Click below for a Curtis
Curtis Mayfield's name is
synonymous with soul. Throught his achievements as architect of the
Chicago sound, as well as his success as a solo artist, producer, and
entrepreneur, there were no areas in which he did not make a major
impact. His strident compositions made him the voice of the civil
rights movement, a soul equivalent of Bob Dylan as a chronicler of the
Mayfield's career began at a young age, forming
the Impressions with church buddies Sam Gooden, Fred Cash, and Jerry
Butler. Success came to the young men quickly with "For Your
Precious Love" in 1958. Unfortunately, Vee Jay credited the song to
the Impressions featuring Jerry Butler, quickly placing Butler into a lead
role he did not want to accept. However, the die already having been
cast, he soon split amicably from the group and embarked on a very
successful solo career with Mayfield writing much of his early
With Butler's departure, Mayfield, who had been
content to remain in the background, became the focal point of the
Impressions. They garnered the first of many top 40 pop singles with
1961's "Gypsy Woman," an early example of Mayfield's talents as a composer
of love songs.
Still steeped in their gospel background,
many Impressions songs were what can be termed secular gospel, with
call-and-response vocals and themes of empowerment, perseverance and
love. Their definitive tunes of the era were "People Get Ready" and
"Keep On Pushin'." Released in the aftermath of the March On
Washington, "People Get Ready" was one of the first songs to explicitly
mirror the moods of the black community as the struggle for civil rights
Indeed, Mayfield, along with Sam Cooke's "A
Change Is Gonna Come," was one of the first soul artists to be
outspoken about the concerns and issues of the community, predating James
Brown's commentary by several years. From this perspective, the
Impressions were as important as Brown, Stax, or Motown.
addition to his work with the Impressions, Mayfield also wrote and
produced for a number of artists, including Major Lance, Gene Chandler,
Jerry Butler, and Billy Butler. His distinctive use of Latin
rhythms, horns and spritely melodies came to be known as the Chicago
Sound, most closely associated with Okeh Records, who employed Mayfield as
a house producer.
Around this time, he also ventured into
ownership, an area virtually unheard of for soul artists, establishing a
series of labels such has Mayfield and Windy C. The Five Stairsteps
were among the many artists he helped introduce to the public.
More importantly, in the early 1960s he formed his own publishing
company, Curtom, which was also the name of a label he formed in
1968. At the time, only Sam Cooke had attempted to control his work
in this manner, making him a business pioneer on the level of Berry Gordy
in addition to his performance and writing genius.
tenor of the times grew darker, so did his work, and he produced some of
his greatest anthems during the 1967-69 period. "We're A Winner,"
"Choice Of Colors," and "Check Out Your Mind" were alternately uplifting
and confrontational, asking pointed questions about identity and
self-knowledge. Albums such as The Young Mod's Forgotten Story
and This Is My Country reflected a growing interest in making
In 1970, Mayfield officially left the
Impressions, selecting Leroy Hutson as his replacement. Freed from
the conventions of a group dynamic, Mayfield took his musical activism to
another level, unleashing the hard-hitting funk of "If There's A Hell
Below, We're All Gonna Go" as his first single. This kind of potency
and fury had rarely been expressed so boldly in soul music, yet this was
only the beginning of his peak period.
Using a more biting
guitar style than previously displayed and making prominent use of Henry
Gibson's impeccible conga playing, Mayfied made a seemless transition into
funk. His albums became a blend of furious funk and his
trademark love songs, making him one of the first album-oriented soul
artists alongside Isaac Hayes and Sly and the Family
Following a well-received intimate live album and
Roots, he recorded his acknowledged masterpiece,
Superfly. The soundtrack to a controversial film about a
well-meaning dope dealer, Mayfield undercut the movie's de facto
celebration of cocaine with track after track of blistering critiques of
drug culture. "Freddie's Dead," "Little Child Running Wild"
and "Superfly" captured the essence of the movie even for
those who hadn't seen it and helped to usher in the socially
conscious soul era.
While Superfly represented his
commercial zenith, Mayfield continued to record masterful albums with
a message. There's No Place Like America Today, with
its classic cover illustration of the divergent paths of black and white
America, and Back To The World, which addressed Vietnam
veterans, remain essential listening.
As the decade
progressed, Mayfield became deeply involved with soundtracks, at one
point seeming to be as popular a choice among Hollywood as Quincy Jones.
Some of his strongest mid-70s work was performed by Gladys Knight
(Claudine), the Staples Singers (Let's Do It Again) and
Aretha Franklin (Sparkle). He also wrote the music for
the prison drama Short Eyes.
Like many classic soul artists, Mayfield struggled
to keep pace with disco's influence, and his sales tailed off toward the
end of the decade. Curtom was officially closed in 1980, and he
moved to Neil Bogart's Boardwalk label for his early 80s releases.
He would reopen Curtom Records by the end of the decade.
August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed as the result of a stage
accident. He managed to record one album, New World Order,
before dying on December 26, 1999. He is a member of the Rock And
Roll Hall Of Fame as a member of the Impressions and a solo artist, and
2000 inductee into the Songwriters Hall Of
Curtis Mayfield's Deepest
Curtis Live (Curtom,
Superfly (Curtom, 1972)
To The World (Curtom, 1973)
Exorcist (Curtom, 1974)
to Find a Way(Curtom, 1974)
There's No Place
Like America Today (Curtom, 1975)
Give Get Take
And Have (Curtom, 1976)
Never Say You Can't
Survive (Curtom, 1977)
Do It All Night (Curtom,
Something To Believe In (Curtom,
The Right Combination (Curtom, 1980)
album with Linda Clifford is one of the label's last releases.
Is the Place(Boardwalk, 1983)
We Come In
Peace With A Mesage Of Love (CRC, 1985)
In Europe (Curtom, 1988)
Take It To The
Streets (Curtom, 1990)
1961-1977 (Rhino, 1992)
The first collection to bring together his
Impressions classics with solo hits.
World Order (Warner Brothers, 1996)
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