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Artist: Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield

Bio

Curtis Mayfield (June 3, 1942 – December 26, 1999) was an American soul, funk and rhythm and blues, singer-songwriter and guitarist from Chicago, Illinois. Mayfield is probably best known for his anthemic music with The Impressions and for the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Superfly. Perhaps because he didn't cross over to the pop audience as heavily as Motown's stars, it may be that the scope of Curtis Mayfield's talents and contributions have yet to be fully recognized. Judged merely by his records alone, the man's legacy is enormous. As the leader of the Impressions, he recorded some of the finest soul vocal group music of the 1960s. As a solo artist in the 1970s, he helped pioneer funk and helped introduce hard-hitting urban commentary into soul music. "Gypsy Woman," "It's All Right," "People Get Ready," "Freddie's Dead," and "Superfly" are merely the most famous of his many hit records. But Curtis Mayfield wasn't just a singer. Born in in Chicago, IL, he wrote most of his material at a time when that was not the norm for soul performers. He was among the first -- if not the very first -- to speak openly about African-American pride and community struggle in his compositions. As a songwriter and a producer, he was a key architect of Chicago Soul, penning material and working on sessions by notable Windy City soulsters like Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, Major Lance, and Billy Butler. In this sense, he can be compared to Smokey Robinson, who also managed to find time to write and produce many classics for other soul stars. Mayfield was also an excellent guitarist, and his rolling, Latin-influenced lines were highlights of the Impressions' recordings in the '60s. During the next decade, he would toughen up his guitar work and production, incorporating some of the best features of psychedelic rock and funk. Mayfield began his career as an associate of Jerry Butler, with whom he formed the Impressions in the late '50s. After the Impressions had a big hit in 1958 with "For Your Precious Love," Butler, who had sung lead on the record, split to start a solo career. Mayfield, while keeping the Impressions together, continued to write for and tour with Butler before the Impressions got their first Top 20 hit in 1961, "Gypsy Woman." Mayfield was heavily steeped in gospel mu
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Curtis Mayfield: People Get Ready! Mojo, Mar 1996

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THE LAST FIVE YEARS HAVE SEEN THE BOX-setting of James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bob Marley and a fair few other giants of black American music.

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Perhaps because he was never as easy to pin down, the compilers have until now opted to skirt around the genius of Curtis Mayfield. The simple fact remains that he is one of the few genuine innovators of modern soul music: as one of the most obvious bridges between R&B and funk; as a writer who brought a new dimension to the ghetto love song; and as someone who was down with the cause from the dawn of civil rights. In terms of sheer impact across a 20-year period, there aren't many who can stand next to him.

Happily, People Get Ready! turns out to be one of the smartest box sets ever put together. And not just because it's got the words "Curtis" and "Mayfield" on the outside either, but because it limits itself to a mere three CDs. Which might sound a trifle tightfisted, given that we're dealing with a back catalogue of some 30-odd albums. But what it does is take you from The Impressions in 1961 to Take It To The Streets, released just before Curtis Mayfield's tragic accident 29 years later; by way of the songs that represent the man at his absolute best: the ones which painstakingly build layer upon layer of deceptively sumptuous strings, bubbling percussion, chopping guitar and sweeping brass, topped off with a unique falsetto voice that could come over with equal facility as happy; tearful, urgent, laid-back, celebratory or condemning.

The point is this: while you won't get any argument from me that Mayfield is one of the foremost poets of the 20th century; or that his lush, layered productions revolutionised the sound of black funk, it's undeniable that he also cut quite a few wrong 'u ns along the way Notably in the late '70s/early '80s, when soul was having a little identity crisis and he opted for disco. Remember Love is The Place? You do? Then you’re probably one of the five other people who bought it.

The sheer joy of People Get Ready! is that it can extract the one track from Love Is The Place which provides a musical flavour of the time while still sounding as much like a Curtis song as, say, ‘Move On Up’ – namely, ‘She Don't Let Nobody (But Me)’. Likewise the dreamy hustle-style ‘You Are You Are’ from ‘Do It All Night’ or the crisp two-step ‘Tripping Out’ from Something To Believe. And these messages are as crucial to the set as the Impressions' doo-wop, swinging gospel and deep roots R&B, or the fiery funk of the early '70s. For tempting as it might be to cram the discs with the infinitely more credible – and commercial – aspects of Curtis, many of these later songs meant a great deal in certain circles as they kept clubland's soundtrack from going completely ‘Boogie Oogie Oogie’. So while ‘Party Night’ may appear to have kept ‘Right On For The Darkness’ out of the running, it serves to present us with a fully-rounded picture of one of the few individuals who has genuinely contributed to a number of different black music genres.

