Born Curtis Lee Mayfield, June 3, 1942, in Chicago, IL; married three times; eleven children. Addresses: Office-- Curtom Records of Atlanta, Inc., 1770 Austin Rd. S.W., Atlanta, GA 30331. company executive.
In 1990, Curtis Mayfield was enjoying a comeback. His soul vocal group of the late 1950s and 1960s, the Impressions, had been nominated for a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a successful cover version of their 1961 hit "Gypsy Woman" had been recorded by the popular rock band Santana. Take It to the Streets, Mayfield's first album in more than five years, was released in early 1990, and he had toured the United States, Europe, and Japan to promote it. And Capitol Records was set to release the soundtrack to The Return of Superfly, a rap sampler featuring four original songs written and performed by Mayfield.
Then tragedy struck. On a windy summer night in August of 1990, Mayfield was getting set to start a concert at Wingate Field in Brooklyn. As he was plugging in his guitar, a gust of wind toppled a light tower near the stage, striking Mayfield in the head. The accident resulted in three broken vertebrae and quadriplegia. Remarkably keeping his spirits up, however, Mayfield began physical therapy in September of 1990 and made his first public appearance in February of 1991, when he donated $100,000 to establish the Curtis Mayfield Research Fund at the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis. Friends and family were reportedly hopeful that Mayfield's therapy would enable him to make at least a partial recovery.
Born on June 3, 1942, Curtis Lee Mayfield grew up in a poor Chicago family that moved from neighborhood to neighborhood. By the time he was in high school his family had settled in the Cabrini-Green public housing projects on the city's north side. Mayfield's strongest early musical influence came from his membership in a local gospel group called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, which included three cousins and acquaintance Jerry Butler. Mayfield told the Detroit News in 1974, "I was writing music when I was 10 or 11 years old." Mayfield's grandmother was a preacher in the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church, and traces of church and gospel music are unmistakable in many of his compositions. Mayfield attended Chicago's Wells High School but left in the tenth grade to join what would become the Impressions.
The Impressions began performing in the mid-1950s as the Roosters, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, their lineup comprised of Fred Cash, Sam Gooden, Emanuel Thomas, and the brothers Richard and Arthur Brooks. Seeking to advance their musical careers, Gooden and the Brooks brothers went north to Chicago in 1957, settling in the Cabrini-Green projects. Jerry Butler was a senior in high school at the time, and he acted as a replacement for the Impressions vocalists who had stayed behind in Tennessee. According to Robert Pruter in Chicago Soul, Butler encouraged Mayfield to join the group, saying they needed someone "who could play an instrument and who could help us get our harmony together." By this time, Mayfield was writing gospel-influenced songs and had learned to play the guitar.
The group made some early recordings for the Bandera label and were then discovered by Eddie Thomas of Vee Jay Records, who became their manager and changed their name to the Impressions. The single "For Your Precious Love" was released on the company's subsidiary label, Falcon, and featured Jerry Butler's lead vocals. Its first issue sold over 900,000 copies. A Vee Jay executive signed the Impressions to a recording contract immediately after hearing the song, which he reportedly liked for its spiritual feel--a genuine departure from the doo-wop harmonies of the day.
Vee Jay promoted the group as "Jerry Butler and the Impressions" and developed Butler as a solo artist. After three singles, Butler left the group to go out on his own. Mayfield told Pruter, "When Jerry left ... it allowed me to generate and pull out my own talents as a writer and a vocalist." Mayfield's soprano singing, however, contrasted sharply with Butler's baritone leads. The group released a few singles with Mayfield as leader and was then dropped by Vee Jay. From 1959 to 1961, the Impressions did not work as a group; Mayfield began writing songs and playing guitar for Butler in 1960.
By 1961 Mayfield had saved enough money--about a thousand dollars--to regroup the Impressions and take them to New York City to arrange a recording session. In July of that year they recorded "Gypsy Woman" for ABC-Paramount. Mayfield was only 18 when the group signed with ABC-Paramount. "Gypsy Woman" was the beginning of a seven-year string of rhythm and blues and pop hits--all composed by Mayfield. The Brooks brothers left the Impressions in 1962; the remaining members continued as a trio throughout the 1960s.
