There are so many soul groups where one member was the lead singer from the start or where one singer became bigger than the group and went out on their own (e.g., Diana Ross and the Supremes). What made the Impressions different was that it produced two major stars in Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler (Fred Cash was the third member of the trio). Working out of Chicago and originally a doo-wop group called the Roosters, the Impressions had a distinctly different sound from the groups in Motown and Philadelphia. Their harmonies were lighter and the trios would trade off on the vocals, a gospel tradition that was rare for rhythm and blues groups. In terms of instrumentation Mayfield (who wrote almost all of the songs in this cllection) went for minimal guitars and understated rhythms, often with a Latin influence, all of which continued to give the Impressions a distinct sound.
Since "The Very Best of the Impressions" is a Rhino collection it is an excellent collection of the group's greatest hits with stellar liner notes by David Nathan. True fans of the group will quibble with the sixteen songs selected only because the deciding factor is how well they did on the soul charts rather than on their quality irrespective of chart success. The hits are arranged chronologically, from their early successes with "Gypsy Woman" and "It's All Right," when the group was a quintet rather than the trio it is best remembered as being, to the two songs by the Impressions that made it to #1 on the soul on the Black Singles chart were "Choice of Colors" (which asked the question, "If you had a choice of colors, which would you prefer, my brother?") and the post-Mayfield "Finally Got Myself Together (I'm A Changed Man)." In between are the classic tracks Mayfield wrote that were some of the first R&B songs to exhibit a strong social consciousness and reflect Mayfield's religious background.
The biggie here is "People Get Ready," which only made it to #14 on the Billboard chart but which was named by "Rolling Stone" magazine as the 24th greatest song of all-time. Mayfield wrote the song just before a march in Chicago led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965. When the song was released churches in Chicago began singing their own version, which ironically changed the final lyrics so the song was more universal but less religious. The song would eventually be covered by Vanilla Fudge, Bob Dylan, the Chambers Brothers, Glen Campbell, Petula Clark, Rod Stewart, and Aretha Franklin, which certainly speaks to the scope of those who were moved by its message.
"Amen" and "Keep on Pushing" are in a similar religious vein, the former familiar because of Sidney Portier singing the old spiritual in "Lillies of the Field" and now rewritten by Mayfield and producer John W. Pate, Sr. The latter reflects the resolute attitude of the civil rights movement. Other songs reflect Mayfield's last years with the group, such as "We're a Winner," "This Is My Country," and "Check Out Your Mind." One song that I would have liked to have seen included is "Mighty, Mighty Spade & Whitey," the B-Side for "Choice of Colors" which received a lot of air-play because of its provocative title. But what is here is certainly representative of the Impressions, both in terms of their musical style and their cultural significance in the Sixties.