Say the name Curtis Mayfield to mates of mine and they just smile. The memories of his music and of the man himself are all positive. The things he sang about in the main, love, peace, civil rights, all with a conscious political suss, shone a light on a society’s ills and revealed at the same time, the inner spirit of the man.
His work with The Impressions was my entry point to his music and I followed that right through into his solo years, including his very last album ‘New World Order’ which was one I played constantly on the stereo of my clothes shop ‘Clobber’ in late 90s Camberwell.
His end when it came was tragic in many ways, but what he left behind is still being discovered by the generations that come after, and his name still makes people smile.
So, here’s my little tribute to the man…
Curtis Lee Mayfield was born in the summer of 1942 in Chicago Illinois. Like many, his first exposure to music was through the church. He sang in choirs from the tender age of 7, taught piano by his mum Marion and exposed to the joys of gospel music by his maternal grandmother. He then taught himself the guitar and he later became proficient on bass, drums and saxophone.
Growing up on the Cabrini Green projects, he teamed up with school friend Jerry Butler in 1956 joining Jerry’s group The Roosters and it was they who later morphed into The Impressions. Early hits included ‘For Your Precious Love ‘ and then Mayfield co-wrote Butler’s next solo hit ‘He Will Break Your Heart.’
Butler then left The Impressions and was replaced by Fred Cash who along with Sam Gooden became the core of the group. Mayfield then took over lead vocal duties aged 16. Songs like ‘Gypsy Woman’ ‘Amen’ ‘Keep on Pushing’ ‘People Get Ready’ ‘Its All right’ and ‘Woman’s Got Soul’ would then flow from the pen of Curtis over the years and define the term ‘Chicago Soul.’
Many of these tunes were adopted as the soundtrack of the then civil rights struggle in the US.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made ‘People Get Ready’ and ‘Pushing’ unofficial anthems for the movement.
Alongside all this he still continued to write and arrange for acts like Major Lance, Billy Butler and Jan Bradley.
He then set up his own record label ‘Curtom’ in 1968 and Mayfield’s focus then turned to the burgeoning ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud’ movement. Songs like ‘Choice of Colours’ ‘This is my Country’ and later ‘Move on Up’ becoming anthems of that struggle.
Having his own label and control was important to Mayfield as he later told Jerry Butler ‘I just want to own as much of me as possible.’
In 1970, Curtis left The Impressions and was replaced by LeRoy Hutson, who would later become a fine performer in his own right of course. The Curtom label released music by Mavis Staples, Baby Huey, The Staples Singers and the Five Stairsteps among others, many produced by Mayfield himself.
His first album ‘Curtis’ from 1970 was a top 20 hit. Included on this seminal piece of work are classic tunes such as ‘Move on Up’ ‘The Makings of You’ and ‘We The People who are Darker Than Blue’
From ‘Roots’ in 1971 we got ‘Keep on Keepin On’ and ‘We Got to Have Peace.’
His ‘Super Fly’ album from ’72 for the ‘Blaxploitation’ film of the same name had him working with producer Johnny Pate. Criticising rather than glorifying the nature of these films, he gave an honest assessment on the real effects of the lifestyles often portrayed in the genre. Songs like ‘Freddie’s Dead’ and ‘Pusherman’ being prime examples. The message thankfully got through to some. Singles from the album became million sellers.
1975 saw the release of ‘There’s No Place Like America Today’, which had that iconic record sleeve.
Fair to say then that Mayfield in his lyrics captured the everyday experience for millions of ordinary African Americans. He along with Sly Stone, James Brown and later Gil Scott Heron, became the poets for the people, though in truth he fought shy of such labels.
‘Curtis 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.’ – Mavis Staples.
The 80s were a down time for Curtis, though he continued to tour and spread the word.
Then tragedy struck. At a rainy, wind swept outdoor gig in Brooklyn in 1990 a lighting rig collapsed onto him, leaving him paralysed from the neck down.
His last album ‘New World Order’ was released in 1996 with Mayfield recording the vocal parts line by line, lying down which eased his diaphragm when singing.
‘He broke his back but not his spirit’ said his wife Altheida Mayfield at the time.
Then the effects of his type two diabetes saw him lose leg in 1998.
1999 saw him inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, though sadly he died later that year due to further complications due to diabetes and the steady decline in his general health since the accident.
Curtis Mayfield was just 57.
The Mumper of SE5