Mayfield tribute can be measured by stars' brilliance


Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery elsewhere, but in the music industry, nothing says "We admire you" more eloquently than an all-star tribute album. Moreover, it generally follows that the bigger the star, the greater the compliment -- that is, to be celebrated by such stars as R.E.M. or Sting means a great deal more than being lauded by the likes of KMFDM or Prong.

That ought to give you some sense of the praise implicit in "A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield" (Warner Bros. 45500, arriving in stores today).

It isn't just that the album boasts major-league talent along the lines of Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Gladys Knight, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart and Stevie Wonder; the obvious passion and affection exhibited here underscores the respect Mayfield is accorded by his peers.

Ironically, many pop fans probably have only the vaguest notion of who Mayfield is.

Granted, he hasn't exactly torn up the charts in recent years; after all, it's been 20 years since Mayfield last had a single in the Top 40, and more than a decade since his last major-label album.

In fact, he's been almost completely out of the public's eye since 1990, when a lighting scaffold collapsed on him, leaving him paralyzed and bed-ridden.

But Mayfield's legacy goes well beyond such trivialities as chart position or commercial success. He wrote some of the most memorable songs of the rock era, including such hits as "It's All Right," "People Get Ready," "Amen," "Choice of Colors" and "Freddie's Dead." Nor has the appeal of those songs diminished over time, as En Vogue proved with their remake of "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," a song Mayfield wrote for Aretha Franklin way back in 1976.

"A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield" makes quite a case for that legacy. It isn't the only Mayfield homage on the shelves -- "People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield" (Shanachie 9004) was released to good reviews and moderate success last fall -- but it does offer a better sense of the scope and resonance of Mayfield's work.

Unlike the Shanachie album, which casts its material in vintage R&B; arrangements, this new album runs the gamut from retro-rock to hip-hop jazz to straight-up modern soul.

Gladys Knight (who had a Top-Five hit in 1974 with Mayfield's "On and On") gets the album off to a fine start with a lush, soulful rendering of "Choice of Colors." Although Knight makes sure to stress the song's message, she avoids the preachiness that undid the Impressions' original; instead of seeming like a sermon, her interpretation makes it seem more like a celebration, bringing out the hope that lies beneath Mayfield's questioning lyric.

There's a similar sense of emotional triumph to Aretha Franklin's version of "The Makings of You." When Mayfield recorded the song in 1972, he treated it as a simple love song, using his tremulous falsetto to express a sense of longing and impossibility.

But Franklin pushes beyond that, touching on the soul-deep desire that would drive someone to try to conjure their lover in song.

Even better, she conveys all that not through bluster but restraint, holding back as if she were afraid to give full vent to her feelings -- and, in the process, making this one of her most powerful performances in years.

Not that the album is lacking for vocal bravura, mind you. Whitney Houston struts her stuff with "Look into Your Heart," a song Franklin originally recorded. Houston's performance gives full rein to that powerhouse voice of hers, yet never overshoots the melody nor overstates the arrangement. Too bad there's not more material like this on her own albums!

Then there's Eric Clapton, who delivers "You Must Believe Me" in sweet, smooth falsetto that will stun even his most devoted fans (though there's no mistaking his guitar tone). And who would have thought that Elton John could get down as convincingly as he does with Sounds of Blackness on "Amen," growling and shouting like a born-and-bred Baptist?

At its worst, the album is just perfunctory, offering run-of-the-mill renditions like Steve Winwood's synth-driven "It's All Right" or Stevie Wonder's sweet-but-straight reading of "I'm the One Who Loves You." But if that's as bad as it gets, then "A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield" must be flattery of the first order.

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