The Curtis Mayfield Estate & Rhino announce a year-long celebration of Curtis Mayfield’s solo career
When Curtis Mayfield launched his solo career 50 years ago, America was at a new crossroads. The revolt of the 60s had laid the groundwork for both progress and protest in the 70s, which laid bare intense divisions in the country.
The memories of that era in today’s political climate underlines the relevance of Curtis’ music, highlighted in the new collection PEOPLE NEVER GIVE UP, debuting today, October 30, 2020. The collection is available together for the first time on all the leading music streaming platforms.
Curated by the Mayfield family and Rhino, the collection, a classic song list of Curtis Mayfield’s Civil Rights-era songs, is a reminder that the “People Have The Power,” as the country heads into a contentious election in a watershed year.
It’s a rich assemblage of culturally-important music that symbolizes an era of great social change in America that continues to this day.
The 50th anniversary of Mayfield’s solo career will continue with a collection of releases throughout 2021 which will be announced soon.
Referencing Curtis Mayfield’s role in the civil right movement, the late Congressman and civil rights pioneer, JOHN LEWIS, recalls a Curtis-rooted ritual that saw him through the early 1960s on the front lines of the movement:
After being released from a small-town jail, he would head back to wherever he was staying—usually a local family’s house—take a long shower, put on jeans and a fresh shirt, find a little restaurant where he could order a burger and a cold soda and drop a quarter in the jukebox and play Curtis Mayfield or Aretha. He would sit down and, as he wrote in his memoir, “let that music wash over me, just wash right through me. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt anything so sweet.” (The Economist)
When young Civil Rights activists boarded the “Freedom Rider” buses in the early 1960s to travel south to engage in protests and sit-ins, to fight for the right of Black people to eat a burger, use the public restroom or sit on a bus seat of their choice, they often had Curtis Mayfield on their minds. So too did the young black students as they marched, in the streets, outside the schools and universities, to the lunch counters… and on their way to jail. So too did the movers and shakers of the Civil Rights Movement, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on down.
The No. 1 sing-along on the Freedom Rides was “Keep on Pushing,” the Curtis Mayfield composition that inspired and fired up the Civil Rights campaign crowd. Dr. King often used Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” with its all-inclusive lyrics, as the music to move his marchers and named it the Movement’s unofficial anthem.
Mayfield wrote the song a year after the historic March on Washington that resulted in Dr. King’s monumental “I Have a Dream” oration but now it has come to symbolize that occasion, the hope, spirit and struggle.
Music historians of the era will often concentrate on “We Shall Overcome” or “Blowin’ in the Wind” - but if it came to the Peoples’ Choice, especially if it was an African-American, it would be Curtis Mayfield.
His was the music that aroused – and when necessary, quieted - the crowds. Mayfield songs, as rapper Chuck D. has noted, told the African-American communities “I got your back.”
Andrew Jackson Young was one of the very first to suggest that Mayfield was more than just another musician hungry for a Top 40 hit, but was a political figure of sorts. And people pay attention to Andrew Young - the man is, after all, a former United Nations Ambassador, former Mayor of Atlanta, activist and pastor and supporter and close friend of Dr. King; Young noted “You have to think of Curtis Mayfield as a prophetic, visionary teacher of our people and of our time... who sang of the triumph and of the glory of us coming together as a people.”
Mayfield (“I’m an entertainer”) would have none of it, but he has been compared by some to Dr. King for his impact on the Civil Rights Movement. He did accept that his music played its part, just as it would in the other great shifts in Black neighborhoods over the decade of the 1960s – Black Pride, but also the plague of poverty, drugs and violence in inner city life.
“We’re A Winner” (1967), originally recorded by The Impressions, was another important landmark in Mayfield’s writing, a masterful popular recording dealing with the subject of Black Pride, announcing firmly that the time for self pity was over. “We’re A Winner” was a different kind of inspirational song from Mayfield to his African American base, encouraging reason over riot.
Here Mayfield urges his audience to "Keep on pushin'/like your leaders tell you to" - Dr. King, Stokely Carmichael, etc. Mayfield’s previous compositions picked up by the Movement stemmed directly from his gospel roots and were more general in tone.
“We’re A Winner” hit directly at racial politics in America and fueled a trend as similar follow up songs speaking to Black identity and the politics of race; music from soul artists such as James Brown and Sly Stone. Mayfield also used the phrase as the motto for his Chicago-based Curtom Records label.
It is ironic that several radio stations in America, when rioting flared up in some cities, banned “We’re A Winner” because of the lyricism, apparently ignoring the message of reason they contain. “We were young and didn’t know these songs would have that effect,” Mayfield told the Chicago Tribune.
“We just came back from Madrid one time, and we were seeing kids 17 and 18 singing our songs. I couldn’t believe that,” said Mayfield. “You realize that songs like ‘We’re a Winner’ and ‘Choice of Colors’ inspired people, even today. I was talking to Andy Young and he told me how they would sing ‘Amen’ and ‘Keep on Pushing’ during the freedom marches. It gave them inspiration to keep on doing what they were doing. It’s great to know we had a role in that.” The version of the song heard on this collection is originally from Curtis Live!
Mayfield has been given an honored place in the music dialogue of the Civil Rights Movement, attained without veering from his other purpose, to make chart hits, with a great groove; to be an entertainer. That these gospel grooves held a message is a bonus for us all. Modestly, Curtis Mayfield would refuse the honorary title of The Preacher, he said: “I was capable of being able to say these things and yet not make a person feel as though they’re being preached at.”
A few years ago, in tribute to his cultural significance as a songwriter and recording artist, Curtis’ “People Get Ready” was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
Grammy Award-winning Curtis Mayfield wrote and recorded a string of hits with The Impressions (Curtis & The Impressions were honored last December with a historical plaque in Chattanooga, where The Impressions were born, late last year) before leaving the influential soul-gospel group to embark upon a solo career that began in 1970 and produced some of his greatest work.
Known as the “Gentle Genius,” Mayfield wrote and produced more than 1,700 songs in a short lifetime and was a key architect in creating the everlasting Chicago Soul sound. Still one of the most sampled artists in music, he’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice – first as a member of The Impressions and later as a solo artist. Before his death in 1999, Mayfield was presented the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award by Bruce Springsteen.
Regarding those recording his songs, the line forms on the left: Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Steppenwolf, the Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin, Herbie Hancock, Fishbone, Sinead O’Connor, UB40, The Jam – all have Mayfield material in their portfolios.