Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Lee Mayfield (June 3, 1942 ??? December 26, 1999) was an American soul, R&B, and funk singer, songwriter, and record producer best known for his anthemic music with The Impressions and composing the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Super Fly. From these works and others, he was highly regarded as a pioneer of funk and of politically conscious African-American music. He was also a multi-instrumentalist who played the guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, and drums.


Biography


Early years and The Impressions

Born on , 1942 in Chicago, Illinois, Mayfield was the son of Marion Washington and Kenneth Mayfield. Mayfield's father abandoned the family when Mayfield was five and his mother moved Curtis and his siblings into various Chicago projects before settling at the Cabrini High projects when Mayfield reached teenage. Mayfield attended Wells High School. He dropped out of high school early to become lead singer and songwriter for The Impressions, then went on to a successful solo career. Perhaps most notably, Mayfield was among the first of a new wave of mainstream African-American R&B performing artists and composers injecting social commentary into their work. This "message music" became extremely popular during the 1960s and 1970s.


Mayfield had several distinctions to his style of playing and singing, adding to the uniqueness of his music. When he taught himself how to play guitar, he tuned the guitar to the black keys of the piano, giving him an open F-sharp tuning ??? F#, A#, C#, F#, A#, F# ??? that he used throughout his career. Also, he sang most of his lines in falsetto (not unique in itself, but other singers in his time mostly sang tenor), adding another flavor to his music.


Mayfield's career began in 1956 when he joined The Roosters with Arthur and Richard Brooks and Jerry Butler. Two years later The Roosters, now including also Sam Gooden, became The Impressions. The band had one big hit with "For Your Precious Love". After Butler left the group and was replaced with Fred Cash, Mayfield became lead singer, frequently composing for the band, starting with "Gypsy Woman". Their hit "Amen," an updated version of an old gospel tune, was included in the soundtrack of the 1963 MGM film Lilies of the Field, which starred Sidney Poitier. The Impressions reached the height of their popularity in the mid to late 1960s, with a string of Mayfield compositions that included "Keep On Pushing," "People Get Ready," "It's All Right", "Woman's Got Soul", "Choice of Colors," "Fool For You," "This is My Country" 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, in the company of James Brown and Sly Stone. Mayfield's "We're a Winner", a Number 1 soul hit which also reached the Billboard pop Top 20, became an anthem of the black power and black pride movements when it was released in late 1967, much as his earlier "Keep on Pushing" (whose title is quoted in the lyrics of "We're a Winner") had been an anthem for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.


Independent from his work with The Impressions, Mayfield became a songwriting powerhouse in Chicago, writing and producing scores of hits for other artists. He also owned the Mayfield and Windy C labels, distributed by Cameo-Parkway, and was partners in the Curtom label (first independent, then distributed by Buddah then Warner Bros and finally RSO.)


Solo career

In 1970, Mayfield left The Impressions and began a solo career, founding the independent record label Curtom Records. Curtom would go on to release most of Mayfield's landmark 1970s records, as well as records by the Impressions, Leroy Hutson, The Staple Singers, Mavis Staples, and Baby Huey and the Babysitters, a group which at the time included Chaka Khan. Many of these records were also produced by Mayfield.


The commercial and critical peak of his solo career came with his music album Super Fly, the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film of the same name, and one of the most influential albums in African-American history. Unlike the soundtracks to other blaxploitation films (most notably Isaac Hayes' score for Shaft), which glorified the ghetto excesses of the characters, 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 is far stronger and more definite than in the film." Along with Marvin Gaye's 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' to reflect his outstanding and innovative musical output with the constant presence of his soft yet insistent vocals.


Super Fly brought success that resulted in Mayfield being tapped for additional soundtracks, some of which he wrote and produced while having others perform the vocals. Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded Mayfield's soundtrack for Claudine in 1974, while Aretha Franklin recorded the soundtrack for Sparkle in 1976. Mayfield worked with Mavis Staples on the 1977 soundtrack for the film A Piece of the Action. He was in danger of overreaching himself being writer, producer, performer, arranger and businessman but seemed to cope and still produce a remarkable output.


One of Mayfield's most successful funk-disco meldings was the 1977 hit "Do Do Wap is Strong in Here" from his soundtrack to the Robert M. Young film of Miguel Pi?±ero's play Short Eyes. In his 2003 biography of Curtis Mayfield, titled "People Never Give Up", author Peter Burns noted that Curtis has 140 songs in the Curtom vaults. Burns indicated that the songs maybe already completed or in the stages of completion, so that they could then be released commercially. These recordings include "The Great Escape", "In The News", "Turn up the Radio", "Whats The Situation?" and one recording labelled "Curtis at Montreux Jazz Festival 87". Two other albums, featuring Curtis Mayfield present in the Curtom vaults and as yet unissued are, a 1982/83 live recording titled "25th Silver Anniversary" (which features performances by Curtis, The Impressions and Jerry Butler) and a live performance, recorded in September 1966 by The Impressions titled 'Live at the Club Chicago'.


