In 1958, Curtis Mayfield has his first taste of a hit recording, “For Your Precious Love,” by The Impressions. He is 16, from Chicago’s wild side, the Cabrini Green Public Housing Projects, just developing his distinctive high tenor voice that blended into falsetto and become his (and the group’s) trademark. It will allow Mayfield the freedom to produce some of the most perceptive and significant popular music of his and any other generation. The Impressions go on to define the Chicago sound of the 1960s, a mix of soul/R & B/gospel that challenges Motown’s grip in the market. But Mayfield himself will take the music, his music, further… A lot further.
In 1996, Curtis Mayfield is making his last recordings.
He has transitioned in four decades from the eager, young, black kid into a seasoned singer/songwriter/producer, a motivating force in black music, black capitalism and a quiet voice for social change and civil rights. These final recordings will take every bit of courage and will that Mayfield possesses, as he probably realizes that this is, indeed, his last go-round. He is paralyzed from the neck down, the result of an onstage accident in 1990. He lies on his back in the recording studio, allowing gravity to assist his diaphragm and his breathing, recording one line of the lyric at a time, but still singing and still composing. He dies, aged 57, in December, 1999.
“Broke his back. But not his spirit,” says Altheida Mayfield, his widow and keeper of the Mayfield Flame, a flame that has never gone out. More than a half century after that first hit, a decade plus, after his death, Curtis Mayfield remains alive and well, through his music, his recordings and the recognition by his peers in the music and recording world. His music is the gift that keeps on giving…
Curtis Mayfield was, as one obituary writer put it, “a well respected man.”
Around the age of seven or eight, Curtis Lee Mayfield fell in love. The object of his affection was a guitar, found in a closet in the small overcrowded apartment where he lived with his mother and seven siblings. The music Mayfield had been exposed to at this point come via his grandmother, gospel songs from her Travelling Soul Spiritualists’ Church, the place where a seven year old Mayfield sang in public for the first time. He was also listening to the rich mother lode that was the Chicago electric blues scene which surrounded and informed him.
Mayfield played a little piano but the guitar was different, very personal. “My guitar was like another me,” he said later. Mayfield literally transferred his piano knowledge to his new instrument. Singer Jerry Butler, a childhood friend who formed The Impressions, recalled how: “He used to love playing boogie woogie on the piano and he learned to play that in F sharp which meant he was playing all the black keys. That’s how he came about his unique sound on the guitar because he tuned it that way.” (Standard guitar tuning is E-A-G-B-E.) Mayfield used his instantly recognizable and eccentric open F sharp tuning for the rest of his career. He would also become proficient on bass, drums and saxophones.
Mayfield’s individualism on the guitar later put him in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Top Guitarists of All Time and admiration from such guitar giants as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Recalled Hendrix’ drummer, Mitch Mitchell: “Jimi was the only man I knew who knew how to play that Curtis Mayfield style. He would occasionally break into Mayfield’s guitar style and falsetto onstage.”
It was now evident that Mayfield’s future was music, his way out of the poverty that blighted Chicago’s North Side. At 16, over family objections, he dropped out of high school, joining The Roosters, a group led by his friend Jerry Butler. The name quickly became the more commercial - The Impressions. Butler has noted: “There’s something called the Chicago Soul sound that began in the late Fifties. The Impressions pioneered that… and Curtis was the heart of The Impressions.” Chicago’s take on soul music which evolved throughout the 1960s, had its roots firmly into gospel music, albeit laid back and melody focused (“soft soul” is another term for the style). It was refined by the addition of horns and strings as integral elements of the arrangements. The Impressions’ literal high flying harmonies, with Mayfield later as lead singer – were front and center here.
The first Impressions hit “For Your Precious Love” was co-written by Butler; Mayfield had no hand in it. The lead singer was Butler; Mayfield’s more idiosyncratic voice was relegated to the backfield. “For Your Precious Love” hit the R&B charts and, more importantly for a black group, the pop charts. In one two week period, the song sold 150,000 copies. Butler, getting most of the credit, immediately went solo.
