Moving On Up - Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul - Craig Werner

Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul - Craig Werner (2004)


Soul Music and
the Gospel Vision

THE BITTER END WASN’T EXACTLY A CHURCH, but Curtis Mayfield was feeling the spirit. Contemplating the salt-and-pepper crowd that had braved a cold snap to pack the New York City club in the first week of 1971, Mayfield peered over the steel-rimmed glasses that gave him the look of a street-corner philosopher. “Y’all got some strength tonight,” he said with a gentle chuckle. “You lit a fire up under us.” With the audience shouting out its approval, Mayfield rapped over the groove of “We’re a Winner,” the controversial anthem he’d written and sung with the Impressions a few years earlier. “A whole lotta stations didn’t want to play that particular recording. Can you imagine such a thing?” Mayfield asked the Bitter End crowd, shaking his head. “Well, I would say what most of you would say—we don’t give a damn, we’re a winner anyway.” From the back of a club best known as the launching pad for Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary, a voice boomed out, “They don’t want to play Aretha either,” eliciting a flurry of “Right on” and “Tell it.” “We’re believing very strongly in equality and freedom for all, but especially we people who are darker than blue,” Mayfield said. This was the heart of the gospel vision he’d been preaching alongside the Queen of Soul, Stevie Wonder, and a host of other artists who reshaped American popular music while battling in the streets for the soul of America. “I’m not trying to offend anyone,” Mayfield explained in the quiet tones that had earned him the nickname “the Gentle Genius,” “but just basically telling it like it is.”

From there Mayfield conducted the Greenwich Village crowd on a musical tour of the storefront churches he’d known as a child growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green ghetto. The band was still playing “We’re a Winner,” but by the time Mayfield finished, everyone in the club understood that what mattered wasn’t the hit song but the spirit that brought them together. Ignoring the boundaries between the sacred and the secular, Mayfield mixed lines from the classics he’d penned for the Impressions with images from the gospel standards that had steeled the souls of the everyday people he called the “invisible heroes” of the civil rights movement: “People get ready, I got good news for you. How we got over and you know it’s true.” Like a church mother calling on Jesus, he summoned the spirit of his people’s martyred leader: “We gotta keep on pushing like Martin Luther told you to.” Circling back to the text of the soul sermon, he concluded, “Let us all say amen and together we’ll clap our hands, ’cause we’re movin’ on up.” By then no one was worrying about the boundaries that, back on the streets of Nixon’s America, separated personal salvation and political redemption, or the musical worlds of gospel, pop, and soul.

Decades later, it’s hard to imagine why dozens of radio stations banned “We’re a Winner” when it was released in the final weeks of 1967. In a musical world defined by hip-hop and MTV, the song’s celebration of the “blessed day” when black people wipe away the tears and move on up to a better world seems as innocently reassuring as The Jeffersons. But for those who saw the freedom movement as a threat to the American way—and they were many—the marriage of soul music and the movement represented a real threat. The movement’s leaders and their opponents were in perfect agreement on the central point. Soul music wasn’t just entertainment. Comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory was dead serious when he compared Aretha’s political impact with King’s: “You heard her three or four times an hour. You heard Reverend King only on the news.” Poet Nikki Giovanni, a leading voice in the generation that turned from civil rights to Black Power, was even more assertive. “Aretha was the riot was the leader,” Giovanni wrote in “Poem for Aretha,” “if she had said, ‘come, let’s do it,’ it would have been done.” Insisting that people take the Bible and the Declaration of Independence seriously, the gospel vision was intent on changing the world. That was the good news the singers sang on high and the movement brought down to earth.

Higher Ground tells the story of how Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, and Curtis Mayfield set about realizing that vision with some of the most powerful music ever to grace the nation. It’s a story about black suffering, sorrow, and survival; but it’s also a story about the most promising interracial dialogue America has ever seen. For anyone who believes in democratic art, Aretha, Stevie, and Curtis should be taken as seriously as the visionaries who have insisted the nation remember what it has been and helped it imagine what it can be: Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson; Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen; Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson; William Faulkner and James Baldwin.

As I worked on Higher Ground, I was often asked why I chose Aretha, Stevie, and Curtis rather than, for example, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, and James Brown. My first inclination was simply to fill the CD changer with Spirit in the Dark, Innervisions, and The Very Best of the Impressions and hit “random.” But, of course, you can do the same thing with What’s Going On, Otis Blue, and James Brown Live at the Apollo. The deeper answer to this question reflects the complicated relationships between African Americans and the larger culture; the past and the future; the South and the North. On one level, it’s perfectly accurate to hear Stevie, Aretha, and Curtis as part of the long black song that has sustained African Americans since the first of the slave poets responded to the hard truth of “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen” with the paradoxical hope of “Glory Hallelujah!” But time and place combined to position Aretha, Stevie, and Curtis where they could add a new and uniquely meaningful voice to the communal chorus. It’s crucial that all three grew up in the North in families and communities that had migrated from the Jim Crow South. Most southern-bred singers came of age in a world where segregation seemed intractable. Stevie, Curtis, and Aretha belonged to the first generation of African Americans who could reasonably hope to participate in the mainstream culture on something like an equal basis. Their music plowed a soul-deep memory of a history steeped in blood into an even deeper determination to create a new world where that hope could be realized. Grounded in the specifics of African American life but open to anyone willing to answer its call for change, their music offered— and still offers—an unsurpassed vision of shared possibility.

