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Members included ArthurBrooks(group member, 1957-62), vocals; RichardBrooks(group member, 1957-62), vocals; JerryButler (born in 1939 in Sunflower, MS; group member, 1957-59), vocals; Fred Cash (joined group, 1958), vocals; SamGooden, vocals; CurtisMayfield(born on June 3, 1942, in Chicago, IL; died on December 26, 1999, in Roswell, GA), vocals, guitar. Addresses: Record company--Rhino Records Inc., 10635 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025-4900.

One of the outstanding vocal groups of the 1960s, the Impressions left an indelible mark on popular music with their doo wop-inflected harmonies and incisive, socially conscious lyrics. Guided by their immensely gifted lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter Curtis Mayfield, their music sprang from the gospel hymns and spirituals of the black church and evolved, as the 1960s wore on, into a vehicle for social change and race consciousness. When the Impressions' star began to fade at the end of that tumultuous decade, Mayfield reinvented himself as a solo act, producing some of the strongest and most influential music of the 1970s, culminating in his masterpiece, Superfly. But the roots of his talent are to be found in his work with the Impressions, lead purveyors of the Chicago soul sound.

The Impressions were formed in the late 1950s in Chicago when Sam Gooden, Arthur Brooks, and Richard Brooks, members of a vocal group called the Roosters, moved to the Windy City from Chattanooga, Tennessee, leaving original member Fred Cash behind. There they invited Jerry Butler, known as the "Ice Man" for his cool demeanor and rich, smooth baritone, to join them. Butler, in turn, invited his friend Curtis Mayfield, a self-taught guitarist who had performed with a vocal group called the Alphatones, to join the group. Mayfield quit high school to join the Roosters; after his arrival, the group became the Impressions.

Billed as Jerry Butler and the Impressions, the new group, with Jerry singing lead vocals, scored their first hit in 1958 with "For Your Precious Love," which reached number three on the R&B charts, and number eleven on the pop charts. The single sold more than 150,000 copies in the two weeks following its release, which led to Jerry Butler signing an exclusive contract with the group's Vee-Jay label as a solo act. After Butler's departure, Mayfield took over, assuming the lead vocal slot and Fred Cash, the original member of the Roosters who'd been left in Chattanooga, rejoined the group. Subsequent singles, however, did not find an audience, and the group was dropped by Vee-Jay in 1959.

In 1960 Mayfield and Butler reunited to write the classic "He Will Break Your Heart," and Mayfield toured with Butler's band while still occasionally playing with the Impressions. With the money he earned from working with Butler, Mayfield cut a single, "Gypsy Woman," with the Impressions. It became a hit, reaching number two on the R&B charts, and the group was quickly signed to ABC-Paramount. Over the next nine years, the Mayfield-led Impressions would chart almost 30 singles. Mayfield mixed pop and R&B with the sounds of the church and was as comfortable penning love songs as he was writing songs to promote social change. As Richie Unterberger wrote in The Rough Guide to Music USA, "Mayfield quickly grew into that rare breed of songwriter who could convey both ebullient romance and a progressive social conscience."

The group proved a vehicle for Mayfield's multiple talents. While his distinctive high-pitched tenor, sweetly blended harmonies, and superior songwriting craft are often noted, his melodic guitar style has, perhaps, not received the recognition it is due. Writing in Guitar Player, Joe Gore noted that "Mayfield seldom received sufficient credit for crafting one of the era's most poignant and influential guitar styles."

The Brooks brothers departed the band in 1962, leaving the core group of Mayfield, Cash, and Gooden. In 1963 the pared-down Impressions recorded "It's All Right" with each of the vocalists exchanging leads in the manner of a traditional gospel quartet. Released in the wake of John F. Kennedy's assassination, the single rose to number one on the R&B charts. "I'm So Proud" followed in the spring of 1964.

"Keep On Pushing" was released in 1964, a time when the civil rights movement dominated the headlines. Set to an easy soulful beat and anchored by Mayfield's high-pitched vocals, it urged perseverance in the face of various obstacles. The underlying message was unmistakable. In his liner notes to People Get Ready! The Curtis Mayfield Story, David Nathan wrote of "Keep On Pushing," "In the context of popular music, it was arguably the first such tune to urge African-Americans to move ahead, strive for social justice and equality, and refuse to accept the status quo."

"People Get Ready," released in 1965, had a sonorous, mournful quality like an old spiritual and was reportedly Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s favorite song. In a 1996 interview with Guitar Player, Mayfield described the origins of the song and its subsequent effect on his later writing: "I was in a spiritual mode when I put that together. I played the line.... It had a nice, spiritual gospel feel, and that dictated the words, which came from the inspiration of the church and different sermons. It just all came together properly, and I wouldn't be surprised if that particular song didn't start me off writing songs like that."

"We're a Winner," with its joyful, funky beat and message of African American pride, was released in 1967, anticipating by a number of months James Brown's "Say It Loud I'm Black and I'm Proud." The following year the Impressions followed up with the affirmative "This Is My Country." In 1969 the Impressions released "Choice of Colors," continuing Mayfield's focus on race. As the decade came to a close, however, the Impressions began to sound dated, as new voices such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye entered the field. It was time for the group's mastermind to move on.

Mayfield left the Impressions in 1970 to pursue his own solo career, resulting in a distinctive, richly textured, blues-inflected sound with funkier rhythms, guitar effects, and lyrics that reflected a harsher, "ghetto" sensibility. His debut, Curtis, released in 1970, was a brilliant continuation of and radical departure from his earlier work. Building on familiar themes while dropping the trademark vocal harmonies and sweet melodies in favor of extended jams, the album includes the ebullient "Move on Up" (borrowing the refrain from "We're A Winner") and "We People Who Are Darker Than Blue." A live album that was quickly released as a follow-up moved rapidly up the charts. The apex of Mayfield's solo career was the release of Superfly in 1972, written as the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film of the same name. In songs like "Freddie's Dead," "Pusherman," and the title track, Mayfield's art found its most developed expression, seamlessly fusing music and message, in what is now recognized as a masterpiece.

The Impressions carried on in Mayfield's absence with a changing lineup of singers, but without their creative mastermind at the helm, they became relegated to the revival circuit. In 1983 Mayfield joined the Impressions for a reunion tour, and both he and original member Butler sometimes joined later tours. Butler continued recording into the 1970s but his achievements as a solo artist were overshadowed by those of his former backing group. He entered politics, winning election to the Cook County Board of Supervisors in Chicago.

Mayfield continued to record and tour, although he was never able to match the popular and artistic success of his first few solo outings or of his work with the Impressions. In 1990 he was paralyzed in a freak accident in Brooklyn, New York, when a stage scaffold fell on him, leaving him wheelchair bound. The following year the Impressions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1996 Mayfield released New World Order, his first since the stage accident. In 1999 he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. Mayfield died on December 26, 1999, in Roswell, Georgia.

by Kevin O'Sullivan

The Impressions's Career

Group formed in Chicago, IL, 1957; released first single, "For Your Precious Love," 1958; Jerry Butler embarked on solo career, 1959; Mayfield assumed lead slot; recorded "Gypsy Woman," signed with ABC-Paramount, 1961; released string of hits commenting on love, civil rights, black pride, 1962-70; Mayfield left group, released solo album, Curtis, 1970; Mayfield scored soundtrack to Superfly, 1972; Impressions, with changing lineup, tour revival circuit, sometimes joined by Butler and Mayfield, 1970-present.

The Impressions's Awards

Induction, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1991.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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