it was written for, taking it beyond exploitation into a commentary on the folly of ghetto gangster life. One of the first tracks people think of among the best Curtis Mayfield songs, its main theme is a sizzling funky jam which seems to celebrate the ghetto hustle while also being fully aware of its potentially grim consequences and burdens. Only Mayfield could serve it up like this.

19: We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue (from ‘Curtis’, 1970)

With We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue, Mayfield tackles the subject of Black consciousness head-on – and, as a consequence, not just Black consciousness, but everybody’s place in society. He urges Black youth not to conform to stereotypes thrust upon them, which would reinforce the prejudices of racists. The song is like a suite, rising from a subtle soul poem to a funky jam, with Curtis rapping in the middle, and doing it peacefully in the service of unity. This mindful masterpiece was on a hit album, his first solo set, Curtis. No wonder the sleeve depicted Mayfield as if he were a giant – he was fast becoming a towering presence among the best soul singers. For a very different take on the song, check out Lloyd Charmers’ mournful-sounding but impactful reggae version, released in 1975: Mayfield was one of the biggest of soul influences on Jamaican music.

18: Choice Of Colors (with The Impressions) (from ‘The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story’, 1969)

Mayfield, Sam Gooden and Fred Cash pose a strikingly direct question: how devoted are you to your ethnicity? In doing so, they’re asking what it meant to be Black in 1969 – or white, come to that – and if seeking education might mean more for you than a simple gut response. While The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story was sold on the back of less-controversial material, it is the album’s conscious songs which have lasted. There is no fury here: instead, everything is delivered in the name of reason; there is even an elegant orchestra to ensure the message would reach those who found more strident grooves off-putting. Remarkable.

17: Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here (from ‘Short Eyes’, 1977)

The artistic and commercial triumph of the Super Fly soundtrack brought Mayfield further screen commissions, including Claudine (1974, featuring Gladys Knight And The Pips), Let’s Do It Again (1975, The Staple Singers), Sparkle (1976, Aretha Franklin) and Short Eyes (1977), the latter of which delivered this funky hit. Mayfield also appeared in the movie, singing the tune – one of a very few hit records about the stink of poo.

16: Gypsy Woman (with The Impressions) (from ‘The Impressions’, 1961)

Gypsy Woman was the first hit for The Impressions with Mayfield as lead singer, returning the group to the charts after a three-year absence. While its gentle, cod-Spanish lilt may seem almost cheesy today, it was perfectly in step with contemporary developments in US R&B (similar rhythms were deployed by The Drifters (Mexican Divorce) and Ben E King (Here Comes The Night)). But The Impressions’ take on the sound was subtler, and it perfectly suited Mayfield’s relaxed and warm lead vocal. One of the best Curtis Mayfield songs, it was destined to live on in numerous reggae covers.

15: Billy Jack (from ‘There’s No Place Like America Today’, 1975)

From an album which did not sell especially well at the time, but which has since become a critics’ favourite, the cautionary Billy Jack was a distinctly downbeat opening track. Over six minutes of funky groove at a funereal tempo, Mayfield doesn’t tell the story of Billy Jack’s life, but provides a thumbnail sketch of a character who was doomed from the start. The point was clear: Billy Jack had no consciousness, only a hunger for a life that would seal his fate. The song arrives in its own time, and leaves as it came in, as if it had never reached where it could have gone – much like Billy himself, a passing figure in a ruthless urban drama, unable or unwilling to question the script he had been handed.

14: Tripping Out (from ‘Something To Believe In’, 1980)

Mayfield made his name as a composer with simple and direct romantic songs, and he never lost the knack. Tripping Out is an intimate love song riding a cool groove, built on a set of chords that unwind like lovers who take time to please each other. Mayfield declares himself his partner’s slave – a shocking commitment when you consider Black history and the fact he is among the most conscious of singers. One of the more downtempo entries among the best Curtis Mayfield songs, this track been thrilling those who love two-step soul for four decades. One listen can tell you why.

13: Freddie’s Dead (from ‘Super Fly’, 1972)

Mayfield depicts the protagonist of Freddie’s Dead as both a human being who was once loved and as a symbol of a hopeful future, snatched from the world by following a route that would eventually end in a bloody mess. But Mayfield doesn’t forget his own role as an entertainer: this fuzzbox gem has kept funky feet thrilled for decades.

11: Back To The World (from ‘Back To The World’, 1973)

Back To The World depicts a soldier trying to adjust to a very different US after fighting in Vietnam. Soul music was not short of songs that mentioned the war or which hinted at it through lyrics about loved ones who were away, but Mayfield was one of a select few with the vision to examine the state of the nation through the eyes of a returned serviceman.

10: New World Order (from ‘New World Order’, 1996)

In a horribly cruel accident, Curtis Mayfield was paralysed from the neck down when a lighting rig fell on him at an open-air concert in Flatbush, New York City, in 1990. A singer with a more forceful voice might not have been able to do it, but in subsequent years Mayfield discovered he could still sing when he was flat on his back. He released New World Order in 1996, an album full of his trademark sensitive songs, such as No One Knows About A Good Thing (You Don’t Have To Cry) and Back To Living Again, which revealed aspects of the inner man and the new life forced upon him. On New World Order itself, Mayfield was looking outwards as much as ever, seeking a better life for the people. A latter-day entry among the best Curtis Mayfield songs, this beautiful track was an R&B hit in the US in an era when soulful message songs were few and far between.

