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The Life of Curtis Mayfield
by: Baheejah Crumbley

Methodology

This research was conducted by finding and reviewing scholarly articles that are listed in the bibliography section below. These articles described the details of Curtis Mayfield’s life including his personal and professional life as well as the influence he has had on others. I included quotes from artists and writers of popular sources like the NYTimes to capture the way in which Mayfield was viewed in the eyes of others. However, I also included quotes from Mayfield himself to provide a personal touch to this biography.

Introduction & Thesis

Curtis Mayfield was an artist, producer, composer and label owner who greatly influenced several genres including soul and gospel. He was a renowned writer of musical hits for Chicago’s Okeh Records and an esteemed colleague to many heavy hitters in the music business. He had the perseverance to continue following his passion for music even after the tragic accident which resulted in his paralysis. Mayfield will continue to be remembered for his contributions to the world of music, his awards as well as for his generous contribution to Curtis Mayfield Research Fund at Miami Project to Cure Paralysis.

General Background

Curtis Lee Mayfield was an artist, producer, composer, label owner and served as a symbol for Black Pride and Black Capitalism within the music industry (M. M. Writers). Born June 3, 1942 in Chicago Illinois and passed in Roswell, Georgia on December 26, 1999 (Editors). Musical career began at the young age of seven when he began singing. All before he was a teenager he taught himself to play guitar, led his own gospel and soul group, the Alphatones, and began composing and writing lyrics (Editors). In 1956, he met singer Jerry Butler while performing in a church choir in 1956 and they went on to form the Impressions, a rhythm and blues vocal group, in 1957 (R. Writers). Mayfield embarked on a solo career in 1970 with his most memorable project credited as the classical 1972 soundtrack to Superfly (Editors). In 1990, he was paralyzed during a stage accident in Brooklyn, New York. However, he continued to record until his death (Editors).

Early Life and The Impressions

Having begun his musical career before he hit a double-digit age, Mayfield has a very impression track record as an early musical influencer. In addition to teaching himself the guitar at age eight, he began to tour with the Chicago gospel outfit, the Northern Jubilee Singers (Wang). He and a motley crew drawn from different doo-wop groups formed the Impressions, who earned a Top 10 single in 1958 for their song “For Your Precious Love” (Wang). At barely 16, Mayfield became the band’s de facto head after then-lead singer Jerry Butler left to go solo (Wang). By 1961 Mayfield had saved enough money to regroup and take the Impressions to New York to arrange a recording session. In July of 1961 they recorded gold-selling “Gypsy Woman” for ABC-Paramount (E. Writers). Mayfield was only 18 when the group signed with ABC-Paramount, and it was the beginning of Mayfield’s seven-year string of composing popular R&B hits (E. Writers).

The Impressions had some difficulty during its beginning before Mayfield wrote their gold-selling “Gypsy Woman” in 1961 (Wang). Chicago’s OKeh Records offered him a gig as a staff songwriter and Curtis quickly turned into one-man hit machine, writing and/or producing a parade of chart-toppers for the likes of Major Lance (“The Monkey Time”), Gene Chandler (“Nothing Can Stop Me”), Billy Butler (“I Can’t Work No Longer”), and others (Wang). Mayfield’s name was not featured on these songs, but they were indistinguishable from his other works. He was so talented that he alone was OKeh Record’s writing factory versus record labels like Motown who had a factory of number writers (Wang).

In 1963 the group recorded “It’s All Right,” which Robert Pruter of Chicago Soul termed “the first single to define the classic style of the 1960s Impressions” (E. Writers). “It’s All Right” was a crossover hit that featured “the lead switching off from among the three and the two others singing in harmony with the lead” quotes Pruter. It went to number four on the pop charts and Number One on the rhythm and blues charts in the fall of 1963 (E. Writers). “It’s All Right” was viewed as a fresh and new sound in rhythm and blues, which critics have noted, came from Mayfield’s gospel singing experience. The Impressions success from 1964-1970, when Mayfield left the group (E. Writers).

Solo Career

Mayfield announced his departure from the Impressions in Augusts of 1970, and he began his solo career in 1971 (E. Writers). During his solo career, he was viewed as a contemporary preacher through music and offered perspectives of the American scene and oppressed people. A New York Times music critic said of his first solo album, Curtis: “Mayfield himself continues to be a kind of contemporary preacher-through-music. He sings in a breathlessly high, pure voice, breaking his phrases into speech-like patterns, his rhythms pushed by the urgency of his thought… He is not a lyrical singer, and his message seems as important to him as his melody” (E. Writers). The 1972 movie, Superfly, launch Mayfield’s successful career writing soundtracks for films. According to a New York Times review, “Mayfield’s music is more specifically anti-drugs than the philosophical content of the movie, and it is also considerably more stylish in design and execution.” Two top-ten hit singles resulted from the soundtrack: “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly. (E. Writers)

Throughout the 1970s, Mayfield solidified his solo artist career as well as reputation and continued to write soundtracks for films (E. Writers). Juxtoposing Mayfield’s solo career with his time with the Impressions critics wrote, “Mayfield’s solo career featured harder sounding songs than he wrote for the Impressions, with didactic lyrics and social commentary. In spite of adverse criticism, Pruter assessed Mayfield’s 1970s output positively, writing, ‘some of the very best black popular music of the 1970s came from Mayfield, who despite the many misses during the decade was one of the creative leaders in establishing a new contemporary style of rhythm and blues, one with a militant, harder edge’” (E. Writers). Mayfield has a particular influence on a new generation of listeners. His anti-drug messages fit well and were often used by young black filmmakers (E. Writers). Popular rap singer and actor Ice-T, who sang on “Superfly 1990” with Mayfield, said in tribute to the artist, “There’s only been a couple of people I’ve met [in the music business] that to me are really heavy. Curtis is one of them” (E. Writers).

Original members of the Impressions, came back together for a reunion tour in 1983. Played 1960’s Impressions hit songs and Butler and Mayfield solo hits. As reviewed by Robert Palmer in the New York Times, the performances “amounted to a capsule history of recent black popular music, from the slick doo-wop and grittier gospel-based vocal group styles of the 1950s to Mr. Butler’s urbane pop-soul, Curtis Mayfield’s soul message songs and later funk, and the styles the Impressions have tackled as a group”. Palmer continued: “The Impressions were one of the two top rhythm-and-blues vocal groups of the 1960s; the other was the Temptations. Both were rooted in the rich traditions of black gospel music” (E. Writers).

The Happenings in the Year 1990 and Beyond​

Mayfield enjoyed an outstanding comeback year of his musical career in 1990. The Impressions were nominated for a place in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Santana recorded a successful cover version of their 1961 hit song, “Gypsy Woman”. Additionally, he released his first album after more than five years titled Take It to the Street, and promoted it on tour in the United States, Europe and Japan. Capitol Records was even set to release a rap sample featuring four songs written and performed by Mayfield in the soundtrack The Return of Superfly (E. Writers). Then suddenly in August of 1990 when Mayfield was preparing for a concert in Brooklyn, he was involved in an accident where a light tower stuck him in the head while he was plugging in his guitar. The tragedy resulted in three broken vertebrae and Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down. He kept his spirits up, participated in physical therapy and made his first public appearance in February of 1991 in Florida. He had donated $100,000 to start the Curtis Mayfield Research Fund at Miami Project to Cure Paralysis (E. Writers).

Despite the accident, the memory of Curtis Mayfield continued with the help of many, including Mayfield himself. Various artists including, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King, Lenny Kravitz, the Isley Brothers, and Bruce Springsteen, got together to put out a tribute album in honor of the great Curtis Mayfield. (E. Writers) Mayfield even got back in the studio to record, “All Men Are Brothers”, for the tribute album. He told Guitar Player magazine that the album meant a lot to him. “I was just overwhelmed. It brought tears to my eyes. As they would record them, they would send me copies of each. I’d play them over and over, and there wasn’t a song I didn’t like. It just goes to show you that no matter how bad things might get, there’s always room for something good to happen” (E. Writers).

In 1996, Rhino Records released a three CD boxed set of Mayfield’s music during his solo career as well as his recordings with the Impressions. Following that, in 1997, Mayfield released the new album New World Order (E. Writers). Speaking on his music writing since the accident, Mayfield told People Weekly, “It’s difficult simply because when an idea hits me, I can’t just up and grab a guitar or recorder or a pencil and write it down.… But I’m happy to know I can still lock in lyrics, and I have enough voice and strength in my lungs to sing a song.” (E. Writers). Mayfield was inducted into the Rock &Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 for his solo recordings. The following year, Mayfield died in Atlanta, Georgia of natural causes. Even after his passing though, Mayfield’s music and career continue to influence many. He was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and a two hour musical celebration was held to commemorate his life and career at the First AME Church in Los Angeles. As Eric Clapton told Guitar Player magazine, “Curtis changed the course of modern music, bringing refinement, cool, and social comment to R&B and leading the way for songwriters, players, and singers in all fields of music. He [was] a great talent and inspiration to us all” (E. Writers).

Presentation Powerpoint

Discography

New World Order
1996
Back to the World
1973
There's No Place Like America Today
1975
Curtis
1970

Bibliography

Chick, Steve. Curis Mayfield – 10 of the best. 5 August 2015. Guardian News and Media Limited. 2 November 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2015/aug/05/curtis-mayfield-10-best-soul-funk>.

Editors, Biography.com. The Biography.com website. n.d. A&E Television Networks. 1 November 2017. <https://www.biography.com/people/curtis-mayfield-9542244>.

Oldfield, Mike and Dave Laing. Curtis Mayfield Obituary. 27 December 1999. 2 November 2017. <https://www.theguardian.com/news/1999/dec/28/guardianobituaries>.

Unterberger, Richie. Curtis Mayfield. n.d. RhythmOne. 2 November 2017. <https://www.allmusic.com/artist/curtis-mayfield-mn0000144458/discography>.

Wang, Oliver. Curtis Mayfield Finally Gets a Definitive Biography. What Took So Long? 25 October 2016. 3 November 2017. <https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/1338-curtis-mayfield-finally-gets-a-definitive-biography-what-took-so-long/>.

Writers, Encyclopedia.com. Curtis Mayfield 1942- 1999. n.d. 2 November 2017. <http://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/music-popular-and-jazz-biographies/curtis-mayfield>.

Writers, Mayfield Media. Curtis Mayfield. n.d. Curtis Mayfield Estate. 1 November 2017. <http://www.curtismayfield.com/biography.html>.

Writers, RollingStone. Curtis Mayfield. 2001. Rolling Stone. 2 November 2017. <http://www.rollingstone.com/music/artists/curtis-mayfield/biography>.

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