In later years, Mayfield's music would be featured in the movies I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Hollywood Shuffle, and Friday (though not on the soundtrack).


Later years

Mayfield was active throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though he had a somewhat lower public profile. On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after stage lighting equipment fell on him at an outdoor concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. This tragedy set him back, but Mayfield forged ahead. He was unable to play guitar, but he wrote, sang and directed the recording of his last album, New World Order. Mayfield's vocals were painstakingly recorded, usually line-by-line while 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. Mayfield 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 signee and labelmate The Staple Singers.


His last appearance on record was with the group Bran Van 3000 on the song "Astounded" for their album Discosis, recorded just before his death and released in 2001.


Death

Curtis Mayfield died in the early morning of December 26, 1999 at the North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell, Georgia, after nearly a decade of ill-health. He was survived by his wife, Altheida, 10 children, his mother, two sisters a brother, and seven grandchildren. The singer was cremated, and his ashes were given to his family.


Legacy


Mayfield is remembered for his introduction of social consciousness into R&B and for pioneering the funk style. Many of his recordings with the Impressions became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and his most famous album, Super Fly, is regarded as an all-time great that influenced many and truly invented a new style of modern black music (#69 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest albums). His distinctively sharp, jagged guitar riffs and rhythms strongly influenced the development of funk, while also having a major effect on the young Jimi Hendrix, who cited Mayfield as his biggest influence. Mayfield is also regarded as influencing other landmark albums, like Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters. One magazine notes, "eulogies...have treated him...as a sort of secular saint--rather like an American Bob Marley". That noted, he is not as well-known as contemporaries like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or James Brown, perhaps because of their more consistent streams of hits or more mainstream style of music. Nevertheless, he is still highly regarded for his numerous innovations in the 1960s and 1970s and for his unique style of music, perhaps best described as "black psychedelia...remarkable for the scope of its social awareness".


As a member of The Impressions, Mayfield was posthumously inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.


In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Mayfield #99 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.


Chart hits by other artists written by Mayfield

Mayfield was a prolific composer. In addition to writing or co-writing almost all of the hit singles he had as a member of The Impressions and as a solo artist, Mayfield also wrote (and sometimes produced) numerous hits for other artists. The following is a list of chart hits, arranged chronologically, that were written (or co-written) by Curtis Mayfield and performed by artists other than Mayfield and/or The Impressions:


Year
Title
Artist
U.S. R&B
U.S. Pop
UK
1960
"He Will Break Your Heart"
Jerry Butler
1
7
-
1961
"I'm A-Telling You"
Jerry Butler
8
25
-
1961
"Find Another Girl"
Jerry Butler
10
27
-
1963
"Mama Didn't Lie"
Jan Bradley
8
14
-
1963
"Mama Didn't Lie"
The Fascinations
-
108
-
1963
"The Monkey Time"
Major Lance
2
8
-
1963
"Hey Little Girl"
Major Lance
12
13
-
1963
"Rainbow"
Gene Chandler
11
47
-
1963
"Man's Temptation"
Gene Chandler
17
71
-
1964
"Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um"
Major Lance
11
5
40
1964
"Just Be True"
Gene Chandler
-
19
-
1964
"Girls"
Major Lance
-
68
-
1964
"It's All Over"
Walter Jackson
-
67
-
1964
"Need To Belong"
Jerry Butler
-
31
-
1964
"Bless Our Love"
Gene Chandler
-
39
-
1964
"Rhythm"
Major Lance
-
24
-
1965
"Rainbow '65 (Part I)"
Gene Chandler
2
69
-
1965
"Sometimes I Wonder"
Major Lance
13
64
-
1965
"I Can't Work No Longer"
Billy Butler
6
60
-
1965
"Come See"
Major Lance
20
40
-
1965
"What Now"
Gene Chandler
18
40
-
1965
"Ain't It a Shame"
Major Lance
20
91
-
1965
"Nothing Can Stop Me"
Gene Chandler
3
18
41
1965
"You Can't Hurt Me No More"
Gene Chandler
40
92
-
1966
"He Will Break Your Heart"
The Righteous Brothers
-
91
-
1966
"Say It Isn't So"
The Fascinations
47
-
-
1967
"Girls Are Out To Get You"
The Fascinations
13
92
-
1967
"I'm In Love"
The Fascinations
47
-
-
1967
"Danger! She's A Stranger"
The Five Stairsteps
16
89
-
1968
"Don't Change Your Love"
The Five Stairsteps
15
59
-
1969
"Baby Make Me Feel So Good"
The Five Stairsteps
12
-
-
1969
"We Must Be In Love"
The Five Stairsteps
17
88
-
1969
"I Thank You"
Donny Hathaway & June Conquest
45
-
-
1969
"Stay Close To Me"
The Five Stairsteps
-
91
-
1970
"Gypsy Woman"
Brian Hyland
-
3
42
1971
"Girls Are Out To Get You" (UK-only reissue)
The Fascinations
-
-
32
1974
"{It's Gonna Be} A Long, Long Winter"
Linda Clifford
75
-
-
1974
"On and On" (from Claudine)
Gladys Knight & The Pips
2
5
-
1974
"Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um"