Of course, the major bonus of a shorter tracklisting is that it allows for fuller versions – no radio edits or brutally truncated versions allowed here. When a tune requires six minutes or more to make proper sense – as in the case of ‘Billy Jack’, ‘Get Down’ or ‘Move On Up’ – then People Get Ready! will let it flow. Which is what the whole set does with a particular sense of purpose – the join from one stage of Mayfield's career to the next is all but seamless. First it flows around a snapshot of the Impressions; then it eases through the revolutionary material of the early '70s, oozes round the weirdness of Sweet Exorcist and the skewed logic of There's No Place Like America Today and into the disco period, picking numbers that bring a dignity to the notion of the flared suit. The set even goes as far as to include a cut from Short Eyes, the soundtrack from a movie about a child molester in prison that disappeared almost immediately after its 1977 US-only release.

Indeed, the only hiccough comes when Curtis as a solo artist takes over from The Impressions. The first track we get is ‘The Makings Of You’, with ‘(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below, We're All Going To Go’ following on its heels. The latter track was the first track on side one of Curtis, his first solo album, and the idea was that he announced himself and his new career with the booming lines "Niggers... Whiteys... Jews... Don't worry... If there's hell below, we're all gonna go!" It's a pity the same powerful statement couldn't have been made at the corresponding point here.

Still, let's take a reality check. If I'm holding in my hand a lavishly-packaged CD set that contains both of those tracks, and 50 other carefully-selected Curtis goodies besides, what on earth have I got to bitch about?

Curtis Mayfield: Where He's Been And Where He's Going Let It Rock, Oct 1972

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AFTER SUCH COMMITTED, socially conscious compositions as 'This Is My Country', 'Mighty Mighty, Spade and Whitey' and 'Choice Of Colours' Curtis Mayfield believes the time has now come to return to basic, personal songs.

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"We've shouted the message from the roof-tops and if people haven't cottoned on to it by now then they never will," he says.

"It's like a paper that carries nothing but headlines: in the end they lose all effect. To carry on writing in that vein would be just like beating people's heads against a brick wall and in the end they resent it.

"No, it's now time to carry the message in a more personalised vein, that way people relate easier. General statements are all very well but fit the statement into a personal context which the listener can place himself into and you then have something with much more impact. That's the way I'm writing songs now."

Right from the early days of the Impressions it has been as a writer as much as a performer that Curtis has won acclaim till today, at 32, he is accepted as an elder statesman of soul music. And his appeal goes beyond that, for many would judge him in a rock context, particularly since he has gone solo with a backing band whose musical style is most aptly described as "black rock".

Today Curtis is still closely involved with the Impressions, both as their producer/arranger/writer and as boss of their recording company, Curtom Records: "Business demands made it impossible to continue touring with the group so I had to bow out and call in Leroy Hutson as a replacement but, in truth, I still feel like I'm part of the group. We spent a lot of years together and we are still very closely involved both as friends and in our music," he says.

Besides the Impressions, Curtis has produced many other Chicago artists, including Major Lance, Walter Jackson and Gene Chandler and has written hit songs for many others including Jerry Butler.

Jerry was an original member of the Impressions, along with Curtis: "We started out as the Roosters with Richard and Arthur Brooks, Sam Gooden, Jerry and myself, then the Brooks left and we became the Impressions and started recording for Vee-Jay Records.

"Fred Cash, an old friend of Sam's from his days in Chatanooga, came in to replace Jerry Butler when he went solo following the success of 'For Your Precious Love'."

After that, the Impressions – Curtis, Sam and Fred – settled down to a long string of hits but only after a spell of hard-times when, lacking the drawing power of Jerry Butler, they found little work. In fact, Curtis was actually filling in time working as guitarist in Jerry's back-up band when the group's first record for ABC came out. That one was 'Gypsy Woman', an immediate success swiftly followed by such classics as 'People Get Ready', 'Amen', 'Keep On Pushing' and 'It's Alright'.

Then came the switch to Curtom Records (issued on Buddah here), the message songs and eventually Mayfield's split to go solo.

Recently he completed the score for Superfly, a film in the Shaft mould.

"It's been received well. It's about the fast-living world of the ghetto. The hippest clothes, flashiest car, beautiful chicks, roll of banknotes – that's what it is to be superfly.

