The Impressions - Biography

One of the most venerable of all R&B singing groups in the history of American popular music, The Impressions are best known for the dozen years (1959-1970) when Curtis Mayfield was the principal lead vocalist. Mayfield was not only the high, reedy falsetto voice at the forefront of group’s 15 Top 10 hit singles between 1961 and 1970—“Gypsy Woman,” “It’s All Right,” “Keep on Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” “We’re a Winner,” and “Choice of Colors,” among them—but he has the remarkable distinction of composed nearly every one. The Impressions did have one hit song prior to Mayfield talking the helm, the 1958 Jerry Butler-led song “For Your Precious Love.” The group, currently comprising charter member Sam Gooden, Fred Cash (Butler’s replacement), and Reggie Torian, remains active on the concert circuit.


Mayfield and Butler first sang together in the choir at the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church, a storefront congregation in Chicago. They also sang gospel music with the Northern Jubilee Singers before hooking up in 1957 with Gooden and brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks, members of the doo-wop group The Roosters who had recently moved to Chicago from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Changing their name to The Impressions, the five vocalists made the Billboard charts with their debut recording, “For Your Precious Love,” written by Butler and the Brooks’ brothers. The song, initially released on the Vee-Jay label, peaked at #3 R&B and #11 pop in 1958 with the quintet billed as “Jerry Butler and The Impressions.” So few 45s were pressed that clean copies now command up to $6,000 on the collector’s market. “For Your Precious Love” then appeared briefly on the Falcon label and finally on Abner, which, like Falcon, was a subsidiary of Vee-Jay. The Abner release is said to have sold 900,000 copies.


A second Abner release featuring Butler’s deep baritone voice, “Come Back to Me,” stalled at #29 on the R&B chart in late 1958, after which Butler left the group and signed a solo contract with Vee-Jay. Mayfield remained with Butler for a period as a guitarist and songwriter. On his own—or in collaboration with the singer and others—Mayfield composing such Butler hits as 1960’s “He Will Break Your Heart,” which climbed to #1 R&B/#7 pop, as well as 1961’s “I’m Telling You” and 1963’s “Need to Belong.”


When he wasn’t performing with Butler, Mayfield continued recording with The Impressions. Fred Cash, one of the originals from The Roosters, took Butler’s place in the group. Subsequent releases by The Impressions on Swirl, Banda and Abner records—including “At the Country Fair,” the first to spotlight Mayfield’s voice—left little impression in the marketplace. However, their fortunes improved in 1961 upon signing with ABC-Paramount, where The Impressions initial release—the flamenco-flavored “Gypsy Woman”—became a #2 R&B/#20 pop charter. In 1962, the Brooks’ brothers left the group, and as a trio The Impressions went on to have 11 additional Top 10 R&B hits until Mayfield’s departure in 1970. Each hit featured the trademark high, gospel-style harmonies, with many sporting brassy horn arrangements by ABC staff producer Johnny Pate.


With Pate’s soulful ingenuity, 1963’s “It’s All Right” from the eponymous LP topped the R&B charts. In 1964 The Impressions left a trail of fire in the R&B world, with “Talking About My Baby” hitting #12 on the pop charts and “Keep on Pushing”—both from the Keep On Pushing album—hitting soon thereafter. “I’m So Proud” would climb to #10 on the pop charts with the collaborative power of Pate and Mayfield in full force, and “You Must Believe Me” would chart that same year. In 1965, the #17 R&B/#7 pop charter “Amen”—one of the few non-Mayfield compositions—brought back a tune that was first popularized in the hit 1963 motion picture Lilies of the Field, starring Sidney Poitier. The profound #3 R&B/#14 pop “People Get Ready” would follow—a song that resonated deeply with the Civil Rights movement at the time—then “Woman’s Got Soul” from People Get Ready, which climbed all the way to #9 R&B/#29 pop. “Meeting Over Yonder” and “You’ve Been Cheatin’” both reached #12 on the R&B charts. All of the releases in these fruitful years were released on the ABC-Paramount label, after which the company dropped “Paramount” from its name. Hits on the ABC label included 1966’s “Can’t Satisfy,” the smash “We’re a Winner”—which ascended to the top of the R&B charts—and 1968’s “I Loved and I Lost.”


Having formed Curtom Publishing Company in the early ’60s in partnership with manager Eddie Thomas, Mayfield launched Curtom Records in 1968. Among the Mayfield-led hits on the new label were 1968’s “Fool for You,” “This Is My Country,” 1969’s #1 R&B pop chart hit “Choice of Colors,” “Say You Love Me,” 1970s’s “Check Out Your Mind,” and “(Baby) Turn on to Me.” All were produced by Mayfield.