It’s impossible to understand the power of this music apart from the political energy of the African American freedom movement. Like the movement, soul music emerged at a unique moment in American history. For a brief moment, a substantial majority of blacks managed to balance a deep sense of connection to traditional communities with a real desire to move closer to an American mainstream where blacks and whites could find common ground. Martin Luther King’s dream was, as he told the world, “very deeply rooted in the American dream.” Survival in America didn’t necessarily imply bleaching your soul. For that same brief moment a significant number of whites seemed willing to expand their own dream. Many seemed poised to dive into what James Baldwin called the “deep waters” of America’s interracial reality. It didn’t happen. But that doesn’t diminish the importance of the moment when it seemed like it might. That healing vision of shared struggle defined both soul music and the civil rights movement, and it remains the best vision that America has had for itself and the world.

The daughter of the renowned Detroit preacher C.L. Franklin, Aretha took that vision as an article of faith. Growing up in a household where the stars of the gospel world ate soul food and talked politics with Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy, Aretha soaked in the sound and spirit of the southern freedom movement. Before she reached her teens, she was singing on the “gospel highway,” an informal network of churches and concert halls that took her into every corner of black America as the movement gathered momentum during the fifties. While her decision to pursue a career as a jazz/pop singer might seem a betrayal of her gospel roots, both Aretha and her father understood the move as part of a broader political commitment to desegregation. That she found her voice, and financial success, only when she returned to her gospel roots with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect” speaks both to the problems with the crossover strategy and to the enduring power of the community that nurtured her. Once she returned to her foundation, however, her music provided an emotional center that transcended ideology. While Aretha never wavered from her personal commitment to King’s interracialist dream, “Think,” “Rock Steady,” and “Spirit in the Dark” spoke equally clearly to the aspirations of the Black Power movement. Through the late sixties and early seventies, responses to her call echoed in the voices of Vietnam veterans, feminists of all races, and countless white Americans who first heard her voice sandwiched between the Young Rascals and the Strawberry Alarm Clark on the Top Twenty countdown. It truly was, as one contemporary called it, the “Age of Aretha.”

If Aretha sang the spirit of the political preachers who took the movement into America’s living rooms on the six o’clock news, Curtis Mayfield harmonized with the souls of the thousands of ordinary people who provided the leaders with their foot soldiers. Like Aretha, Curtis grew up in the church and started out singing straight gospel. Like the poor Chicagoans who formed the congregation of the storefront church where his grandmother preached, he supported the movement as it battled against Jim Crow in Montgomery, Little Rock, and the Mississippi Delta. But the distance between the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church and Reverend Franklin’s New Bethel Baptist wasn’t just geographical. Mayfield grew up in a community where the southern movement’s gains contrasted all too clearly with the harsh reality of life at the bottom of a beleaguered industrial economy. No one in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects was likely to confuse the North with the promised land. Blessed with an extraordinarily warm and winning personality, Mayfield matured into an urban Griot, a new-world version of the West African singer/historian/genealogists who passed their people’s stories down through the generations. The songs Mayfield wrote for the Impressions—“People Get Ready,” “Keep On Pushing,” “This Is My Country”—told his people’s story in a way that radiated the healing energy of the gospel vision. But as “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go” made clear, he never forgot or minimized the burdens that made the healing necessary. Where Aretha kept a certain distance from Black Power, Mayfield had an intuitive sympathy with the militants’ insistence on self-acceptance and self-determination. While he never achieved superstardom, he developed a realistic resistance strategy for those determined not to succumb to bitterness and despair. The economic and psychological self-sufficiency he sought, and to an impressive degree achieved, earned him near-legendary status in a music business that had destroyed dozens of his elders.

Where Aretha and Curtis kept their best music firmly grounded in the African American church, Stevie Wonder lit out joyously for territories usually associated with “white” music. That’s not to say he wasn’t “black enough.” His early hits “Fingertips, Part 2” and “I Was Made to Love Her” infused Motown with pure gospel fervor at a time when the label was aggressively pursuing a pop crossover strategy. It’s just that Wonder’s idea of blackness was as comfortable with the Beatles and New Age mysticism as it was with Duke Ellington and Detroit’s Whitestone Baptist Church, where he sang in the choir. By the time he embarked on his beautifully baffling Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants at the end of the seventies, he’d made it clear that he was a true American original. Stevie took America at its word and, like Walt Whitman, set about remaking it in his own quirky and charismatic image. In the series of albums he created during the seventies—Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, and his supreme statement, Songs in the Key of Life—he almost pulled it off.

