Happy Birthday: Curtis Mayfield

Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Happy Birthday: Curtis Mayfield

Today would have been Curtis Mayfield’s 73rd birthday, but as we say so often in regards to far too many artists on Rhino’s roster – the fact that he’s not here to celebrate it with us doesn’t mean it’s not still worth celebrating. Truly, today is a day to get both funky and political, a combination which Mayfield managed to deliver on a regular basis, as any trawl through his back catalog will readily reveal.

Born in Chicago in 1942, Curtis Lee Mayfield learned to play piano from his mother, who supported and encouraged his enjoyment of gospel music to the point that he was a part of the North Jubilee Gospel Singers while he was still in single digits. After entering his teens, he started his own group – The Alphatones – but soon opted instead to join The Roosters, a group which also featured Jerry Butler and siblings Arthur and Richard Brooks. By the time Mayfield entered his twenties, The Roosters had changed their name to one which will likely ring more of a bell: The Impressions.

As music history reveals, Mayfield found considerable success with The Impressions, but he also forged a career as a songwriter and producer for other artists. As such, it came as no surprise to anyone when, in 1970, he opted to spread his wings and kick off a solo career with the release of his debut album, Curtis. To say that he found success on his own would be an understatement – all you need to do is say Superfly to recall at least one significant highlight – but Mayfield was also highly prolific: between 1970 and 1985, he never went more than two years without releasing a new full-length studio effort, resulting in 15 solo albums and two collaborations (1976’s Sparkle with Aretha Franklin and 1980’s The Right Combination with Linda Clifford).

After a five-year silence, Mayfield returned in 1990 with Take It to the Streets, but it would prove to be his penultimate album, due to a crippling onstage accident which left him paralyzed. In 1997, however, he joined forces with a number of friends and fellow musicians to produce one more album, the critically acclaimed New World Order. It was a strong effort, but it was to be his last: in 1999, Mayfield died from complications of diabetes.

We’ve put together a playlist featuring the various singles Mayfield released during the course of his solo career, but we’ve thrown in a few covers of his songs as well, starting off with Vanilla Fudge’s unique take on “People Get Ready” and closing with Rod Stewart’s more traditional take on the same track. Mr. Mayfield had a lot of fans across a lot of musical genres, and as you give them a spin, these tunes will help show you why.