Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Curtis Mayfield

Personal Information

Born Curtis Lee Mayfield on June 3, 1942, in Chicago, IL; died on December 26, 1999, in Atlanta, GA of natural causes; married three times; children: eleven.


The Impressions, lead singer and songwriter, 1958-70; Curtom Record and Publishing Co., owner, 1970-99; solo performer, 1970-99.

Life's Work

Curtis Mayfield was an early comer to the world of music. When he was barely ten years old he was already writing music, and by the time he was fifteen he was invited to join the group the Impressions, a group that would come to be known world-wide for its rhythm and blues sound found in such songs as "Gypsy Woman," the song for which the group was eventually honored with a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Mayfield went on to an incredibly successful solo career during which he became famous for such popular songs as "Superfly" and "Freddie's Dead." He was a political man, many of whose songs, such as "We're a Winner," "I'm So Proud," and "People Get Ready," were unofficially associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. In 1990 Mayfield was injured during a concert rehearsal and paralyzed. He didn't let that stop him, however, and before his death in 1999 Mayfield wrote more music and was admitted as a solo artist into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Joined the Impressions

Born on June 3, 1942, Curtis Lee Mayfield grew up in a poor family that moved from neighborhood to neighborhood in Chicago. By the time he was in high school, his family had settled in the Cabrini-Green projects on Chicago's North Side. Mayfield's strongest early musical influence came from his membership in a local gospel group called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, which included three cousins and Jerry Butler. But young Mayfield was also interested in his own music. As Mayfield told the Detroit News in 1974, "I was writing music when I was 10 or 11 years old." Mayfield's grandmother was a preacher in the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church, and traces of church and gospel music are evident in many of his compositions. Mayfield attended Wells High School on Chicago's North Side along with another popular singer, Major Lance, but he left when he was in the tenth grade to begin performing with the Impressions.

The Impressions began playing around 1956 as the Roosters in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with Fred Cash, Sam Gooden, Emanuel Thomas, and the brothers Richard and Arthur Brooks. Seeking to advance their musical careers, Gooden and the Brooks brothers went north to Chicago in 1957 and moved to the North Side in the Cabrini-Green projects. Jerry Butler was a senior in high school at the time, and he acted as a replacement for the vocalists who had stayed in Tennessee. Butler encouraged Mayfield to join the group, saying they needed someone "who could play an instrument and who could help us get our harmony together," as quoted by Robert Pruter in Chicago Soul. By this time, Mayfield was writing gospel-influenced songs and had learned how to play the guitar.

The group made some early recordings for the Bandera label and were then discovered by Eddie Thomas of Vee Jay records, who became their manager and changed their name to the Impressions. Vee Jay and Chess records were two of Chicago's major rhythm and blues labels of the time, and the Impressions made their first record for Vee Jay about six months after Mayfield joined the group. Released on the company's subsidiary label, Falcon, "For Your Precious Love" featured Jerry Butler's lead vocals. Its first issue sold over nine hundred thousand copies. Vee Jay's A&R man Calvin Carter signed them immediately after hearing the song, which he reportedly liked for its spiritual feel, a genuine departure from the doo-wop harmonies of the day.

Vee Jay promoted the group as "Jerry Butler and the Impressions" and developed Butler as a solo artist. After three singles, Butler left the group to go out on his own. As Mayfield told Pruter, "When Jerry left ... it allowed me to generate and pull out my own talents as a writer and a vocalist." Mayfield's soprano singing contrasted with Butler's baritone leads. The group released a few singles with Mayfield as leader and then was dropped by Vee Jay. From 1959 to 1961, the Impressions temporarily split up, and Mayfield began writing songs and playing guitar for Butler in 1960.

Gospel Influence Proved Popular

By 1961 Mayfield had saved enough money--about a thousand dollars--to regroup the Impressions and take them to New York to arrange a recording session. In July they recorded "Gypsy Woman" for ABC-Paramount. Mayfield was only 18 when the group signed with ABC-Paramount, and it was the beginning of a seven-year string of popular and rhythm and blues hits that were all composed by Mayfield. Mayfield, Sam Gooden, Fred Cash, and Arthur and Richard Brooks sang on "Gypsy Woman." The Brooks brothers left the Impressions in 1962, and the remaining members continued as a trio throughout the 1960s.

In 1963 the group recorded "It's All Right," which Pruter termed "the first single to define the classic style of the 1960s Impressions." Producer Jerry Pate "lifted the energy level considerably, adding blaring horns and a more forceful, percussive bottom," wrote Pruter. "It's All Right" was a crossover hit that went to Number Four on the pop charts and Number One on the rhythm and blues charts in the fall of 1963. The song featured "the lead switching off from among the three and the two others singing in harmony with the lead," Pruter commented in Chicago Soul . It was a fresh new sound in rhythm and blues, but critics have noted that it came directly from Mayfield's gospel singing experience.

