Curtis Mayfield stood as a towering visionary, whose righteous sociopolitical observances struck an enduring chord. But during the mid-to-late 1970s, his reign mellowed out. Funk moved into new avenues and disco ruled as king. Whatever established or promising soul artists felt about the new landscape, they couldn’t ignore it. Some adjusted easily, revamping their entire trajectory. Others, like Mayfield, struggled to fit its overall setting to their own sound. It wasn’t that he disliked its presence, as he ultimately paved the way for many of its stylistic touches (check “Move on Up,” “Check Out Your Mind,” and “Pusherman” for added context.) He just didn’t know how to find his footing.
“[Disco] flat out had me wondering what the hell to do and even how to do it,” Mayfield revealed to rock critic Alan Light in a 1993 Rolling Stone Magazine interview.
Responding to transitions brought on by disco’s glittery dominance, he traded in his gritty funk sensibility for something lighter. Building on the conventional R&B pleasures of its predecessor, 1976’s Give, Get, Take and Have, 1977’s Never Say You Can’t Survive crystallizes Mayfield’s intricate craftsmanship as a balladeer. Centering on soft-focused grooves that could’ve been wrung out of Philly producers Gamble and Huff at the tail end of the classic soul era, vulnerability and love frame the entire affair.
Since his early years as the central voice for the Impressions, to his momentous break as a solo artist, Mayfield touched on varying facets of love. In one instance, his delicate, feathery falsetto expressed adoring sentiments on romantic love (“Grow Closer Together,” “Love to Keep You in My Mind,” “Give Me Your Love,” “So in Love,” and “P.S. I Love You.”) In the next, he achingly voiced the seclusion lost love brings (“Now You’re Gone,” “Ain’t No Love Lost,” “I Loved and I Lost,” and “Suffer.”) And then with a classic as prophetic and precious as “The Makings of You,” he weaved his outlook on love’s enduring beauty with a timely philosophical bite.
For Never Say You Can’t Survive, Mayfield’s seasoned gaze on romance is served with an insight that’s simultaneously as sweet and gentle as it’s fragile and forlorn. His breathy, rugged falsetto stacks against the album’s orchestrated, neo-Fifties musical style, although the potency of the lush music overlaps the frail articulation of his vocal delivery, causing it to lose some of its urgency. Beyond this fallible occurrence, Mayfield’s band—which features Gary Thompson on guitar, Donnell Hagan on drums, Joseph “Lucky” Scott on bass, “Master” Henry Gibson on congas, Kitty Haywood and the Haywoods on backing vocals, and the orchestrations and piano work of Mayfield’s longtime arranger, Richard Tufo—employs nuanced subtlety in the melodic and rhythmic quality of these songs that’s hard to resist.
Tyrone McCullen’s sparse drum taps opens the album’s first song and lead single, “Show Me Love,” punctuating the nostalgic doo-wop vibe that strolls through the song. A honeyed-suckled paean to love at first sight, Mayfield angles himself as a man desperately vying for the attention of “a girl living behind the corner.” The similarly themed, “I’m Gonna Win Your Love” finds Mayfield’s backing vocalists, Kitty Haywood and the Haywoods flaunting their dynamic vocal interplay under the song’s bubbly, funk groove. Never one to rely on risqué innuendos to get a point across, “Just Want to Be With You,” “All Night Long,” and “When We’re Alone” all share a mellow, shimmering intimacy that underscores Mayfield’s strong desire for his woman as day turns into night. Heartache spills over into regret on “When You Used to Be Mine,” a breezy stepper with a sorrowful Mayfield pleading for the return of the love he once shared with his significant other.
Perhaps the album’s poignant moment comes in its melancholic title track, where Mayfield ventures into his gospel roots, crooning about the power of upholding love and salvation in the midst of trying times. The album closes with Mayfield undertaking one of his most eloquent ballads, “Sparkle,” which Aretha Franklin originally cut a year prior on the Mayfield-produced soundtrack for the film of the same name. Though similarly arranged, Mayfield’s take doesn’t quite equate to the Queen’s gospel-charged rendering, but its easygoing clarity emphasizes the sincerity in his emotive lyrics.
Upon its initial release in 1977, Never Say You Can’t Survive barely survived commercially, quietly stalling at a dismal #32 on Billboard’s Soul Albums chart and #173 on its Pop Albums chart. It’s not hard to fathom why a sophisticated soul album of this caliber barely got any notice. In a time where disco hit its commercial apex, Mayfield’s traditional brand of sweet soul got lost in translation. His legend was already established, but his artistic, cultural, and commercial impact floundered as pop music shifted its course by the mid-to-late 1970s. As the decade folded, he went so far as to embark on his most desperate forays toward the disco market with 1978’s aimless Do It All Night and 1979’s better-conceived Heartbeat, before rekindling his gospel-helmed soul fire with 1980’s Something to Believe In.
While it’s nowhere in the same class of his exceptional 1970-75 run, Never Say You Can’t Survive is an exquisite piece of late-1970s smooth soul opulence that ought to be shown more love as a solid lesser-known entry of Curtis Mayfield’s oft-maligned later period.
Photo of Curtis Mayfield by Michael Putland/Getty Images