I had the great pleasure of interviewing Curtis Mayfield for the Encyclopedia of Record Producers in the late ’90s. Though his voice was weak and he required frequent breaks to gather his strength during our conversation, his spirit was strong, his soul a thing of beauty. I will treasure this memory always – it hit me very hard when Mayfield died prematurely at 57 in December, 1999. Fortunately, his music will be with us always, reminding me again of the the miracle that is recorded music.
Mayfield was one of most respected and beloved figures in American music over the last 40 years. As singer, songwriter, guitar player, producer and label owner, Mayfield helped define a smooth but earthy soul music in the ’60s and ’70s that came to be knownas the “Sound of Chicago.”
Mayfield’s greatest contribution was writing, singing, and later producing for his own group, the Impressions, creating an indispensable body of melodic, deeply spiritual music, with emotions ranging from the reverential to the joyous.
Mayfield was born June 3, 1942, and grew up in the Cabrini-Green projects
on Chicago’s North Side. Mayfield had three cousins in the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers and he was harmonizing with them by the age of 7. Given a guitar by a family member, Mayfield developed his own tuning, and inspired by his mother’s love of poetry, was writing songs by his early teens.
At 15 Mayfield joined a new group called the Impressions led by Jerry Butler. “For Your Precious Love,” with Butler’s resolute baritone on lead, was a big hit in ’58. A year later Butler was gone and the group went into limbo as Mayfield toured with, and wrote (“He Will Break Your Heart”) for Butler.
With the money earned, Mayfield took the Impressions to New York to record a song of his called “Gypsy Woman” – a mysterious and strangely touching doo wop-meets-flamenco love song replete with Mayfield’s sly guitar accents and clicking Spanish percussion.
In ’62, with Jerry Pate producing, arranging and bringing a new emphasis to horns and rhythm, Mayfield and the Impressions entered their golden period with the glorious gospel-and-rumba “It’s Alright,” highlighted by Mayfield’s soaring falsetto and clipped rhythm guitar. The group followed with the classic ballad “I’m So Proud” – besides being a lovely evocation of personal devotion, it also began Mayfield’s subtle but unyielding affirmation of black pride in the midst of the civil rights movement.
“Keep On Pushing” continued the group’s predilection for waltz time, and much more importantly, sang in high sanctified harmony of the need to “reach that higher goal” of social equality. Mayfield’s melodicism and delicacy prevented the Impressions from being labeled militant, but the people knew.
“People Get Ready” is Mayfield’s most enduring song, a transcendent gospel melody exhorting people to prepare for the train to salvation on one level, and to freedom in a newly reconfigured America (the Civil Rights Act had just passed) on another level – faith being the only ticket needed for either passage.
After sixteen Top 40 hits with the Impressions, Mayfield went solo in ’70, eventually releasing 15 charting and 3 gold albums including his masterpiece, ’72’s Superfly, a soundtrack to a black action flick, much as Isaac Hayes’ career had peaked the year before with the soundtrack to Shaft.
Mayfield composed the entire original score, which superbly accents the excitement and pathos in a story of a drug dealer out for one last big score. Mayfield finds a pusher’s swaggering mid-tempo funk groove to define the tone of the soundtrack. “Freddie”s Dead” strikes a perfect balance between sympathy and contempt, with orchestral highs matching thumping bass lows and Mayfield’s quavery, delicate voice refusing to look away. The title track is sinewy Latin-tinged street-funk, reminiscent of War, which again sees both sides of a complex character.
After a brilliant career as a solo artist, writer and producer, tragedy struck Mayfield in August of ’90 while he performed at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, NY. High winds dislodged a lighting rig, causing it to collapse on him, damaging his spine and leaving him paralyzed from the chest down. He died of its complications nine years later.