Like so many of the best singer-songwriters who started out as members of bands, Curtis Mayfield felt the need to get out on his own. As successful as he was with The Impressions in the 60s, he heralded a new decade and a bold, forward-looking sound with his solo debut in 1970, simply titled Curtis. By incorporating a harder-edged, funkier type of musical backing and writing lyrics that detailed societal ills with candor and outspokenness, Mayfield was redefining what R&B could be.
Songs like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going To Go” and “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue” displayed an unwillingness to tame his messages for the mainstream. But Mayfield could also spread uplift with the best of them, as he proved on the anthemic “Move On Up.” People often mention the oft-sampled, horn-based music for the song, but the lyrics show Mayfield spouting positivity without getting treacly.
“Move On Up” is framed as a conversation to a child, with Mayfield acting as the avuncular sage who knows just what to say when times seem overwhelmingly tough. His message is that we should keep striving towards an ideal, even when obstacles in our way might tempt us to settle: “Just move on up toward your destination/Though you may find complication.”
Mayfield also suggests that it’s sometimes better to experience before you speak; “Bite your lip/And take a trip,” he sings to start off the second verse. He also calls for inclusiveness and an effort to see beyond the things that separate us, for there won’t be any distinctions made in the end: “Just move on up and peace you’ll find/Into the steeple of beautiful people/Where there’s only kind.”
“Remember your dream is your only scheme/So keep on pushin,’” Mayfield sings in the song’s third verse. The latter phrase evokes the title of an early Impressions single, one that showed that, even back then, the songwriter was surveying more complex subject matter than was common for the day. Mayfield’s subtle acknowledgement of how hard the world makes it to stay positive renders his statement that “With a little faith/If you put your mind to it, you can surely do it” a true triumph if one can pull it off.
The nine-minute version of the song on Curtis really lets those horns stretch out but hardly made the song palatable for radio. But a heavily edited version became a hit in Great Britain. Time has told the tale, however, as “Move On Up” now stands as one of Mayfield’s grand achievements.
About those achievements, he was exceedingly humble. Curtis Mayfield once told an interviewer in 1997 that, “I don’t like to appoint myself to nothing, knowing I’m no better than anybody else. But it always makes me feel good to know I try to do the best I can, and those who might observe say, ‘Hey, I can take a little something from that person.’” People have been taking a lot from “Move On Up” in particular and Mayfield in general for a long time now, and that shouldn’t change anytime soon.