"The story-line breaks down the Ghetto situation, the drugs, the crime. It's based around two black cats who try to make it work for them. They sell cocaine and hustle their way through life. They are looked on as princes of the ghetto because they live off it.

"But they are as trapped as anyone else in the ghetto. It's got them hooked. They feel they can't make it without money, that they've got to keep on keeping on. But, more than that, they can't break out of it because they would then become a danger to the whole hierarchy of the ghetto's underworld, they'd have to be rubbed off the face of the earth.

"Everybody ends up by being used. Those at the bottom of the pyramid are scared of those above and those above know that if they put one foot wrong those below will jump over them and they'll be dead.

"The script is really brilliant because it exposes what I know to go down, you see, I know people who live just like this.

"There's a song called 'The Pusher' which shows that he is almost as much a victim as the addicts he caters to because he too is hooked, not on dope but on a destructive yet self-perpetuating system from which there is no escape.

"We hope to make people see that this is not really where it should be at. We don't want to show people what is going on but give an effective message against it.

"Superfly is shooting for the Shaft kind of success with black audiences. In fact, the scriptwriter, A. Phillip Fenty is the son of the director or producer or somebody from Shaft. It's been made on a 400,000 dollars budget which may not sound a lot but Shaft was filmed for even less and today's call for realism and 'in the streets' settings obviates the need for expensive sets. These films today are shot out where it's really happening."

Besides Superfly, Curtis has also been working recently on a new group, Ruby Jones, as well as material for himself: "Yeah, leaving the Impressions didn't mean a cut in work-load after all. This life, this music business, is something you have to live with 24 hours a day. You even think on it when you are asleep!" The recorded output of Curtis Mayfield is contained in three recent solo albums and the 16 LP's he cut as a member of the Impressions. Since Leroy Hutson replaced Curtis in the group, the Imps have recorded one further album, Times Have Changed but Mayfield's influence remains very strong as he both produced it and composed six of its eight songs.

The first Impressions' LP was For Your Precious Love (Vee Jay VJLP 1075, deleted import), billed as being by "The Impressions with Jerry Butler". While it is Butler's lead vocals which dominate, Curtis Mayfield's writing talents are much in evidence – he wrote all six songs on the second side, two of those on the top-deck and co-wrote one more with Jerry. The album's title track, though, was written by Jerry Butler and Richard Brooks. It was that song which first brought the Impressions to national fame and encouraged Jerry to go solo.

With the demise of Vee-Jay, the Impressions signed to ABC Paramount, released here through EMI, who chose not to issue many of their finest recordings and ABC American LP's of the group are well worth searching out.

The first was It's All Right (ABC 450) which featured an extremely youthful Curtis, sans spectacles, on the sleeve picture. Among the 12 tracks were the group's big hits 'It's All Right' (not to be confused with J.J. Jackson's R & B chart-topper 'But It's All Right') and 'Gypsy Woman'.

For their second ABC set, the Impressions worked with arranger Johnny Pate on 11 Curtis songs plus 'Theme From Lilies Of The Field (Amen)' penned by Jerry Goldsmith. Best of the lot was the title track which still ranks among the best things they've ever cut.

With People Get Ready (ABC 505) the Impressions came up with what still ranks as their best ever, with not a single weak song among the 12 all-Mayfield songs on offer. One of them, 'Sometimes I Wonder', still deserves to be released as a single. It features a superb guitar break from Curtis and is one of his own favourite Impressions' tracks. 'We're In Love' is another which could still be a hit single as could 'You Must Believe In Me', which isn't bad going for an album which is nearly a decade old. The set also features 'People Get Ready' which has become a veritable soul anthem.

One By One (ABC 523) finds the group turning to the standards and employing a 30-piece, string-laden orchestra to back them. Alongside 'Twilight Time', 'I Wanna Be Around', 'It's Not Unusual', 'Without A Song', 'My Prayer' and 'Mona Lisa' there are just three Mayfield originals. Not the most satisfying of their albums for soul fans but classy nonetheless.

Ridin' High (ABC 545) went right back to the more familiar soul harmonies of the Imps with 'Let It Be Me' as the only non-Mayfield song among the 12 which include 'Ridin' High', 'Gotta Get Away' and 'That's What Mama Say'. Again produced by Johnny Pate and well up to par. Incidentally, the three groovy sports' cars on the sleve-pic (two Chevy Corvette Stingrays and an A.C. Cobra) really did belong to them: "We all used to drive our own cars to gigs but we'd drive in convoy and have a bit of a burn-up," Curtis remembers.