This was a good thing. It gave Mayfield his first taste of control and responsibility, factors that would thread through his future life and career. He held the group together as lead singer, producer and writer. In 1961 the revamped restyled Impressions had its first Mayfield-era hit, “Gypsy Woman.” For the rest of the 1960s The Impressions remained hot with 14 Top 40 hits including an amazing run of five Top 20 songs in 1964 alone - the year that The Beatles arrived and gave a hard time to everyone else.
Mayfield perfected the group’s singular harmonies - the trademark upper register detonations. Throughout his recordings, Mayfield was devoted to the falsetto register rather than the more usual model range. Johnny Pate, a jazz musician and arranger/producer, one of the “professionals” often brought in to soften the rough edges of a label’s teenage talent, remembered the effect the Impressions had on him: “The group went into some high falsetto harmonic things that were really unheard of. Nobody had done it before. The amazing part was, it’s all in tune, in perfect harmony, in tune…”
Black popular music, soul, R & B and the like, had a tried and true business plan in the 1960s, governed by dance music and love songs. But Mayfield had some different ideas, concepts that were to place his music and his career on a new track. Things were happening outside the music and recording worlds. America, in particular Black America, was facing the Civil Rights Movement. There was inner city poverty, a rise in drug use and abuse, the move to Black Power and then on to Black Pride. Unprompted, Mayfield decided to address these matters the only way he knew how - his music. It was an unusual and provocative step but it would make him a groundbreaking music voice for change in the Black community at this time, alongside James Brown and Sly Stone. Singer Mavis Staples (of the Staples Singers who recorded for Mayfield) defined this transformation: “[He] had a long history of writing wonderful love songs that made you want to dance slow to in the basement. And then, all of a sudden, he went and wrote some of the best message songs that could be out there. Curtis was a poet; his lyrics came straight from the heart and make me shudder.”
Mayfield was angry over the social and political turmoil affecting his America and he reacted by writing material with a point and purpose. But they were delivered to the public in a singular way, subtle and intelligent but still layered with gospel, R & B and soul, served Chicago style. Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who called Mayfield “a giant of gentleness,” observed that his music “used love and encouragement, not anger, to say important things.” Mayfield’s (frankly) sexy tenor voice, with its appeal to the ladies, could moderate any hostility in the lyric without destroying its significance. And the new Mayfield songbook was still aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, social observation for the people not the radical. Politics apart, Mayfield still wanted his chart hits.
Mayfield himself explained: “These songs were an example of what has laid in my subconscious for years… the issues of what concerned me as a young black man…. The musical strands and themes of gospel singers and preachers I’d heard as a child. It wasn’t hard to take notice of segregation and the struggle for equality at this time.”
In the mid-1960s Mayfield wrote three songs that defined his songwriter vision in this era: “Keep on Pushing,” “People Get Ready” and “We’re A Winner.” All managed – along with several other Mayfield songs - to insinuate social commentary into the pop charts and bring awareness to the struggles going on. No wonder Martin Luther King Jr. loved Mayfield’s work. The civil rights icon embraced “Ready” and “Pushing” as unofficial anthems for the Movement. “Keep On Pushing” was the theme music, part of the experience on the Freedom Ride buses that took activists into an unfriendly American South in the fight against segregation. The album “Keep On Pushing” by The Impressions was released in 1964 and quickly became the group’s biggest album to date. It also secured a longevity outside of its initial success, such as, when then-State Senator Barack Obama gave the Keynote Speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. The music that brought him onstage was “Keep On Pushing.”
The powerful gospel grooved “People Get Ready,” recorded by The Impressions in 1965 as a single (and later album) is one of Mayfield’s half dozen most important songs. Well over 100 artists worldwide have covered it bringing royalties to the composer, the kind of homage the businesslike Mayfield appreciated. As the years progressed “People Get Ready” amassed any number of accolades: No. 24 in the Greatest Songs of All Time (Rolling Stone Magazine) and in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll. One of Top 10 Best Songs of All Time (a British poll) and it made the Grammy Hall of Fame. Mayfield said the song “… came from my church… or a message from my church. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.”
For all his guitar prowess, “People Get Ready” marked the first time that Mayfield’s guitar work had actually been featured on record. It was enough for Rolling Stone Magazine to place it at No. 20 in the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks of all time!