In 1963 the group recorded "It's All Right," which Chicago Soul' s Pruter termed "the first single to define the classic style of the 1960s Impressions." Producer Jerry Pate "lifted the energy level considerably, adding blaring horns and a more forceful, percussive bottom," wrote Pruter. "It's All Right" was a crossover hit that went to Number Four on the pop charts and Number One on the rhythm and blues charts in the fall of 1963. The song featured "the lead switching off from among the three [group members] and the two others singing in harmony with the lead," elaborated Pruter. Though the song represented a new sound in rhythm and blues, critics have long noted that the feel of "It's All Right" sprung directly from Mayfield's gospel experience.
In 1964 the Impressions became a major act with a series of strong singles that included "I'm So Proud," "Keep On Pushing," and "Amen." By most accounts, Mayfield was profoundly motivated by the emergence of the civil rights movement. Civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesse Jackson adopted "Keep On Pushing" as an unofficial theme song for the movement. Chicago Tribune contributor Dan Kening wrote that Mayfield's "inspirational lyrics reflected a strong black consciousness while preaching the tenets of hard work, persistence, and faith as the key to achieving equality."
The group was at their peak in 1965 when they released "People Get Ready," a song featuring heavy gospel imagery and feeling. But by 1967 their hold on the market had begun to fade. Compounding this was the fact that in the late 1960s some relatively popular Impressions single releases were ill-received by black radio stations. As Pruter reported, "Surprisingly at that time, black radio had not kept pace with its black constituency and there was a lot of resistance by programmers over playing such 'overtly' political songs. The popularity of those songs had the effect of pushing black radio in the direction its listeners were going."
In addition to composing, singing, and playing the guitar, Mayfield was also interested in setting up his own record label. In 1960, at the age of 21, he made the unprecedented move of establishing his own music publishing company, Curtom, while recording at Vee Jay. Mayfield began developing two labels in 1966, Mayfield and Windy C., but it was in 1968 that he founded his most successful label, also called Curtom. The budding entrepreneur took the Impressions away from ABC and also recorded and produced other acts. Mayfield's songwriting and producing abilities were a key factor in the label's success.
In August of 1970 Mayfield announced his departure from the Impressions. He began his solo career the following year, offering "a biting commentary of the American scene and impressions of oppressed people," according to a review in Billboard. A New York Times music critic said of his first solo album, Curtis: "Mayfield himself continues to be a kind of contemporary preacher-through-music. He sings in a breathlessly high, pure voice, breaking his phrases into speech-like patterns, his rhythms pushed by the urgency of his thoughts.... His message seems as important to him as his melody." Including songs of up to ten minutes, Curtis established Mayfield as an album rather than a singles artist.
Mayfield began a successful career writing soundtracks for films with the 1972 movie Superfly. The controversial film depicted the life of a drug dealer and was part of the then-popular genre of "blaxploitation" films. According to a New York Times review, "Mayfield's music is more specifically anti-drugs than the philosophical content of the movie, and it is also considerably more stylish in design and execution." Two Top Ten hit singles resulted from the soundtrack: "Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly."
Throughout the 1970s Mayfield continued to write soundtracks and solidify his reputation as a solo artist. His solo compositions featured a more intense style than was expressed in those he had written for the Impressions; instructive lyrics and social commentary were the norm. Bucking pervasive negative criticism, Pruter assessed Mayfield's 1970s output positively, writing, "Some of the very best black popular music of the 1970s came from Mayfield, who despite the many misses during the decade was one of the creative leaders in establishing a new contemporary style of rhythm and blues, one with a militant, harder edge."