The Impressions Greatest Hits (ABC 515) included 'Amen', 'It's All Right', 'Keep On Pushing', 'I'm So Proud', 'Talking About My Baby', 'You Must Believe In Me' and 'Gypsy Woman'.

The earliest British album release for the group came with The Never Ending Impressions (HMV CLP 1743) in 1964, a set which featured the Duke Ellington opus 'Satin Doll' among eight Mayfield songs and three from other writers. Among the better cuts are 'I Gotta Keep On Movin'', 'I'm So Proud' and 'A Woman Who Loves Me'.

On The Fabulous Impressions (HMV CLP 3631), Curtis wrote everything bar '100 Pounds Of Clay'. Among his songs on this one are 'You Always Hurt Me', 'I Can't Stay Away From You' and 'I'm Still Waitin'', produced again by Johnny Pate.

The Impressions Big Sixteen (HMV CLP 1935), released in 1965, was a sort of "Best Of" collection, including 'Gypsy Woman', 'I'm So Proud', 'Keep On Pushing', 'It's All Right', 'People Get Ready', 'Woman's Got Soul', 'You Must Believe Me' and 'Amen'.

We're A Winner (Stateside SSL 10239) appeared in 1968 but it collated songs dating back over the previous two years as well as 'Let It Be Me' from 1966.

The Impressions Big Sixteen Vol 2 (Stateside SSL 10279) was just as good value as the first volume, offering 16 Mayfield songs, among them 'You've Been Cheatin'', 'I've Been Trying', 'Don't Cry My Love' (co-written with Oscar Brown) and 'Can't Satisfy'.

On This Is My Country (Buddah 203 012), Curtis got the complete creative freedom he had always craved. With their ABC contract terminated, the Impressions were now recording for Curtis's own Curtom label and this time he not only wrote all but one of the songs, he produced them too.

It was that album which first introduced the talent of Donny Hathaway. He co-wrote 'Gone Away' with Curtis, composed the one non-Mayfield song, 'You Want Somebody Else', and had a hand in the arranging.

This was still the smoother side of the Impressions, though message songs were creeping in with the title track. Then suddenly, with Check Out Your Mind (Buddah 2318 017) they got into a whole new scene with the 'head-song' title number, 'Baby Turn Me On' and others (all penned by Curtis), though there was a leavening of ballads.

The Young Mods Forgotten Story (Buddah 2359 003) was greeted as something of a masterpiece of progressive soul, re-introducing Johnny Pate as arranger in conjunction with Donny Hathaway, while Curtis did all the writing and production. 'Choice Of Colours' and 'Mighty Mighty (Spade And Whitey)' are certainly two of the finest ever anti-racialist songs.

For his last set with the Impressions, Amen (Buddah 2359 009), Curtis re-recorded several of their earlier hits like 'Gypsy Woman', 'Keep On Pushing and I've Been Trying'' on side one. Side two was devoted to five of the best songs they had cut since switching to Curtom – including 'Choice Of Colours', and 'This Is My Country'.

Curtis's first solo album, titled simply Curtis (Buddah 2318 015) was presented in a lavish double-fold sleeve and featured such respected musicians as Phil Upchurch and Gary Slabo on eight originals, including the six-minute long 'We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue' and a near eight-minute 'If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go'. There was also an extended version of his solo hit 'Move On Up'. The whole thing was very much into the progressive soul/rock bag with a heavy emphasis on percussive rhythm, a feature carried through into Roots (Buddah 2318 045) whose seven Mayfield songs were all extended work-outs, the shortest reaching nearly four minutes, the longest exceeding seven.

Featured among the back-up singers was Curtis's replacement in the Impressions, Leroy Hutson.

Those lucky enough to catch Curtis's live gigs here – particularly the club dates – will better appreciate the two-record set Curtis/Live! (2659 004), recorded at the Bitter End in New York City and employing, for the first time on record, Curtis's regular road band of Craig McMullen (guitar), Tyrone McCullen (drums), Joseph "Lucky" Scott (bass) and Henry Gibson (congas, bongos and tumbas).

Far and away the most satisfying of his solo sets, it includes 'Mighty Mighty, Spade And Whitey', 'People Get Ready', 'Check Out Your Mind', 'Gypsy Woman', 'We're A Winner' and 'If There's A Hell Below'.

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