New version
Major Lance
59
-
-
1975
"Let's Do It Again"
The Staple Singers
1
1
???
1975
"He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)"
Tony Orlando & Dawn
-
1
-
1976
"New Orleans"
The Staple Singers
4
70
???
1976
"Something He Can Feel"
Aretha Franklin
1
28
-
1976
"Jump"
Aretha Franklin
17
72
-
1976
"Hooked On Your Love"
Aretha Franklin
17
-
-
1977
"A Piece Of The Action"
Mavis Staples
47
-
-
1979
"Between You Baby And Me"
Linda Clifford
14
-
-
1983
"I'm So Proud"
Deniece Williams
28
-
-
1984
"One Love/People Get Ready"
Bob Marley & The Wailers
-
-
5
1985
"People Get Ready"
Jeff Beck & Rod Stewart
-
48
49
1992
"Giving Him Something He Can Feel"
En Vogue
1
6
16

Tributes


In June 2007 Sin?©ad O'Connor released two versions (one acoustic and one with full band) of Mayfield's "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue" on her album Theology.


Lauryn Hill sampled "Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here" on her 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.


The Dust Brothers sampled the intro to Mayfield's "Superfly" for the Beastie Boys song "Eggman" on the album "Paul's Boutique".


Hip hop producer Just Blaze has used a slowed down sample of Mayfield's "Move On Up" for the 2006 Kanye West/Lupe Fiasco hit single "Touch The Sky". Eminem sampled Mayfield's song "Pusherman" for his debut LP on the song "I'm Shady". Late rapper 2Pac sampled him consistently as well. "Pusherman" was also covered by Doyle Bramhall II.


Jay-Z sampled "Short Eyes" for his 2007 song "American Gangster" from the eponymous album.


Mary J. Blige samples "give me your love" for her 1994 song "I'm The Only Woman" from the My Life album.


In 1988, Fishbone acknowledged Mayfield's influence on their own vision, "a melting pot of ska, punk, and funk hard rock (...) added to the mix", by choosing to cover Mayfield's early 70's hit "Freddie's Dead" to open their well-regarded Truth and Soul LP, which "also featured (...) several musically varied tracks that deal with the same topic: racism, past and present (...)"


In 1996 Australian vocal band Human Nature recorded 2 a cappella versions of "People Get Ready", one, without the middle verse, on their 1996 Telling Everybody album, and the other, with the middle verse, on their 2001 Here & Now: The Best of Human Nature Album.


Paul Weller routinely cited Mayfield's works as influence and inspiration. With his first band The Jam, Weller recorded Mayfield's "Move On Up" as a B-side on their 1982 single "Beat Surrender".


Monica sampled "The Makings of You" on her 2006 single "A Dozen Roses (You Remind Me)" from her The Makings of Me album. The title of the album refers to that song.


The Techniques, The Uniques, Bob Marley and The Wailers, and many other early vocal groups in Jamaica were deeply influenced by the songwriting, vocal harmonies, and black consciousness that appear as hallmarks on Impressions recordings from the early to mid 1960s. Many of the Wailers' early ska recordings are Impressions covers. One of Marley's most well known songs, "One Love", is in fact a take on "People Get Ready".


Ice-T prominently sampled "Pusherman" on the song I'm Your Pusher; Clipse also sampled "Pusherman" on "Cot Damn" from their 2002 Lord Willin' album.


Souls of Mischief sampled "We're a Winner" on "Limitations" from their debut album 93 'til Infinity.


The music video of "Astounded" by Bran Van 3000, has a still image of Mayfield in one line of the first verse as a tribute.


In 1993, three years after the accident which caused Mayfield's paralysis, Shanachie records released the album People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, featuring Jerry Butler, Don Covay, Steve Cropper, lani Groves, Michael Hill, Huey Lewis and the News, Delbert McClinton, Vernon Reid, David Sanborn, Jonathan Sanborn, Angela Strehli, Bunny Wailer, Kim Wilson. According to the album cover, "Fifty percent of all royalties will benefit Curtis Mayfield."


Donell Jones' "When I Was Down" sampled "Freddie's Dead" on Where I Wanna Be (1999).


My Morning Jacket opened their New Year's Eve 2008 show at Madison Square Garden with Mayfield's "Move on Up" off the album Curtis.


Cam'ron sampled the hook from "I'm your Pusherman" for the song "D Rugs" from his debut album Confessions of Fire.


B.o.B and T.I. sampled "I'm your Pusherman" on their song "I'm Dat Nigga".


Indie musician Jenny Toomey (formally of the Washington, DC band and founder of the record label Simple Machines) covered/reworked Mayfield's "Fool for You" on her landmark 1991 double-disc CD Antidote.


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