He waxed rhapsodic about the joys and mysteries of romance. He essayed with passion on the despair of heartbreak and loss. His songs surveyed the devastation of inner-city poverty and called for social change and racial equality, providing the sonic backdrop for the civil rights movement. He crafted what might be pop music's greatest film soundtrack and perfected a kind of soul music that established Chicago among the meccas of black pop, writing and producing countless hits for a slew of artists. His work has been covered by, among others, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, David Allan Coe, and the Jam. From '50s-era doo-wop to the biting, politically charged funk of the '70s, Curtis Mayfield, who died December 26 at age 57, was an immeasurably gifted artist -- among the most influential singers, songwriters, guitarists, and producers of any decade.
He made his recording debut in the late '50s with the Impressions, a Windy City quintet that initially spotlighted the milky croon of Jerry Butler, most notably on the sumptuous 1958 hit "For Your Precious Love." Butler left the group for a solo career, though, and three years later the Impressions resurfaced as a trio with Mayfield at the helm. Along with co-vocalists Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, Mayfield crafted tight vocal harmonies underpinned by his subtly dazzling guitar work.
Their first hit was 1961's "Gypsy Woman," an ethereal, flamenco-paced ballad that introduced Mayfield's soaring falsetto and his penchant for unabashed romanticism. A few other singles were released, including the sauntering "I'm the One Who Loves You," a terrific one-off that brought Butler back to the fold. Mayfield penned numerous crossover hits for his former partner, among them "He Will Break Your Heart," "Find Another Girl," and "I'm Telling You." He was also working at Chicago's Okeh Records, writing and producing terrific sides for Major Lance ("The Monkey Time," "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um"), Gene Chandler, Billy Butler, and Walter Jackson. But it wasn't until 1963's "It's All Right" that the Impressions earned their first Top 5 pop hit and the first of three No. 1s on Billboard's R&B chart.
More than just a quintessential slice of swinging summertime soul, "It's All Right" was a masterful fusion of radio-ready black pop and the gospel that Mayfield grew up playing in the early '50s with the Northern Jubilee Singers, with lyrics that both comfort and cajole and vocals that dart all around Mayfield's chopping guitar. It's an anthem of optimism -- a toast to the emotional power of soul -- that never stoops to sentimentality, never trivializes those moments when "you wake up early in the morning, feeling sad like so many of us do." An anodyne for life's hardest moments, "It's All Right" is a hell of a lot more effective than therapy or any self-help nonsense on the bookshelves.
As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the mid-'60s, Mayfield and the Impressions responded with songs that offered motivation ("Keep On Pushing," "We're a Winner") and gospel-derived comfort ("People Get Ready," "Meeting Over Yonder"), all of which fared well on both the pop and R&B charts. There were also some exquisite love songs, among them "Talking About My Baby," "I'm So Proud," and "Woman's Got Soul." By 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mayfield looked squarely at the snarling face of racism and injustice and produced two incendiary masterworks. "This Is My Country" and "Choice of Colors," both released on his Curtom imprint, were bold, brave, and blistering indictments of slavery and bigotry that were harbingers not just of Mayfield's later work but of black pop in the next decade.
Mayfield left the Impressions in 1970 and later that year issued Curtis, a sterling debut album that contained such highlights as "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go," the joyously blaring "Move On Up," and "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue." While the Impressions carried on without Mayfield, netting a few hits on Curtom, Curtis issued a second solo effort, Roots, a disappointing set that lacked the sociopolitical firepower of his solo debut.
In mid-1972 Mayfield was commissioned by director Gordon Parks, Jr. to score Superfly, a blaxploitation film starring Ron O'Neal as a drug dealer trying to get out of the business. The film wasn't much, but the soundtrack was a top-to-bottom triumph, a distillation and modernization of Mayfield's later work with the Impressions that helped to usher in an era of political outrage and artful exploration in black pop. This was, after all, an era jump-started via Sly and the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On in 1971 and carried out by Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On, Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, and a string of great singles by the O'Jays, the Chi-Lites, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and a host of others.
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Nearly three decades after its release, Superfly has lost none of its musical edge, none of its lyrical bite. Hearing "Freddie's Dead" on the radio today, it still comes at you from the speakers like a maelstrom of white-hot bullets, its unsympathetic chronicle of a junkie's death and the staccato pulse of the music all rage and anger. Neither "Pusherman" nor the title track is quite as relentless, but they don't have to be: The former is as enticing and deliriously addictive as the wares touted in the song, with propulsive Latin percussion mingling with chiming guitar and a slinky bass figure; the latter is, like O'Neal's character in the film, slyly ferocious, with Mayfield offering not a condemnation of Superfly's chosen profession but merely a statement of fact: "If you lose, don't ask no question why." Within the context of these three colossal hits, even Superfly's filler -- "Junkie Chase," "Think" -- becomes significant. And with "No Thing on Me," Mayfield crafted one of his most beautiful (and overlooked) tracks.
Mayfield would never repeat the artistic and commercial success of Superfly. He dabbled some more in film scores, producing a few worthwhile tracks for the Staple Singers ("Let's Do It Again") and himself, most notably "Future Shock" and the unnerving "To Be Invisible." He moved to Atlanta in 1980 and, after signing with Boardwalk, landed a few singles on the R&B charts in the mid-'80s that weren't half as interesting as what rappers such as Ice-T would do with Mayfield's vintage work through the technological magic of sampling. (Check out Ice-T's 1988 hit "I'm Your Pusher," which borrows liberally from Mayfield's "Pusherman.")
After hitting the oldies circuit with a reformed Impressions and recording a 1987 duet with, of all groups, Britain's Blow Monkeys, a band of faux-soul Brit popsters, Mayfield scored the 1990 debacle The Return of Superfly. Later that year, while performing in Brooklyn, Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down when a lighting rig fell on him.
Mayfield's spirit -- and just as remarkably, his supple voice -- remained intact. Like the protagonist in "Keep On Pushing," he never succumbed to cynicism. He was feted in 1994 with a pair of guest-laden collections -- A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield and People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield -- and won the Grammy Legend Award that same year and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. His last batch of studio recordings, issued in 1996 as New World Order, contained a terrific reworking of "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue" and "Back to Living Again," his best song in more than 20 years. Play them back to back, and it becomes obvious that, despite all the dull albums of the '70s, and the half-baked rush-jobs of the '80s, Mayfield never lost his hunger for justice, his demand for respect, or his belief that love, faith, and dignity could help to make right all the wrongs around him. It's not that simple, of course, but for more than four decades, Curtis Mayfield did more than his part.