Had it not been for a freak accident that shortened his life, Grammy Award winner and soul genius Curtis Mayfield would have been 80 years old this week. As a founder of the Chicago group, the Impressions he created a soft, melodic harmony that was in contrast to most pop, rock and soul sounds of the 1960’s. He co-wrote with Jerry Butler “He Will Break Your Heart.” sung by Butler, but accompanied by sophisticated harmony from the impressions and Mayfield’s tasteful guitar strumming.
Next came the classic “Gypsy Woman” again showcasing the delicate harmonies of Mayfield and the impressions with Mayfield singling lead after Butler had departed the group, again with a light touch on guitar in contrast to the heavy guitar pyrotechnics that were becoming the norm. The Impressions reached the height of their popularity in the mid-to-late-’60s with a string of Mayfield compositions that included “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready”, “It’s All Right” (Top 10), the up-tempo “Talking about My Baby”(Top 20) and “Woman’s Got Soul”.
That same jazzy soft sound was evident in material Mayfield wrote for other Chicago artists like Jan Bradley “Mama Didn’t Lie” and Major Lance who had a string of hits with the Mayfield sound.
As a songwriter, Mayfield became noted as one of the first musicians to bring more prevalent themes of social awareness into soul music. In 1965, he wrote “People Get Ready” for the Impressions, which was ranked at no. 24 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The song received numerous other awards, and was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, as well as being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
After leaving the Impressions in 1970 in the pursuit of a solo career, Mayfield released several albums, including the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Super Fly in 1972. The soundtrack was noted for its socially conscious themes, mostly addressing problems surrounding inner city minorities such as crime, poverty and drug abuse. The album was ranked at no. 72 on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Mayfield sang openly about civil rights and black pride, and was known for introducing social consciousness into African-American music. Having been raised in the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago, he witnessed many of the tragedies of the urban ghetto first hand, and was quoted saying “With everything I saw on the streets as a young black kid, it wasn’t hard during the later fifties and sixties for me to write my heartfelt way of how I visualized things, how I thought things ought to be.”
Following the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his group the Impressions produced music that became the soundtrack to a summer of revolution. It is even said that “Keep On Pushing” became the number one sing along during the Freedom Rides.] Black students sang their songs as they marched to jail or protested outside their universities, while Rev. Martin Luther King often used “Keep On Pushing”, “People Get Ready” and “We’re A Winner” because of their ability to motivate and inspire marchers. Mayfield had quickly become a civil rights hero with his ability to inspire hope and courage.
Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after lighting equipment fell on him during a live performance at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, on 13 August 1990. Despite this, he continued his career as a recording artist, releasing his final album New World Order in 1996. Mayfield won a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. He is a double inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a member of the Impressions in 1991, and again in 1999 as a solo artist. He was also a two-time Grammy Hall of Fame inductee. He died from complications of type 2 diabetes at the age of 57 on 26 December 1999. He lived long enough to see his son, also Curtis Mayfield, become a star player in the Canadian Football League, including four seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders