Curtis Mayfield - Biography

By Lee Hildebrand


As a performer and record producer—and especially as a songwriter and businessman—Curtis Mayfield was ahead of his time. Mayfield became the leader of The Impressions during the 1960s, on the strength of an uncanny gift for rhyming and for producing melodies that were derivative of gospel music. Mayfield used those talents in composing songs of hope (“People Get Ready”), pride (“I’m So Proud,” “Choice of Colors”), and struggle (“Keep on Pushing,” “We’re a Winner”). His songs accentuated the words and actions of such African American leaders of the era as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Like those leaders, Mayfield had a vision—he once said that his songs “were inspiring to a mass of people, not only black but all people.” Similar to Sam Cooke, Mayfield was among the few R&B artists of his time to keep possession of his own publishing and record companies.


Curtis Lee Mayfield was born in Chicago on June 3, 1942. His father, Kenneth Mayfield, abandoned the family when Curtis was five years old. His mother, Marion Washington, taught him to play piano, and the young boy went on to teach himself to play guitar in an unusual open F-sharp tuning, which would later become a trademark of his R&B style. Mayfield grew up singing and picking at Chicago’s Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church, a storefront congregation headed by his grandmother, the Reverend A.B. Mayfield. He and his friend Jerry Butler sang in the church choir and in a gospel quintet called The Northern Jubilee Singers. In 1957, Mayfield and Butler joined forces with three members of The Roosters, a doo-wop group that had relocated to Chicago from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Changing their name to The Impressions at the suggestion of manager Eddie Thomas, they signed with Vee-Jay Records. The group’s first release, “For Your Precious Love,” was a ballad written by Butler and group members Arthur and Richard Brooks, and it featured Butler’s deep-voiced lead. The song was a smash, reaching #3 on the Billboard R&B chart and #11 on the magazine’s pop chart in 1958.


When a follow-up single failed to register the same kind of success, Butler left the group and took Mayfield with him as a guitarist and songwriter. Mayfield continued to record with the remaining Impressions during this time, but the releases that the group put out on Abner—including “At the County Fair” (the first song to spotlight Mayfield’s high, reedy falsetto voice)—didn’t leave much of an impression in the marketplace.


Mayfield made the realization early on that having financial control over his own songs would benefit him in the long run. In 1960, while still in his teens, Mayfield launched Curtom Publishing Company in partnership with manager Eddie Thomas. The move proved prophetic, as Mayfield scored his first hit as a songwriter in 1960 with Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart,” which topped the R&B charts. The following year he penned another Butler hit for Vee-Jay, “Find Another Girl,” which also reached the top ten in R&B. Seeing the success he was having as a songwriter, it wasn’t long before other Chicago artists and labels began turning to Mayfield’s prolific pen.


In the early to mid-1960s, Mayfield helped a veritable who’s who in the world of soul and R&B land on the charts. Gene Chandler scored a Top 20 hit (#11 R&B, #47 pop) in 1963 with “Rainbow” on Vee-Jay, and again in 1964 with “Just Be True” on Constellation Records. Mayfield penned a winner for Jan Bradley with “Mama Don’t Lie” (#8 R&B, #14 pop) in 1963, which was first issued on Formal, then picked up by Chess Records. And on the Columbia subsidiary label, Okeh Records, Major Lance landed a Mayfield hit with “The Monkey Time” (#2 R&B, #6 pop) that same year. The following year Lance’s “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” hit #5 on the pop chart. Other Okeh artists who were produced by Mayfield and/or recorded his songs included The Artistics, Billy Butler & The Enchanters, Walter Jackson, and The Opals. Most of Mayfield’s work 1963-64 work at Okeh featured brassy horn arrangements by Johnny Pate, who also played an important role in The Impressions’ hits between 1963­–1968 and in Mayfield’s own monumental soundtrack for the 1972 motion picture, Super Fly.


In 1961, The Impressions—charter members Mayfield, Sam Gooden, the Brooks’ brothers and Fred Cash, a onetime Rooster who had replaced Butler—signed with ABC-Paramount Records. Their first release for the company, the flamenco-flavored “Gypsy Woman,” was a solid hit (#2 R&B/#20 pop). Upon the departure of the Brooks’ brothers in 1962, the group continued on as a trio on ABC-Paramount and placed 21 singles on the R&B and/or pop charts between the years of 1963–1968. Among the most successful were 1963’s “It’s All Right” (#1 R&B, #4 pop), 1964’s “I’m So Proud” (#14 pop), 1964’s “Keep on Pushing” (#10 pop), 1964’s “You Must Believe Me” (#15 pop), 1965’s “Amen” (#17 R&B, #7 pop), 1965’s “People Get Ready” (#3 R&B, #14 pop), 1965’s “Woman’s Got Soul” (#9 R&B, #29 pop), 1966’s “We’re a Winner” (#1 R&B, #59 pop), and 1968’s “I Loved and I Lost” (#9 R&B, #61 pop). All were produced by Johnny Pate, and all except “Amen” were written by Mayfield.


Mayfield and Eddie Thomas launched two record labels in 1966—Mayfield Records, distributed by Calla Records in New York City, and Windy C, distributed by Cameo-Parkway in Philadelphia. Mayfield produced most of the acts himself, though neither label was hugely successful. The Fascinations, a female vocal foursome from Detroit, did have three chart entries on the Mayfield label, the biggest being 1967’s “Girls Can’t Stay Away from You.” The teenage Five Stairsteps from Chicago did somewhat better, landing six singles on the charts, including “World of Fantasy” (#12 R&B, #49 pop) and “Come Back” (#15 R&B, #61 pop), both in 1966.

