Backstage with civil right’s soul singer/songwriter Curtis Mayfield

No Lies Radio Music – By Teri Perticone – Saturday May 02, 2020

Curtis Lee Mayfield (June 3, 1942 – December 26, 1999) was an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and record producer, and one of the most influential musicians behind soul and politically conscious African-American music.[1][2] He first achieved success and recognition with The Impressions during the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, and later worked as a solo artist.

Born in Chicago, Illinois, Mayfield started his musical career in a gospel choir. Moving to the North Side, he met Jerry Butler in 1956 at the age of 14, and joined the vocal group The Impressions. As a songwriter, Mayfield became noted as one of the first musicians to bring more prevalent themes of social awareness into soul music. In 1965, he wrote “People Get Ready” for the Impressions, which displayed his more politically charged songwriting. Ranked at no. 24 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time,[3] the song received numerous other awards, and was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll,[4] as well as being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Mayfield was among the first of a new wave of mainstream black R&B performing artists and composers injecting social commentary into their work.[1] This “message music” proved immensely popular during the 1960s and 1970s.

After leaving the Impressions in 1970 in the pursuit of a solo career, Mayfield released several albums, including the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Super Fly in 1972. The soundtrack was noted for its socially conscious themes, mostly addressing problems surrounding inner city minorities such as crime, poverty and drug abuse. The album was ranked at no. 72 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.[5]

Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after lighting equipment fell on him during a live performance at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, on August 13, 1990.[6] Despite this, he continued his career as a recording artist, releasing his final album New World Order in 1996. Mayfield won a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.[7] He is a double inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a member of the Impressions in 1991, and again in 1999 as a solo artist. He was also a two-time Grammy Hall of Fame inductee. He died from complications of type 2 diabetes at the age of 57 on December 26, 1999.[8]

Early life

Mayfield’s father left the family when Curtis was five; his mother (and maternal grandmother) moved the family into several Chicago public housing projects before settling in Cabrini–Green during his teen years. Mayfield attended Wells Community Academy High School before dropping out his sophomore year. His mother taught him piano and, along with his grandmother, encouraged him to enjoy gospel music. At the age of seven he sang publicly at his aunt’s church with the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers.[11]

Mayfield received his first guitar when he was ten, later recalling that he loved his guitar so much he used to sleep with it.[7] He was a self-taught musician, but he grew up admiring blues singer Muddy Waters and Spanish guitarist Andres Segovia.[7]

When he was 14 years old he formed the Alphatones when the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers decided to try their luck in downtown Chicago and Mayfield stayed behind. Fellow group member Sam Gooden was quoted “It would have been nice to have him there with us, but of course, your parents have the first say.”

Later in 1956, he joined his high school friend Jerry Butler’s group The Roosters with brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks.[7] He wrote and composed songs for this group who would become The Impressions two years later.

Mayfield’s career began in 1956 when he joined the Roosters with Arthur and Richard Brooks and Jerry Butler.[12] Two years later the Roosters, now including Sam Gooden, became the Impressions.[12] The band had two hit singles with Butler, “For Your Precious Love” and “Come Back My Love”, then Butler left. Mayfield temporarily went with him, co-writing and performing on Butler’s next hit, “He Will Break Your Heart”, before returning to the Impressions with the group signing for ABC Records and working with the label’s Chicago-based producer/A&R manager, Johnny Pate.[13]


For Your Precious Love by The Impressions (1958)


Jerry Butler with Curtis Mayfield – He Will Break Your Heart

Butler was replaced by Fred Cash, a returning original Roosters member, and Mayfield became lead singer, frequently composing for the band, starting with “Gypsy Woman”, a Top 20 Pop hit. Their hit “Amen” (Top 10), an updated version of an old gospel tune, was included in the soundtrack of the 1963 United Artists film Lilies of the Field, which starred Sidney Poitier. The Impressions reached the height of their popularity in the mid-to-late-’60s with a string of Mayfield compositions that included “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready”, “It’s All Right” (Top 10), the up-tempo “Talking about My Baby”(Top 20) and “Woman’s Got Soul”.


Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions – It’s Alright (August, 1963)


The Impressions – Keep On Pushing

He formed his own label, Curtom Records in Chicago in 1968 and the Impressions joined him to continue their run of hits including “Fool For You,” “This is My Country”, “Choice Of Colors” and “Check Out Your Mind.” Mayfield had written much of the soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement in the early 1960s, but by the end of the decade, he was a pioneering voice in the black pride movement along with James Brown and Sly Stone. Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” was their last major hit for ABC. A Number 1 soul hit which also reached the Top 20 on Billboard s pop chart, it became an anthem of the black power and black pride movements when it was released in late 1967,[14][15][16] much as his earlier “Keep on Pushing” (whose title is quoted in the lyrics of “We’re a Winner” and also in “Move On Up”) had been an anthem for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.[17]


Curtis Mayfield – Move On Up


Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions – We’re A Winner, Movin’ On Up!

Solo career

Mayfield’s first solo album, Curtis, was released in 1970, and hit the top 20. Mayfield’s lyrics consisted of hard-hitting commentary on the state of affairs in black, urban ghettos at the time, as well as direct criticisms of several characters in the film. Bob Donat wrote in Rolling Stone magazine in 1972 that while the film’s message “was diluted by schizoid cross-purposes” because it “glamorizes machismo-cocaine consciousness… the anti-drug message on [Mayfield’s soundtrack] is far stronger and more definite than in the film.”[20] Because of the tendency of these blaxploitation films to glorify the criminal life of dealers and pimps to target a mostly black lower class audience, Mayfield’s album set this movie apart. With songs like “Freddie’s Dead”, a song that focuses on the demise of Freddie, a junkie that was forced into “pushin’ dope for the man” because of a debt that he owed to his dealer, and “Pusherman”, a song that reveals how many people in the ghetto fell victim to drug abuse, and therefore became dependent upon their dealers, Mayfield illuminated a darker side of life in the ghetto that these blaxploitation films often failed to criticize. However, although Mayfield’s soundtrack criticized the glorification of dealers and pimps, he in no way denied that this glorification was occurring. When asked about the subject matter of these films he was quoted stating “I don’t see why people are complaining about the subject of these films”, and “The way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the streets.”[21]

Along with What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, this album ushered in a new socially conscious, funky style of popular soul music. He was dubbed ‘The Gentle Genius’. The single releases “Freddie’s Dead” and “Super Fly” each sold over one million copies, and were awarded gold discs by the R.I.A.A.[22]


Curtis Mayfield “Superfly (Deluxe Video Remix)”


Curtis Mayfield – Pusherman


curtis mayfield – Freddie’s Dead

Later years

Mayfield remained active in the 1970s. Then his career began to slow down during the 1980s.

On August 13, 1990, Mayfield became paralyzed from the neck down, after stage lighting equipment fell on him at an outdoor concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York.[6][27] Afterwards, though he was unable to play guitar, he continued to compose and sing. He also directed the recording of his last album, New World Order (1996).[7]


Curtis Mayfield – New World Order (Official Music Video)


Curtis Mayfield – Here But I’m Gone

Mayfield’s vocals were recorded, usually line-by-line, while he was lying on his back.

Mayfield received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. In February 1998, he had to have his right leg amputated due to diabetes. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 1999. Health reasons prevented him from attending the ceremony, which included fellow inductees Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Dusty Springfield, George Martin, and 1970s Curtom signees and labelmates the Staple Singers.

Mayfield’s last appearance on record was with the group Bran Van 3000 on the song “Astounded” for their 2000 album Discosis, recorded just before his death and released in 2001. However, his health had steadily declined following his paralysis, so the vocals weren’t new. Rather, they were lifted from archive recordings, including “Move On Up.”

Mayfield was married twice.[8] He had 10 children from different relationships. At the time of his death he was married to Altheida Mayfield, together they had six children.

Mayfield died from complications of type 2 diabetes on December 26, 1999, at the North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell, Georgia.[28] He was survived by his wife Altheida Mayfield, his mother Mariam Jackson; 10 children; two sisters, Carolyn Falls and Judy Mayfield; a brother, Kenneth Mayfield; and seven grandchildren.

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