In 1964 the Impressions became a major act with a series of strong singles that included "I'm So Proud," "Keep On Pushing," and "Amen." Mayfield was apparently inspired by the emergence of the civil rights movement. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson adopted "Keep On Pushing" as an unofficial theme song for the movement. Dan Kening, writing in the Chicago Tribune, proclaimed that Mayfield's "inspirational lyrics reflected a strong black consciousness while preaching the tenets of hard work, persistence, and faith as the key to achieving equality."

The group peaked with their best material in 1965 when they released "People Get Ready," a song with heavy gospel imagery and feeling. The album of the same name included such songs as "Woman's Got Soul" and the churchy "Meeting Over Yonder." Following this peak, the group was less successful and had fewer hits. In 1967 "We're a Winner" managed to reach Number 14 on Billboard's pop charts, in spite of the fact that many white radio stations, including Chicago's WLS, would not play it. That song, and its follow-up "We're Rolling On," also caused black radio stations problems in the late 1960s. As Pruter wrote, "Surprisingly at that time, black radio had not kept pace with its black constituency and there was a lot of resistance by programmers over playing such 'overtly' political songs. The popularity of those songs ["We're a Winner" and "We're Rolling On"] had the effect of pushing black radio in the direction its listeners were going."

In addition to composing, singing, and playing the guitar, Mayfield was also interested in setting up his own record label. In 1960, at the age of 21, he made the unprecedented move of establishing his own music publishing company, Curtom, while recording at Vee Jay. Mayfield began setting up two labels in 1966, Mayfield and Windy C., but it was in 1968 that he established his most successful label, also named Curtom. He took the Impressions away from ABC and also recorded and produced such artists as Major Lance, Baby Huey and the Babysitters, and the Five Stairsteps. Mayfield's songwriting and producing abilities were a key factor in the label's success, which enjoyed distribution by Buddah from 1968 to 1975 and by Warner Brothers from 1975 until Mayfield folded the label in 1980.

Found Success With Solo Career

Mayfield announced his departure from the Impressions in August of 1970. He began his solo career in 1971, offering "a biting commentary of the American scene and impressions of oppressed people," according to a review in Billboard. A New York Times music critic said of his first solo album, Curtis: "Mayfield himself continues to be a kind of contemporary preacher-through-music. He sings in a breathlessly high, pure voice, breaking his phrases into speech-like patterns, his rhythms pushed by the urgency of his thought.... He is not a lyrical singer, and his message seems as important to him as his melody." Including songs of up to ten minutes in length, Curtis established Mayfield as an album rather than a singles artist.

Mayfield began a successful career writing soundtracks for films with the 1972 movie, Superfly. Somewhat controversial, the film glorified the life of a drug pusher and was part of the then-popular genre of "blaxploitation" films. According to a New York Times review, "Mayfield's music is more specifically anti-drugs than the philosophical content of the movie, and it is also considerably more stylish in design and execution." Two top-ten hit singles resulted from the soundtrack: "Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly."

Throughout the 1970s, Mayfield continued to write soundtracks for several films and solidified his reputation as a solo artist. Mayfield's solo career featured harder sounding songs than he wrote for the Impressions, with didactic lyrics and social commentary. In spite of adverse criticism, Pruter assessed Mayfield's 1970s output positively, writing, "Some of the very best black popular music of the 1970s came from Mayfield, who despite the many misses during the decade was one of the creative leaders in establishing a new contemporary style of rhythm and blues, one with a militant, harder edge."

The Impressions regrouped in 1983 for a reunion tour. Original members Butler, Mayfield, Gooden, and Cash performed the 1960s hits of the Impressions along with the solo hits of Butler and Mayfield. As reviewed by Robert Palmer in the New York Times, the performances "amounted to a capsule history of recent black popular music, from the slick doo-wop and grittier gospel-based vocal group styles of the 1950s to Mr. Butler's urbane pop-soul, Curtis Mayfield's soul message songs and later funk, and the styles the Impressions have tackled as a group." Palmer continued: "The Impressions were one of the two top rhythm-and-blues vocal groups of the 1960s; the other was the Temptations. Both were rooted in the rich traditions of black gospel music."

Mayfield's influence on a new generation of listeners was evident in many ways. His 1960s compositions for the Impressions have enjoyed numerous cover versions from a wide range of popular singers. And some critics have suggested that his anti-drug messages, most emphatically expressed in the songs for Superfly, fit well with the new films created by young black filmmakers. Popular rap singer and actor Ice-T, who sang on "Superfly 1990" with Mayfield, said in tribute to the artist, "There's only been a couple of people I've met [in the music business] that to me are really heavy. Curtis is one of them."

Continued Career After Paralyzing Accident

A native Chicagoan who moved to Atlanta in 1980, Curtis Mayfield was enjoying the best comeback year of his career in 1990. His soul vocal group the Impressions, was nominated for a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and a successful cover version of their 1961 hit "Gypsy Woman," was recorded by Santana. Take It to the Streets, Mayfield's first album in more than five years, was released in early 1990, and he toured the United States, Europe, and Japan to promote it. Capitol Records was set to release the soundtrack to The Return of Superfly, a rap sampler featuring four original songs written and performed by Mayfield.