In 1968, Mayfield and Thomas created a third label, Curtom Records, which did better and lasted longer than his previous labels. After three little-noticed singles, Curtom was picked up for national distribution by former Cameo-Parkway executive Neil Bogart’s Buddah Records and later handled by Warner Bros., RSO, and Arista before closing shop in 1980. Five years later, however, Mayfield restarted the label, via a short-lived deal with Ichiban Records, to release new recordings of his own, along with his sizable back catalog. In addition to such old Mayfield associates as The Five Stairsteps, Gene Chandler, and Major Lance, the Curtom roster included The Staple Singers, Mavis Staples, Leroy Hutson, Linda Clifford, and The Natural Four. Thomas Records, another Mayfield-associated label, released a handful of singles in the late ’60s, including blues singer Jesse Anderson’s, “I Got a Problem” (#35 R&B, #95 pop).


But it was The Impressions who initially put Curtom Records on the map in 1968, after their ABC contract had expired. The trio’s biggest hits on the label were 1968’s “Fool for You” (#3 R&B, #22 pop), 1968’s “This Is My Country” (#8 R&B, #25 pop), 1969’s “Choice of Colors” (#1 R&B, #21 pop), 1969’s “Say You Love Me” (#10 R&B, #58 pop), 1970’s “Check Out Your Mind” (#3 R&B, #28 pop), and 1970s’ “(Baby) Turn on to Me” (#6 R&B, #56 pop).


Claiming to be tired of touring and looking for more time to produce and run his Curtom label, Mayfield left The Impressions in 1970. He did, however, continue writing for and producing the group for several years thereafter. Mayfield’s first Curtom single as a solo artist, that year’s “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” (#3 R&B, #29 pop), was more politically outspoken than his previous work with The Impressions. He even took a swipe at President Richard Nixon in the song. Mayfield’s style as a solo entity was different as well, relying less on gospel structures and more on his rhythm section, which featured the unfettered bongo and conga drum patterns of Master Henry Gibson.


The first three Mayfield solo albums—Curtis (1970), Curtis/Live! (1971), and Roots (1971)—all made the pop Top 40. The fourth, his 1972 soundtrack for the hit motion picture Super Fly, directed by Gordon Parks and starring Ron O’Neal, went all the way to #1. It spawned two hit singles with “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly” (#5 R&B, #8 pop). Other of Mayfield’s hit singles in the mid-1970s included 1974’s “Kung Fu” (#3 R&B, #40 pop), 1975’s “So in Love” (#9 R&B, #67 pop), and 1976’s “Only You Babe” (#8 R&B). “Only You Babe” would be Mayfield’s last big single as a solo artist, as later releases on RSO, Boardwalk, CRC, and the revived Curtom label had minimal impact. Mayfield relocated his recording studio from Chicago to Atlanta in 1980, and three years later got together with Butler and The Impressions for a reunion tour.


During the mid-1970s, though, with the massive success of Super Fly, Mayfield penned other film scores. Claudine (1974, Buddah), a soundtrack featuring Gladys Knight & The Pips, yielded “On and On” (#2 R&B, #5 pop). The Staple Singers had two hit singles—the chart-topping “Let’s Do It Again” (#1 on both R&B and pops) and “New Orleans” (#4 R&B, #70 pop )—from the Let’s Do It Again soundtrack (1974, Curtom). Though Aretha Franklin, didn’t sing on the actual movie soundtrack, she did perform Mayfield’s songs on the album Sparkle (1976, Atlantic), which included the hit “Something He Can Feel” (#1 R&B, #28 pop). Mayfield himself made his acting debut playing a bit role in prison drama Short Eyes (1977, Curtom). He also composed the music for it.

On August 13, 1990, while he was performing at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, a sudden burst of wind sent a 500-pound lighting bank crashing down on Mayfield. He was left paralyzed from the neck down. Though debilitated for the rest of his life, there were still accomplishments to be had and honors bestowed upon him throughout the 1990s. He was honored with the release of All Men Are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield (Warner) in 1994, a set of his songs rendered by such artists as Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, The Isley Brothers, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Bruce Springsteen, and Stevie Wonder, as well as by a similar all-star salute at that year’s Grammy Awards ceremony. On the tribute disc, the disabled Mayfield teamed up with Repercussions for a version of “Let’s Do It Again,” and he made one final CD of his own, New World Order (1996 Warner), with help from such guests as Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, Shirley Murdock, Roger Troutman, Sandra St. Victor, and the hip-hop production team Organized Noize.       


Mayfield died at 57-years-old on December 26, 1999, in Roswell, Georgia.


Thirty of Mayfield’s hits with The Impressions, as well as ten of his solo hits, are collected on the two-CD The Anthology: 1961-1977 (1992 MCA). Solo recordings for Curtom between 1970 and 1990 are anthologized on the 16-song single-disc, The Very Best of Curtis Mayfield (1997 Rhino) and on the 30-song double-disc The Definitive Soul Collection (2006 Rhino). Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago Soul (1995 Legacy/Epic) compiles 18 selections written and/or produced by Mayfield on the Okeh label between 1963–1965 for Billy Butler, Gene Chandler, Walter Jackson, The Artistics, and The Opals. The 36-song two-disc The Story of Curtom: Curtis Mayfield’s School of 21st Century Soul (2003 Metro Music) gathers Mayfield’s solo work for the Curtom, Thomas, Gemigo, Mayfield, and Windy C labels as well as such others as The Impressions, Brooks Brothers, Fascinations, Five Stairsteps, Natural Four, Notations, Jesse Anderson, Linda Clifford, June Conquest, Leroy Hutson, Marvin Smith, Jamo Thomas, and Fred Wesley.


The DVD Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions (2008 Hip-O) features ten songs performed with the group and 16 as a solo artist, plus interviews with the singer and others.

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