9: Keep On Pushing (with The Impressions) (from ‘Keep On Pushing’, 1964)

Keep On Pushing introduced Curtis Mayfield as a purveyor of explicitly political protest songs, though he had already established himself as an effective romantic tunesmith. Keep On Pushing fitted neatly with the folky message songs associated with the civil-rights movement of the mid-60s, and also worked as a lilting soul ballad; it went Top 10 in the US. The album the song lent its name to was packaged by ABC Records in a front sleeve that is so inappropriate in its literal interpretation of the title, it’s almost laughable, but this beautifully subtle track is anything but comedic.

8: Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey) (from ‘Curtis/Live!’, 1971)

First heard on The Young Mods’ Forgotten Story, Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey) discusses the divisions between races and asks why bridge builders are killed. The final verse finds Mayfield reasserting his identity in case his song was interpreted as shrugging off his Black consciousness. The simmering, gutsy live version that appeared on Curtis/Live! was taped at The Bottom Line club in New York, in 1971. For a complete contrast, check out the celebratory 1969 live version by Mayfield’s proteges Baby Huey And The Babysitters.

7: To Be Invisible (from ‘Sweet Exorcist’, 1974)

A curiously reluctant lyric among the best Curtis Mayfield songs: society sucks, freedom is a myth, time to move away from the light. But To Be Invisible is by no means a bleak listen: couched in warm strings, Mayfield makes it a celebration of an ordinary life. Released in May 1974, on the excellent if underrated Sweet Exorcist album, it had to compete with the version by Gladys Knight And The Pips on the soundtrack of Claudine, released just a month earlier, which Mayfield had produced. The song works perfectly when handled by either soul legend.

6: Give Me Your Love (Love Song) (from ‘Super Fly’, 1972)

Give Me Your Love (Love Song) stands in compete contrast to much of Super Fly: it’s funky, for sure, but passionate, too – a song of desire more than lust. Its status as an instant classic was confirmed by two swift cover versions, one by Barbara Mason, which Mayfield produced, and another from Motown’s early-70s girl group Sisters Love. It has since been covered by Junior Murvin (credited to Super Soul), soul-jazz fusionists Young Holt Unlimited and even indie-country mavericks Lambchop. But Mayfield’s intimate rendition is tough to match, never mind beat.

5: I’m So Proud (with The Impressions) (from ‘The Never Ending Impressions’, 1963)

A lilting waltz with a tinkling feel like gently falling snow, I’m So Proud is one of the keystone soul ballads of the 60s. Astonishingly direct and unabashedly emotional, this song could be cheesy in the wrong hands, but The Impressions play it perfectly straight, delivering it as a natural statement of devotion. Little wonder the world adores it. The word “proud”, of course, had extra resonance for African Americans in the civil-rights era.

4: Pusherman (from ‘Super Fly’, 1972)

The second track on the classic soundtrack album remains effortlessly funky, appropriately addictive and incredibly popular over half a century since it was released. Though Pusherman’s lyrics are apparently a blueprint for gangsta rap, there is inevitably reflection here, too: it ain’t exclusively a G thang.

3: Move On Up (from ‘Curtis’, 1970)

The beat-your-blues and fight-the-oppressors song which made such a huge impact at the start of the 70s still works for all those facing a struggle to be heard, to do right, to simply survive. However, though it charted around the globe, Move On Up was not a hit in the US, perhaps because it was released two years after the album it was drawn from, and the song’s slightly frantic groove was beginning to date in the States by 1972. Still holding fast among the best Curtis Mayfield songs, it has since been covered by The Jam and heard on Bend It Like Beckham, and Joe Biden used it during his 2020 presidential campaign.

2: People Get Ready (with The Impressions) (‘People Get Ready’, 1965)

Mayfield’s flair for delivering a political message with universal appeal was fully in evidence by 1965, when he wrote People Get Ready. He freely admitted it was based on gospel music, and it has since become seen as a religious song as well as one of the best soul songs of all time. It made the US Top 20 when The Impressions released it, and it has since been covered by everyone from The Everly Brothers to Bob Marley And The Wailers, Vanilla Fudge and Seal.

1: Keep On Keeping On (from ‘Roots’, 1971)

The advice is simple: don’t give up. Mayfield knows his people face a seemingly endless fight to be who they can be, and offers this song to lean on in times of trouble, asking that they pass it down the generations because their children will face similar tribulations. From Mayfield’s delightful second studio album, Roots, and soaked in soul, from “Master” Henry Gibson’s popping conga to Mayfield’s tender guitar and gentle vocal, Keep On Keeping On easily powers its way to the top spot in our list of the best Curtis Mayfield songs.

Find out where Curtis Mayfield ranks among our best soul singers of all time.

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