Mayfield joined the Impressions in 1983 for a reunion tour. Original members Butler, Mayfield, Gooden, and Cash performed the 1960s hits of the Impressions along with Butler and Mayfield's more popular solo efforts. According to Robert Palmer of the New York Times, the performances "amounted to a capsule history of recent black popular music, from the slick doo-wop and grittier gospel-based vocal group styles of the 1950s to Mr. Butler's urbane pop-soul, Curtis Mayfield's soul message songs and later funk, and the styles the Impressions have tackled as a group."
Mayfield's influence on a new generation of performers is widely evident. His 1960s compositions for the Impressions have enjoyed numerous cover versions from a wide range of popular singers. Mayfield's characteristic falsetto and innovative guitar work--the latter a clear inspiration to guitar colossus Jimi Hendrix--helped set a new standard for contemporary music. And critics have pointed out that his anti-drug messages, most emphatically expressed in the songs for Superfly, are echoed in the films of the young black filmmakers who gained prominence in the late 1980s. Controversial rap singer and actor Ice-T, who lent vocals to "Superfly 1990," said in tribute to the artist, "There's only been a couple of people I've met [in the music business] that to me are really heavy. Curtis is one of them."
Mayfield died December 26, 1999, in Roswell, Georgia, at the age of 57.
by David Bianco
Curtis Mayfield's Career
Began writing music c. 1952; performed with the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, early 1950s; lead singer and songwriter for the Impressions, 1958-70; solo recording and performing artist, 1971--; established Curtom music publishing company, 1960, and Curtom record label, 1968. Composer of soundtracks for films, including Superfly.
- Singles; with the Impressions
- (As Jerry Butler and the Impressions) "For Your Precious Love," Falcon, 1958.
- "Gypsy Woman," ABC-Paramount, 1961.
- "It's All Right," ABC-Paramount, 1963.
- "I'm So Proud," ABC-Paramount, 1964.
- "Keep On Pushing," ABC-Paramount, 1964.
- "Amen," ABC-Paramount, 1964.
- "People Get Ready," ABC-Paramount, 1965.
- Albums; with the Impressions
- The Impressions ABC-Paramount, 1963.
- The Never Ending Impressions ABC-Paramount, 1964.
- Keep On Pushing ABC-Paramount, 1964.
- People Get Ready ABC-Paramount, 1965.
- Ridin' High ABC-Paramount, 1966.
- The Fabulous Impressions ABC-Paramount, 1967.
- This Is My Country Curtom, 1968.
- Young Mods' Forgotten Story Curtom, 1969.
- Check Out Your Mind Curtom, 1970.
- The Vintage Years: Featuring Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield Sire, 1976.
- Albums; solo
- Curtis Curtom, 1970.
- Curtis Live Curtom, 1971.
- Roots Curtom, 1971.
- Superfly (soundtrack; includes "Freddie's Dead"), Curtom, 1972.
- Back to the World Curtom, 1973.
- Sweet Exorcist Curtom, 1974.
- Got to Find a Way Curtom, 1974.
- There's No Place Like America Curtom, 1975.
- Give Get Take and Have Curtom, 1976.
- Never Say You Can't Survive Curtom, 1977.
- Short Eyes (soundtrack), Curtom, 1977.
- Do It All Night Curtom, 1978.
- Heartbeat RSO/Curtom, 1978.
- Something to Believe In RSO/Curtom, 1979.
- The Right Combination RSO/Curtom, 1980.
- Honesty Boardwalk, 1982.
- Take It to the Streets Curtom, 1990.
- The Return of Superfly (soundtrack; includes "Superfly 1990"), Capitol, 1990.
- Pruter, Robert, Chicago Soul, University of Illinois Press, 1991.
- Billboard, August 29, 1970; February 6, 1971.
- Chicago Tribune, September 2, 1990.
- Detroit News, January 27, 1974.
- Ebony, July 1973.
- Guitar Player, August 1991.
- Indianapolis Star, May 15, 1983.
- Los Angeles Times, October 23, 1989; August 26, 1990.
- Michigan Chronicle, June 19, 1976.
- New York Times, December 6, 1970; May 6, 1983.