The 1967 recording “We’re A Winner,” another Mayfield song with a life outside the music business, was more direct and confrontational than the other “anthems” aimed directly at Mayfield’s African American audience. Mayfield, as producer, recorded it in front of a live audience, bringing an emotional commitment from them to underscore the song’s substance. “We’re A Winner” was so direct that during the rioting in 1967 several radio stations refused to air the recording, citing its provocative, forceful lyrics. Civil rights activist and associate of Martin Luther King Jr., Ambassador Andrew Young presented his assessment of this newly charged Mayfield music in the Mayfield documentary “Move On Up” - “You have to think of Curtis Mayfield as a prophetic, visionary teacher of our people and our time.”
Statements like this, and there were many, made Mayfield uncomfortable. He never truly accepted that position, remaining modest and clear eyed about it, specifically when people called him “The Preacher” or “The Reverend.” “I’m an entertainer first,” he often stated. “I don’t claim to be a preacher or anything else, even though maybe there are signs of these things in my lyrics. With all respect I’m sure that we have enough preachers in the world. Through my way of writing I was capable of being able to say these things and yet not make a person feel as though they’re being preached at.”
While focused on recording with, and writing for, The Impressions, Mayfield was also moonlighting as the staff producer for Okeh Records, a Chicago label that was recording black music and black musicians back in the Roaring 20s. Here he wrote and produced hits for such artists as Major Lance, Gene Chandler, Jan Bradley, Walter Jackson and other hot chart names at the time. Also to give himself a measure of economic stature, he launched a couple of minor labels, Windy C Records and Mayfield Records, with some success in 1966. Mayfield, despite being the high school dropout, knew how to take care of business. Or at least to surround himself with people who did. Unhappy with his royalty rewards at age 18, he turned around and formed his own music publishing company.
In 1968 he went further and created another label, Curtom Records (the Tom was manager Eddie Thomas). This time he was in control of his recording, his song publishing, his own recording studio, all under one roof. Control was important to Mayfield as his friend and sometime business partner, singer Jerry Butler, testifies: “Curtis came to me one day and said, ‘Jerry, I want to buy you out.’ My feelings were hurt a little bit and I said, ‘Why, what did I do?’ He said: ‘You didn’t do anything. I just want to own as much of me as possible.’”
With Curtom Records, Mayfield achieved this. Not the first African American to run his own label but it was still highly unusual for a black recording artist to do so and his move would be observed by those who followed him. The present day music industry is notable for the number of African American recording stars who are in charge of this part of their business world destinies. The line runs from Mayfield to Jay Z., Kanye West, Dr. Dre, P. Diddy, Russell Simmons, etc. Mayfield had showed that successful Black Capitalism was possible, perhaps necessary.
Now, as the 1970s began, Mayfield released his first solo album, “Curtis” very successfully and made another transformative move, his most successful and certainly his most audacious - taking his music to the movies... He commented later: “We showed that you didn’t need a room the size of a football field to lay music in. You didn’t have to be a Henry Mancini.” (Mayfield was now doing all his recording in a tiny demo. producing studio he had bought from RCA Records in Chicago.) African American names on movie music soundtrack credits were not exactly thick on the ground in 1970 – Quincy Jones being the most prominent – and there was a not-exactly-unspoken question in Hollywood, “Can African Americans write film music? “ The 1970s was the time when the “Blaxploitation” movie was in vogue, films that would never make any all-time Best Film listings but were lively, energetic, quickly produced, low budget, starred black actors and beamed to a target audience that lived in the inner cities.
“Super Fly” was a zero budget production, shot in New York’s mean streets and coming across a little ambiguous in the drug/pimp/violence/badass culture department. By now, Mayfield was busy producing, for himself and others, all manner of music and knew how to lay some pretty harsh lyrics against really forceful funk grooves. Ideal, someone had thought, for a “Super Fly” soundtrack. That someone was not Mayfield. He was no fan of the movie’s characters or plot… until he saw a way to subvert it. Altheida Mayfield remembers her husband’s early reaction: “Curtis thought ‘Super Fly’ was a commercial to sell cocaine and he wanted to turn that around. That was his main purpose there, to say ‘This is nothing pretty.’ This man was raised poor and that’s what he saw on the streets every day and could express in song.” Express it he did – songs for “Super Fly” came pouring out, a running counterpoint to onscreen action, each track showing a different view of the problems – “Freddie’s Dead,” “Super Fly” (both became million selling singles), “Pusherman,” “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” - hits when the album was released and able to take on a new life decades later as the rap and hip hop generation discovered the art of sampling.
