Mayfield, Curtis (1942—)

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Mayfield, Curtis (1942—)

A talented and prolific songwriter, guitarist, producer, and singer, Curtis Mayfield was one of the most significant pioneers of Soul and R&B music during the 1960s and 1970s. He was perhaps the very first black musician to overtly address the indignities of being an African-American during America's system of racial apartheid, and many of his songs became closely associated with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. As a producer, arranger, and writer, Mayfield was at the center of the so-called "Chicago Sound," a loose-knit amalgamation of Chicago area solo artists and groups that successfully rivaled Motown's hit-making machine during the first half of the 1960s. As the leader of the Impressions, Mayfield provided another example of how black music can cross over to the Pop mainstream without compromising itself, and as a solo artist he released a series of classic Funk albums. Mayfield survived paralysis from the neck down in 1990 and continued to make music into the late 1990s, releasing New World Order in 1997.

Beginning as a gospel singer in the 1950s, Mayfield met Jerry Butler while singing in the Northern Jubilee Singers, and the two (along with Sam Gooden and Arthur Brooks) formed the Impressions in 1957. They had a huge hit in 1958 with "Your Precious Love," but Butler soon left to pursue a solo career, though he and Mayfield still remained lifelong friends. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mayfield wrote, produced, and played guitar on a number of hit songs by Chicago area musicians such as Butler, Major Lance, the Five Stairsteps, Cubie, the Fascinations, Billy Butler, and Gene Chandler—flexing an unusual amount of control for a Soul musician of that time. At the end of the 1950s, the Butler-less Impressions drifted apart, but in 1961 a reformed Impressions hit big with "Gypsy Woman." This began a string of Mayfield-written Impression hits, including "I'm So Proud," "Amen," "People Get Ready," "Keep on Pushing," "We're a Winner" and "We're Rolling On." Not only was he a pioneer as a session musician, producer, arranger, and writer within Soul music, Mayfield also started his own successful label, Curtom.

Many of his songs with the Impressions, such as "We're a Winner," "I'm So Proud" and "People Get Ready," were veiled and not-so-veiled proclamations of Black Pride, and during his 1970s solo career, his songs became even more critical and socially aware. His 1970 self-titled solo debut's first cut contained the long, powerful, and outspoken "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Gonna Go," which critiqued white America and took to task some of the members of his own race. Other songs from that album—"We People Who Are Darker Than Blue," "Move on Up," and "Miss Black America"—never let the listener forget the subject of race in America, nor did his many other solo albums such as Roots, Back to the World, Superfly, Sweet Exorcist, Got to Find a Way, and the sarcastically titled There's No Place Like America Today. His bestselling soundtrack to Superfly (1972), which contained the hits "Freddy's Dead" and "Superfly," set the standard for the many blaxploitation albums that followed Superfly's release.

Like many great Soul, Funk, and R&B stars of the 1970s, Mayfield's star dimmed in the 1980s, though he still maintained a respectable career with a handful of minor hits and still-exciting live performances. It was during one of the performances on August 14, 1990 that a lighting rig fell on Mayfield, almost killing him and paralyzing him from the neck down (including his vocal chords). After many years of professional physical and voice training, he returned in 1997 with his first solo album since the accident, New World Order.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Holtzberg, Maggie. Portrait of Spirit: One Story at a Time. Oakville, Disability Today Publishing Group, 1996.

Vincent, Rickey. Funk: The Music, the People, and the Rhythm of the One. New York, St. Martin's Griffin, 1996.