Of the 14 albums made by the The Impressions during the Mayfield days—the last being the psychedelic soul record Check Out Your Mind!—only three placed in the pop Top 40: Keep on Pushing (1964 ABC-Paramount) peaked at #8; People Get Ready (1965 ABC-Paramount) at #23; and We’re a Winner (1968 ABC) never rose above #35.  


The Impressions, more than any other group of the 1960s, consistently addressed issues concerning the struggles of African-Americans for equal rights and human dignity. Such songs as “Keep on Pushing” and “People Get Ready” reflected the aspirations of the Civil Rights Movement. Later numbers like “We’re a Winner” and “Choice of Colors” celebrated the movement’s victories, as well as the burgeoning sense of pride in the black community.


Mayfield, citing an exhaustion of touring and a desire to open up more time to produce and run his Curtom label, left The Impressions in 1970 and launched a solo career. His solo success sustained for the better part of the 1970s, with “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go” reaching #3 on the R&B charts that same year, followed by such other Curtom singles as “Freddie’s Dead (Theme from Superfly)” in 1972, the #5 R&B/#8 pop “Superfly,” the funky song “Kung Fu” in 1974, 1975’s “So in Love” and “Only You Babe” in 1976. His soundtrack album from the hit motion picture Super Fly (1972 Curtom) topped Billboard’s pop chart.


As Mayfield’s replacement in the trio, Cash and Gooden recruited Leroy Hutson—who’d later be called the best kept secret of Seventies Soul. With his onetime Howard University roommate Donny Hathaway, the Newark, New Jersey-born vocalist had recorded a little-noticed 1967 single with The Mayfield Singers on the short-lived Mayfield label and wrote the 1970 Hathaway hit “The Ghetto.” Mayfield continued producing and writing songs for the revamped group, and then releasing them on Curtom. None of The Impressions’ Hutson-fronted singles managed to crack the R&B Top 10, however. Hutson left The Impressions in 1973 but continued recording for Curtom for the next six years. None of his numerous solo singles did especially well, with 1976’s bicentennial-inspired “Feel the Spirit (In ’76)” charting the highest, at #25 R&B.


The long-established trio became a quartet following Hutson’s departure. New members Ralph Johnson and Reggie Torian sang with the group through 1976, when Nate Evans replaced Johnson. Johnson would supplant Evans later on, between 1983 and 2000. A 1983 reunion concert tour featured a lineup of Butler, Mayfield, Cash, Gooden, Evans, and Vandy “Smokey” Hampton.


The post-Mayfield group scored its biggest hit in 1974 when “Finally Got Myself Together (I’m A Changed Man)” rocketed to the top of the R&B charts and hit #17 on the pop charts. The Curtom single, on which Johnson took the lead, was written and produced by Ed Townsend, who had scored big a year earlier as producer and co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” The Impressions made the R&B Top 10 twice again before leaving Curtom with “Sooner or Later” and “Same Thing It Took,” both placing at #3 on the R&B charts in 1975. Singles for Cotillion, Chi-Sound, and MCA between 1976 and 1987 received lukewarm receptions.


The entirety of the ’90s was a dormant time for The Impressions, as didn’t record anything during this time. In 1990, the progenitor of Curtis Mayfield was paralyzed when a piece of lighting equipment fell on him during a concert. Following his death in 1999, The Impressions cut a CD titled A Tribute to the Memory of Curtis Mayfield (2001 Edel America). An edition of the group made up of Cash, Gooden, Johnson, Hampton, and Willie Kitchens Jr. contributed backing vocals to 11 songs on Eric Clapton’s Reptile (2001 Reprise).


The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. Accepting the award were Butler, Mayfield, Cash, Gooden, and the Brooks’ brothers.


The hymn-like “People Get Ready” has been the most widely covered of The Impressions’ songs. Among the many artists who have recorded it are The Blind Boys of Alabama, The Chambers Brothers, Phil Collins, John Denver, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Alicia Keys, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Seal, Rod Stewart, and Joss Stone.


The most comprehensive retrospective of The Impressions’ output is the 20-track Ultimate Collection (2001 Hip-O). Besides 17 Mayfield-featured classics, it includes the Butler-led “For Your Precious Love” and the post-Mayfield hits “Finally Got Myself  Together (I’m A Changed Man)” and “Same Thing It Took.”


The Impressions can be seen performing—mostly via lip-syncing—10 songs from various 1960s television appearances in Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions (2008 Reelin’ in the Years Productions/Hip-O). Besides vintage interviews with Mayfield, the DVD includes freshly filmed interviews with his widow, Altheida Mayfield, along with Cash, Gooden, Johnny Pate, Chuck D and Carlos Santana. Andrew Young sums up the group’s contribution best in the DVD when he says, “You hear in Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions the spiritual power of a Martin Luther King.” 

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