Mayfield’s “Super Fly” album became an instant classic of 1970s soul and funk and is a rare example of a soundtrack outselling the movie from which it was taken. The album spent four weeks at No. 1 on the album chart while singles, “Freddie’s Dead” and the title track were both million sellers. Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums list ranked it No. 69. VH1 placed it at No. 63 in the same category. “Super Fly,” which few thought initially had any hope of commercial success, “ignited a whole genre of music and influenced everybody from soul singers to TV music composers for decades to come. “ (AllMusic). Along with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield had introduced soul funk music with "Super Fly" that also said something; a groove that was socially aware.
Movie work now took up much of Mayfield’s time – with Gladys Knight and the Pips (the film “Claudine”), Aretha Franklin (“Sparkle”), Staple Singers (“Let’s Do It Again”), Mavis Staples (“A Piece of the Action”). A funk and now disco alliance ”Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here” for the movie “Short Eyes” was a 1977 hit for Mayfield, who also made a cameo appearance in the film (as he did in “Super Fly”).
By 1980 Mayfield had moved, with his family of six children, from Chicago to Atlanta, effectively bringing the Chicago Soul era to a close. He continued working as a solo artist, releasing (as he had in the previous two decades) a series of well received albums, and as a writer and producer. He rejoined his original colleagues for The Impressions Reunion Tour of 1983 – 25 years after that very first hit record. He started another record label, revived Curtom Records and had a full concert datebook, both in the U.S. Japan and Europe, especially Britain. Mayfield revisited “Super Fly” in 1990 – sort of. A remake, “Return of Super Fly” was produced with a Mayfield soundtrack. The film went nowhere but the soundtrack was important. Released as the album “Super Fly 1990” it marked a collaboration between Mayfield and Ice T. , one of the first signs that the emerging rap and hip hop constituency regarded Mayfield as an important influence.
Mayfield now had what he always wanted – control of a successful career that allowed him entry into every facet of the music and recording business. Then came August 13, 1990 and tragedy onstage at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, New York. Mayfield arrived for the sound check on a rain swept afternoon and high winds blew down the lighting rig. Mayfield was trapped underneath, his spine crushed in three places, paralyzing him from the neck down. He would be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life.
But he continued. Perhaps he had no control over his body now, but he would still control his career. Slowly at first, his strength returned – his will was always there – and then there was a moment in 1994 that convinced him he could get back into the recording studio. The occasion was an all star, all Mayfield concert that Warner Bros. Records organized. Everybody sang Mayfield – Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, B. B. King, Elton John, Aretha Franklin and more. It was for a Mayfield Tribute album, “All Men Are Brothers.” The climax, the emotional core of the evening, was Curtis Mayfield, back at the microphone singing for the first time since the accident four years ago. This experience provided the motivation to return to his second home, the recording studio for what would be his last album, “New World Order,” a collection of original material. And Mayfield, the lion in winter, produced his last great song, “Here But I’m Gone” with an unsettling anti-drug lyric delivered with typical Mayfield flair, the light touch carrying the heavy message. While “New World Order” was Mayfield’s last hurrah, it does not signify the end of Mayfield’s recordings. He had always been at home in the recording studio and had probably written around 1400 songs in his four professional decades. Author Peter Burns estimated that 140 recordings lay in the Mayfield vaults in various stages of completion but all capable of being released. They included live performances from all over the world, collaborations, many with both Jerry Butler and the original Impressions, and more.
Mayfield’s physical condition now began to really deteriorate; diabetes forced the amputation of his right leg and he died in Roswell, Ga. on December 26, 1999. That year he had been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame as a solo performer – he was already there as a member of The Impressions – and before he died he learned that he was to be inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. He was already in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture has plans to honor Mayfield’s career. Following his death the music industry mounted any number of special tribute concerts and events to honor his memory and his talent.
But the real tribute to Curtis Lee Mayfield lies with his music and its lasting influence on public and peers alike. The fact that Mayfield music is still being played, still being picked up by new generations of musicians in almost every genre, paying respect to the gentle genius of song. “Here, But I’m Gone,” indeed.