Then tragedy struck. On a windy summer night in August of 1990, Mayfield was getting set to start a concert at Wingate Field in Brooklyn. As he was plugging in his guitar, a gust of wind toppled a light tower near the stage, striking him in the head. The accident resulted in three broken vertebrae and paralysis for Mayfield from the neck down. After spending a week in a Brooklyn hospital, he was transferred to the Shepherd Spinal Center in Atlanta. Keeping his spirits up, Mayfield began physical therapy in September of 1990 and made his first public appearance in February of 1991, when he donated $100,000 to set up the Curtis Mayfield Research Fund at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis in Florida. His family was reportedly hopeful that his physical therapy will enable him to make at least a partial recovery.

Mayfield might have been injured, but he wasn't forgotten. Various artists got together in 1994 to put out a tribute album in honor of the great Curtis Mayfield, including Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Lenny Kravitz, the Isley Brothers, and Bruce Springsteen. Mayfield himself got back into the recording studio to do "All Men Are Brothers" for the album. He told Guitar Player magazine that the album meant a lot to him. "I was just overwhelmed. It brought tears to my eyes. As they would record them, they would send me copies of each. I'd play them over and over, and there wasn't a song I didn't like. It just goes to show you that no matter how bad things might get, there's always room for something good to happen."

And Mayfield's music stayed alive. Rhino Records came out with a three-CD boxed set of Mayfield's music in 1996. It included music from his days with the Impressions through to his later solo career. In 1997 Mayfield released the new album New World Order. When asked how his music writing had changed since his accident, Mayfield told People Weekly, "It's difficult simply because when an idea hits me, I can't just up and grab a guitar or recorder or a pencil and write it down.... But I'm happy to know I can still lock in lyrics, and I have enough voice and strength in my lungs to sing a song." As an even greater tribute to the man and his music, Mayfield was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 for his solo recordings.

On December 26, 1999, Mayfield died in Atlanta, Georgia of natural causes. Even though he had passed on, his music and career continue to be influential. In 2000 a two-hour musical celebration was held to commemorate Mayfield's life and career at the First AME Church in Los Angeles. Performers such as Stevie Wonder, Lauryn Hill, the Impressions, Mayfield's old band, and Danny Glover led the event. Also in 2000, Mayfield was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame. It is a great tribute to a man who led many in their paths to musical art. As Eric Clapton told Guitar Player magazine, "Curtis changed the course of modern music, bringing refinement, cool, and social comment to R&B and leading the way for songwriters, players, and singers in all fields of music. He [was] a great talent and inspiration to us all.


Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, inductee with the Impressions, 1990; Nat. Acad. of Recording Arts & Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award, 1994; Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, inductee as a solo artist, 1998; Songwriters' Hall of Fame, inductee, 2000.


Selected discography

(With The Impressions) The Impressions, ABC-Paramount, 1963.
(With The Impressions) The Never Ending Impressions, ABC-Paramount, 1964.
(With The Impressions) Keep On Pushing, ABC-Paramount, 1964.
(With The Impressions) People Get Ready, ABC-Paramount, 1965.
(With The Impressions) Ridin' High, ABC-Paramount, 1966.
(With The Impressions) The Fabulous Impressions, ABC-Paramount, 1967.
(With The Impressions) This Is My Country, Curtom, 1968.
(With The Impressions) Young Mods' Forgotten Story, Curtom, 1969.
(With The Impressions) Check Out Your Mind, Curtom, 1970.
(With The Impressions) The Vintage Years: Featuring Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield, Sire, 1976.
Curtis, Curtom, 1970.
Curtis Live, Curtom, 1971.
Roots, Curtom, 1971.
Superfly (soundtrack), Curtom, 1972.
Back to the World, Curtom, 1973.
Sweet Exorcist, Curtom, 1974.
Got to Find a Way, Curtom, 1974.
There's No Place Like America, Curtom, 1975.
Give Get Take and Have, Curtom, 1976.
Never Say You Can't Survive, Curtom, 1977.
Short Eyes (soundtrack), Curtom, 1977.
Do It All Night, Curtom, 1978.
Heartbeat, RSO/Curtom, 1978.
Something to Believe In, RSO/Curtom, 1979.
The Right Combination, RSO/Curtom, 1980.
Honesty, Boardwalk, 1982.
Take It to the Streets, Curtom, 1990.
The Return of Superfly (soundtrack), Capitol, 1990.
New World Order, 1996.
Further Reading


Albert, George, and Frank Hoffman, editors, The Cashbox Black Contemporary Singles Charts, 1960-1984, Scarecrow, 1986.
Pruter, Robert, Chicago Soul, University of Illinois Press, 1991.
St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, 5 Volumes, St. James Press, 2000.
Whitburn, Joel, Joel Whitburn's Top Pop Singles 1955-1990, Record Research, 1991.
---, Joel Whitburn's Top R&B Singles 1942-1988, Record Research, 1988.

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