During the eighties and nineties Stevie and Aretha would struggle, not always successfully, with the complicated and confusing demands of superstardom and celebrity. Both would find it increasingly difficult to remain in contact with the communities that had supported them as they made their way from black America to the world. In part because of the extreme demands he’d taken on as singer, songwriter, producer, and business owner, Mayfield fell into near-anonymity before a catastrophic 1990 accident that left him paralyzed for the last decade of his life. The problems all three faced weren’t really susceptible to individual solution. With the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan and the emergence of hip-hop as one center of an increasingly fragmented African American cultural landscape, the values embedded in the gospel vision came under increasing pressure. While all three continued to make moving music—including the biggest-selling album of Aretha’s career, Who’s Zoomin’ Who?, and Mayfield’s near-miraculous New World Order—their later music was no longer changing many people’s lives. That simply highlights the importance of understanding and appreciating the reasons why it did, when it did.

Embedding the movement’s call in the texture of everyday life, Stevie, Curtis, and Aretha each played a key role in the ongoing call and response between the gospel vision and what novelist Ralph Ellison called the “blues impulse.” Describing a way of life rather than a musical form, Ellison defined the blues as “an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism. As a form,” he concluded, “the blues is an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically.” Ellison’s fellow writer and friend Albert Murray agreed, describing the blues as black America’s version of “the most fundamental of existential imperatives: affirmation, which is to say, reaffirmation and continuity in the face of adversity.” The blues speak frankly of isolation and despair, the sense that black people have been cast adrift in a world where the devil has taken control. Rather than giving in to those feelings, blues artists tell their stories in voices that walk the line between despair and laughter, asserting black humanity in a world predicated, as Martin Luther King Jr. observed, on the “thingification” of human beings. Bluesmaster Willie Dixon summed up the blues response when he sang, “I’m here, everybody knows I’m here.”

Like the blues, the gospel vision refuses to submit passively to the burdens of history. Seizing control of their own stories, gospel artists testify to the value of their lives and to the power that offers more than mere survival. Inside the church most call that power the Lord God, Jehovah, or more frequently and personally, Jesus. But the gospel vision is elastic enough to accept those who called the power Jah, Allah, Yemaya, or—like funkmaster George Clinton—“the Mothership.” At its best, the gospel vision helps people experience themselves in relation to others rather than on their own. Where the blues offers reaffirmation, gospel offers redemption. If the blues gives you the strength to face another day, gospel holds out the possibility that tomorrow may be different, better. With the help of the spirit and your people—in church, at a political rally, or on the dance floor—you can get over, walk in Jerusalem, dance to the music. But it takes an energy bigger than yourself: Jesus, Jah, the Spirit. Whatever its specific incarnation, gospel redemption breaks down the difference between personal salvation and communal liberation. No one makes it alone. Where the blues men and women focus on the immediate problem of finding the strength to face another blues-torn day, the gospel vision holds out the hope that, if we stick together and keep faith with the spirit, a change is gonna come.

It would be a mistake to draw too sharp a line between gospel and the blues. The relationship between the blues impulse and the gospel vision presents a clear example of the fundamental principle of African American culture called “call and response.” The basic structure of call and response is straightforward. An individual voice, frequently a preacher or singer, calls out in a way that asks for a reply. As Wilson Pickett and Marvin Gaye liked to say, “Can I get a witness?” The response can be verbal, musical, physical—anything that puts it across. It can affirm, argue, redirect the dialogue, raise a new question. Any response that elicits a response becomes a new call. Usually the individual who issued the first call responds to the response and remains the focal point of an ongoing dialogue. But, both in its political contexts and in its more strictly musical settings, call and response moves the emphasis from the individual to the community, from the present predicament to the ongoing tradition.

For African American performance to work, the performer must receive a response, be it the rallying of the community around the political leader calling them to action, the punctuated cries of “Yes, Lord” and “Tell it” greeting Mahalia Jackson and James Brown, or the classic soul samples in twenty-first-century hip-hop. Drawing on the experience and insights of the entire community, call and response forms the living, breathing core of African American politics. The individual maintains a crucial role; a carefully crafted call will yield the most fruitful insight. But the individual does not necessarily, or ideally, maintain control. Aretha’s brother Cecil described her use of call and response perfectly: “It’s just like being in church. She does with her voice exactly what a preacher does with his when he moans to a congregation. That moan strikes a responsive chord in the congregation, and somebody answers you back with their own moan, which means, ‘I know what you’re moaning about, because I feel the same way.’ So you have something sort of like a thread spinning out and touching and tying everybody together in a shared experience.”

