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Marquee Names: The Soul of Curtis Mayfield

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In the discussion of music, numerous names are tossed around. Sure, there are many recording artists who are worthy of some level of research. But then there are those names that are worthy of intense MusicStudy. These are the Marquee Names

Curtis Mayfield helped reshaped the direction of soul music in America and brought forth one of the most celebrated music catalogs in popular music. His gentle musicality, contrasting style, and powerful lyricism made him one of the most influential recording artists of the second half of the twentieth century and one of beat diggin’s most celebrated gateway musicians.

It seems strange to think of Curtis Mayfield as “underrated” but the measure of his legacy is often reduced to just the Super Fly soundtrack and a few hits with The Impressions. No one’s expected to have his entire catalog memorized, but his import and influence extended far beyond a handful of chart-toppers. Remember that Mayfield’s contemporaries weren’t simply other individual talents such as Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson but arguably, entire labels like Motown or Stax. However, whereas the latter had assembly lines of songwriters, singers, musicians and producers at their disposal, Mayfield often carried out all of those duties on his own; and in the process, he helped reshape the direction of soul music in America.

The Impressions

It’s a marvel to realize that Mayfield was only a high school teenager when he was forced to take over The Impressions after original lead singer Jerry Butler left to go solo in 1958. It wouldn’t be until 1961 that he was able to revive the group’s fortunes with the hit “Gypsy Woman” and by then, Mayfield wasn’t simply writing for The Impressions but he was working with artists like Gene Chandler, Billy Butler and Major Lance at key Chicago labels like ABC-Paramount, Vee Jay, and OKeh. Paired alongside arranger Johnny Pate and producer Carl Davis, Mayfield and company shaped a distinct Chicago soul sound built around the gentle musicality of Mayfield’s guitar work alongside stirring brass and string arrangements cooked up by Pate and Davis.

The Impressions – “Gypsy Woman”

It was a style that managed to be simultaneously laid back yet lively, a particular talent that Mayfield would exemplify throughout the years (think, for example, of the groove he lays down on “Super Fly,” which is uptempo and funky yet feels more languid compared to James Brown’s frenetic dance tracks). That influence can be heard on everything from Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing,” to the early recordings of Bob Marley and the Wailers, all of whom worshipped Mayfield and The Impressions.

No less important were the gospel-inspired vocals that The Impressions’ Fred Cash, Sam Gooden and Mayfield were learning to play with by trading lead vocals with one another when they weren’t cross harmonizing on backup. Not only did this allow each of them to showcase their voices, but their doo-wop harmonies were so in lock with one another that the group could effortlessly produce these moments of transcendent, polyphonic magic.

Civil Rights Anthems

This may be a stretch but I imagine that this is partly why the group’s civil rights anthems — which marked Mayfield’s second era — were so powerful. The movement itself was premised around the idea of many voices united as one and here were the Impressions turning that into literal sound via songs like “Keep On Pushing” and “People Get Ready.” Everything for the group came together on the two albums that they recorded in 1968 for Mayfield’s new label, Curtom: This Is My Country and Young Mods’ Forgotten Story. What began as more coded civil rights anthems (“We’re a Winner”) now took on explicit overtones via songs like “Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey),” “They Don’t Know and “Choice of Colors. Equally important was how these two albums not only invited Pate to help arrange but also a then-newcomer, Donny Hathaway, who got his first break writing and arranging for Curtom. As far as The Impressions are concerned, the group never sounded better than on those two albums.

The 1970s: License to Create

But alas, in an era of change, that also applied to Mayfield, the third act of his musical career began in 1970 when he left The Impressions and began a solo career. Part of his motivations were supposedly driven by a need for creative freedom that was too constrained when he had to worry about writing for The Impressions. On his own, with only his voice to think about, Mayfield turned to even more socially-inspired fare over the course of the early 1970s; whether we’re talking about here, songs like “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue,” “We Got To Have Peace, and “Pusherman come to mind.

Musically, Mayfield opened things up as well. Whereas most of his Impressions’ songs had always adhered to a radio friendly “3 minutes or less” formula, once he embarked on his solo recordings, he’d give himself license to create something like the nearly nine-minute “Move On Up,” which features a long, proto-disco percussion breakdown in the middle. Yet, even as he was exploring and incorporating funk styles into his songs, Mayfield maintained that sense of intimacy that had long been part of his appeal. His expanding use of falsetto connoted a constant sense of fragility that contested with the larger-than-life presence that such peers as Isaac Hayes or George Clinton embodied.

While Super Flymarked a commercial high point, you’d be foolish to ignore the output that followed, including 1973’s Back to the World, which features the irresistibly funky “Future Shock,” or 1975’s (There’s No Place Like) America Today, which boasts the arguably last, undisputed classic of his career, the dulcet ballad “So In Love.” However, like most of his peers, Mayfield’s attempts to ride the disco wave were ill-advised and, as talented as he was, like most ‘60s and ‘70s R&B stars, he couldn’t find footing in the 1980s as the ascendance of hip hop shifted the aesthetic center of black pop music. To make matters worse, a freak stage accident paralyzed him from the neck down in 1990. Though he was able to muster enough energy to release one last album in 1996 (New World Order), his health went into a long-term tailspin that only ended with his death in 1999.

As I suggested at the beginning, trying to situate Mayfield within the pantheon of American musical giants is tricky because he did so much, for so long, it’s hard to even imagine who you could properly compare him to. He was one of soul music’s most sui generis talents, seemingly possessed of a limitless well of both ideas and energy that powered a career so staggering in scope that even 20 years after his death, we’re still trying to plumb its depths.

The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship

Curtis Mayfield – “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue

Curtis Mayfield – ”We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue (Live)

The Impressions – “We’re A Winner”

The Impression — “Choice of Colors”

”The Impressions – “Keep On Pushing”

The Impressions – “People Get Ready”

Curtis Mayfield – “The Makings of You”

Gladys Knight & The Pips – “The Makings Of You” (written and produced by Curtis Mayfield)

Articles, Curtis Mayfield, Editor's Choice, Marquee Names

About Author

Oliver Wang is a music writer, scholar, and DJ who created Soul-Sides.com. Since 1994, he's written on popular music, culture, race, and America for outlets such as NPR, Vibe, Wax Poetics, Scratch, The Village Voice, SF Bay Guardian, and LA Weekly. Wang is also an associate professor in sociology at CSU-Long Beach and author of the book, "Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews of the SF Bay Area."