Rhino Black History Month: Curtis Mayfield
He was a singer, multi-instrumentalist, and producer, he composed numerous hit singles and one of the funkiest soundtracks of the ‘70s, and he was as socially active as anyone in the music industry ever has been. If there’s anyone who deserves having won the Grammy Legend Award, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and two separate inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame (once with the Impressions, once on his own), it’s Curtis Mayfield.
Curtis Lee Mayfield was born in Chicago, Illinois on June 3, 1942. A self-taught guitarist, Mayfield dropped out of high school to become the lead singer and songwriter for the Impressions, and while we’d never actually recommend that anyone follow his lead and quit school early, you can’t say it didn’t pan out well for the man. While Mayfield worked alongside Jerry Butler in the early years of the Impressions’ career, Butler’s departure provided Mayfield with the opportunity to put his distinctive falsetto vocals at the forefront of the group’s sound. In addition, Mayfield’s songwriting took center stage as well, with the Impressions’ first post-Butler single, “Gypsy Woman,” earning them a #2 R&B single and a top-20 pop hit as well.
Mayfield composed numerous hits for the Impressions during his time with the group, including “It’s All Right,” “Keep On Pushing,” “We’re a Winner,” “Choice of Colors,” and their signature song, “People Get Ready,” while also providing Major Lance, Gene Chandler, and Billy Butler with top-10 R&B hits. His songs also served as anthems for the Civil Rights Movement, which raised his profile even further. After the Impressions’ 1970 album Check Out Your Mind, Mayfield opted to pursue a solo career, at which point he was able to make whatever political statements he wanted without fear of speaking for anyone else…and, boy, did he take advantage of the opportunity.
Clearly, people had been getting ready for Mayfield’s first solo album: 1970’s Curtis topped the R&B charts, as did his third album, 1973’s Back to the World. 1971’s Roots had only made it to #6, but when Mayfield took on the task of composing the soundtrack to the 1972 Superfly, it was a stone cold smash, immediately taking him straight back up to the top of the charts. As the ‘70s continued, his successes varied, but of the nine albums Mayfield released in the ‘70s, seven of them made it into the top 20, which is a strong track record by anyone’s standards.
Although still actively recording throughout the ‘80s, Mayfield’s chart successes became fewer and farther between, earning his last top-20 R&B single in 1981 with “She Don’t Let Nobody (But Me),” and he suffered a tremendous blow in 1990 when he was paralyzed from the neck down after being struck by falling lighting equipment during a concert in Brooklyn. In 1997, however, Mayfield staged a comeback with a new album, New World Order. Alas, it would prove to be his final full-length release – Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 of complications from diabetes – but with his work regularly turning up in All-Time-Best lists, his place in music history is permanently secured.
To celebrate Curtis Mayfield’s legacy, we’ve put together a playlist which features some of his best work with the Impressions and on his own. Listen, learn, and enjoy.