While Aretha, Stevie, and Curtis created music that felt like church, most of their records weren’t gospel music per se. If they’d been content to stay in church, they certainly wouldn’t have had the impact they had, because most white listeners would never have heard their names. Setting out to attract an audience that was certain to shy away from openly religious lyrics, Curtis, Aretha, and Stevie benefited from the pioneering efforts of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. Aware of the financial and political benefits of crossing over to the pop charts, the pioneering R&B artists had introduced gospel singing styles to white audiences by the simple expedient of reworking a few lyrics. Crystallizing the strategy that allowed the soul singers to take the gospel vision to the center of an aggressively secular music industry, Charles laughingly observed, “Gospel and the blues are really, if you break it down, almost the same thing. It’s just a question of whether you’re talkin’ about a woman or God.” While some black churchgoers shook their heads over the move from choir loft to nightclub, few resisted Cooke’s or Charles’s love songs. Most understood the crossover strategy as part of the larger political movement intent on opening every area of American society to black participation. Jerry Wexler, who’d produced Ray Charles and Aretha, spoke for many when he claimed that “the green dollar and the black song did more to eliminate segregation than all the polemics and preaching in the world.” By the end of the century, the green dollar would, ironically enough, become the defining element of a new form of segregation that mocked the vision the singers and Wexler shared.

That irony underscores the value of focusing on Aretha, Stevie, and Curtis, whose voices reverberate through the mostly untold, and distinctly sobering, story of the freedom movement in the North. Most civil rights histories concentrate on the campaigns in the South and the legal skirmishes in Washington, D.C. If the North enters the story at all, it is usually only in the later stages and then in connection with the shift from civil rights to Black Power. That story is less wrong than it is deceptive. Its incomplete narrative seriously underestimates the depth of white supremacy in the North and renders the specific history of black northerners invisible. Higher Ground seeks to recover part of that history and to reflect on the political lessons to be gained from a broader picture of American life in the last half of the twentieth century. While the story begins amid the hopes of the movement, it continues through and beyond the Reagan years. What emerges is a sobering account of broken hopes and betrayed trust. In the South the enemy was clearly identified; in the North it was hard to tell your friends from your foes. Northern liberals who supported civil rights legislation aimed at the Jim Crow South frequently resisted efforts to desegregate their own neighborhoods and their own children’s schools. Similarly, a handful of northern blacks held a degree of political and economic power unthinkable in Birmingham or Memphis. But that power depended on the continued existence of its base in the ghetto. As the story played out over the decades, it became increasingly clear that poor blacks in Chicago and Detroit weren’t much better off than their grandparents had been in Alabama and Mississippi, and that problem could not be read only in black and white.

Charting the cross-currents of American racial politics since World War II, Higher Ground follows Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and Stevie Wonder as they grappled with the enduring dilemmas of race and democracy. Like the movement itself, their personal stories mingle trouble and triumph. Each overcame obstacles that would have broken the spirits of most ordinary people: Stevie’s blindness and near-fatal injury in an automobile accident, Curtis’s childhood poverty and grown-up paralysis, Aretha’s troubled private life. Each survived to create art of transcendent beauty. But despite their success in changing America’s musical landscape, they failed to realize the dream at the center of the gospel vision. Far too many people remained stranded on the platform when the freedom train pulled out of the station. The movement won the cultural battle but lost the political war. That’s the irony at the center of this book. You can see it in the juxtaposition of the White House ceremonies honoring Stevie and Aretha with the nightmare moonscapes of Chicago’s West Side and Detroit’s Eight Mile Road.

However bleak the picture, the struggle hasn’t ended. The black southerners who forged the gospel vision in the fiery furnace of slavery and the fleeting hopes of Reconstruction wouldn’t have been surprised by the return of the hard times. From the beginning they’d understood that trouble was simply a part of life. And that it didn’t always last. That wisdom echoed in the songs their children and grandchildren carried out of the southern wilderness into an ambiguous promised land that, for many, turned out to be a mirage. Over the generations the rhythm and the words of the songs changed, but the vision persisted. In 2004, as in 1804 and 1904 and 1954, the challenge was to respond in ways that made it real. As James Baldwin wrote in “Sonny’s Blues,” “For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph, is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” It was the song that Aretha, Curtis, and Stevie had been singing all along as they summoned countless thousands aboard the gospel train to the higher ground. For those with the ears to hear and the will to respond, the invitation remains open. As Curtis Mayfield once sang to the weary and the wary as well as to the warriors: “You don’t need no ticket, you just get on board.”