He was known as the 'Gentle Giant,' his music filled with soulful poetic lyricism, a man with a message imparted through a body of work that remains timeless. Curtis Mayfield, leader of The Impressions, superb songwriter for such R&B stars as Major Lance and Walter Jackson, super producer of fellow icons like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight, formidable solo recording artist in his own right, the man who created a slew of classic songs that have been recorded time and time again. From "People Get Ready" - revisited by such luminaries as Rod Stewart and Al Green - to "The Makings Of You," covered in 2001 by neo-soul queen Angie Stone, Mayfield's music has transcended generations. Even though the material he cut during the first few years of a solo career that began in 1970 seemed fitting for the times - including "Freddie's Dead," a key cut from the groundbreaking "Superfly" soundtrack and "(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go" - the messages resonate today. The destructive force of drugs, the specter of racism, these same issues that Mayfield addressed in song thirty years ago are sadly still relevant today.
But Mayfield, who used his recordings to share his thoughts, was not merely an activist in the struggles for equality, justice and freedom: he was also a master capable of writing and producing some of the most beautiful tunes in the annals of contemporary music. Who can listen to "I'm So Proud" and not feel touched, moved and inspired? Or hear the inherent sensuality of "So In Love," a 1975 Top 10 R&B hit for the Chicago-born multi-faceted singer, songwriter, musician and producer?
The Mayfield story has its beginnings in the Windy City when the young Curtis picked up a guitar and start strumming, just a few years before he teamed up with three of his cousins and a singer from Mississippi named Jerry Butler to from a group known as The Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Mayfield's early grounding in gospel helped train the young tenor in the power of delivering a message in song; inevitably, Curtis started hanging with school friends who shared his love of music and he became a member of the group The Alphatones. It was Butler who drafted him into another group - The Roosters - whose core line-up would form the basis for the mighty, mighty Impressions.
The year was 1958 and Mayfield, Butler and his fellow group members enjoyed their first taste of success as recording artists when "For Your Precious Love" began climbing the nation's charts. Butler departed in 1959 to launch a solo career and had his first hit with one of Mayfield's compositions, "He Will Break Your Heart." The Impressions (a quintet at the time) soldiered on and with money he had earned by touring as Butler's guitarist, Mayfield took the group to New York to cut some demos. In 1961, the Windy City-based team signed with ABC Paramount and enjoyed a seven-year run of classic hits that included "Gypsy Woman," "It's All Right," "People Get Ready" and "Woman's Got Soul."
Two songs in particular from that time period reflected Mayfield's interest in writing material with a social message - 1964's seminal "Keep On Pushing" and four years later, the rousing "We're A Winner." Empowering and motivating, both tunes were released during a crucial time for African-Americans, struggling to achieve basic civil rights and liberties and then to create the essential economic power and freedom that by necessity would follow. Demonstrating his own personal quest for that same economic power and freedom, Mayfield became one of the very first black music artists to create his own label when he launched Windy C Records in 1966. While that imprint had marginal success with the group The Five Stairsteps, Mayfield was undeterred: after starting the short-lived Mayfield Records the same year, he partnered with longtime business associate Eddie Thomas to create Curtom Records in 1968. Distributed by Buddah Records, the label became the recording home for The Impressions and in 1969, Mayfield made the momentous - but seemingly inevitable - decision to go solo.
With its funky rhythms, swirling strings and organic approach, Curtis' first solo album ("Curtis") gained immediate critical acclaim and sales success. Unrestrained by the confines of working within a group structure, Mayfield stretched out musically and lyrically. His debut set contained the powerful "If There's A Hell Below, We're All Going To Go," a Top 5 R&B and Top 30 pop hit. After the 1971 release of a live album, Mayfield was back in the studio created more musical magic via the best-selling "Roots" album which included the charted single "Get Down."
It was however his fourth solo effort in two years that cemented Mayfield's place as an important musical messenger: in the wake of Isaac Hayes' success with the soundtrack for "Shaft," considered one of the first major box office hit movies oriented specifically towards a black audience, Mayfield was drafted to create the music for "Superfly." It proved to be a milestone move in a career already filled with accomplishment. The 1972 album topped both the pop and R&B charts and yielded hits in the form of "Freddie's Dead" and the album's title track, both certified gold singles.
By 1973, Mayfield was enjoying an unprecedented level of popularity as a solo recording artist: his fifth album "Back To The World" went gold helped by singles like "Future Shock" and "If I Were Only A Child Again." Noting the public's growing interest and fascination in martial arts, Curtis was back in the hit mould with "Kung Fu" from the 1973 set "Sweet Exorcist."
The mid- to late-â€˜70s proved a time of creative growth and development for Mayfield: Curtom was flourishing with artists like Leroy Hutson, The Natural Four and The Impressions; while the multi-talented music man had been assigned to produce soundtrack albums on Gladys Knight & The Pips (1974's "Claudine") and The Staple Singers (1975's "Let's Do It Again") and worked with Aretha Franklin in 1976 on the gold album "Sparkle." Mayfield's name was still a constant on the R&B charts with such gems as "So In Love" from the 1975 set "There's No Place Like America Today" and "Only You Babe" from his 1976 album, "Give, Get, Take And Have." Looking for new challenges, Curtis stepped in front of the cameras to appear in the controversial film "Short Eyes," which focused on prison life, at the same time writing music for the movie's soundtrack including the key cut, "Do Do Wop Is Strong In Here," released as a single in 1977.
Two years later, Curtis was enjoying plenty of airplay with a steamy duet with Linda Clifford, newly signed to Curtom and rapidly becoming its first successful female artist. "Between You Baby And Me" was a sensual slow jam that was the centerpiece of Mayfield's 1979 album "Heartbeat." Throughout the â€˜80s, Curtis' success as a recording artist waxed and waned: the hits were not nearly so frequent and much of his activity as a live performer was oriented towards tours of Europe and Japan. It was during one performance in Brooklyn in 1990 at an outdoor venue that Curtis' life was definitively altered: high winds dislodged a lighting rig which struck him, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down.
Ironically, in the wake of the accident, Mayfield began receiving long overdue recognition from a music industry in which he had been a major player for nearly forty years: he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Recording Academy and in 1994, a group of superstars that included Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Whitney Houston, Phil Collins and others recorded an album entitled "All Men Are Brothers: A Tribute To Curtis Mayfield" as a special salute to the man's contribution to the world of music.
In 1996, undeterred by his physical condition, Mayfield recorded "New World Order," his first new album in six years; just three years later, at the age of 57, the day after Christmas 1999, Curtis Mayfield passed. But until this soulful poet had left behind a wonderfully rich and diverse musical legacy.
Contributed by David Nathan