Soul Music’s Great Songwriter Was Social Critic, Ghetto-Life Scribe, Restrained Guitar Hero
Curtis Mayfield’s music and his delicate falsetto always had this cool feeling to it. It was emotional and streetwise, but he never sounded like he sweated. It had a gentlemanly sound that probably carried over from the inner sense of justice within the man.
By the late 1950s, Mayfield had already established his reputation as not only one of soul music’s greatest singer-songwriters, but one of rock’s greatest social critics.
Mayfield died Dec. 26 in a Roswell, Ga., hospital. He was 57.
Born in Chicago on June 3, 1942, Mayfield was surrounded by music, especially gospel music. It would leave a permanent mark on the man that he would carry with him throughout his career.
As he got into his teens, Mayfield’s interest in music took a more serious turn. After playing in several gospel groups, Mayfield joined the Roosters in 1957 as a guitarist. The Chicago-based quintet later changed its name to the Impressions. Eventually, Mayfield took over lead vocals for the group, as well as serving as its main writer and producer.
It was also during this time that Mayfield honed his unique guitar approach. His restrained playing was more rhythmic and soulful than flashy. The virtues of Mayfield’s playing would later be extolled by Jimi Hendrix, among others.
Eventually, the Impressions — trimmed down to a trio — hit their stride in the early to mid-’60s with a collection of acclaimed singles: “Gypsy Woman,” “I’m So Proud,” “It’s Alright,” “Keep On Pushing” and “People Get Ready.” Mayfield’s songs, which bordered on social commentary, would later be called the soundtrack to the civil rights movement.
The songs showcased Mayfield’s unique take on soul music. The songs were vocally based and were supported by Mayfield’s sputtering guitar playing. It was both his gospel influences, the biblical references and the understated music that gave the songs an aura of holiness and spirituality.
Perhaps feeling constrained by the group, Mayfield left the Impressions in 1970, but continued to write and produce for the group (he even chose his replacement).
If his work with the Impressions seemed puritanical in words and sound, Mayfield’s solo work was both sassier and more daring.
He immediately hit it big with singles like “Don’t Worry (If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go)”
and “Move On Up.”
His music was now more urgent. Filled with slithering basslines, wah-wah guitars and conga rhythms, his sound was funkier and more forceful. The only thing that remained the same was Mayfield’s ethereal voice, although he was now pushing it more than he ever had.
And though the lyrical theme was still racial and social unity, Mayfield was now shifting his lyrics toward stories of urban reality, as opposed to wrestling with slogans for large social movements.
Mayfield’s funkier sound would reach its pinnacle in 1972 when he recorded the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film “Superfly.”
The album produced a troika of classic songs: “Freddie’s Dead,” “Pusherman” and “Superfly.”
Though grittier and harsher, the songs’ stories of pimps, dope dealers and ghetto life were never glamorized.
“Pusherman” is the internal dialogue of an unrepentant drug dealer on a power trip. The song’s decending bass riff and drums are the spearhead, with Mayfield’s wah-wah guitar adding accompanying licks here and there.
At the opposite end, “Freddie’s Dead” is a funkified tale of street justice and what could happen to a dealer, with a chorus of flutes, strings and sleazy horns accentuating the melody.
As was pointed out in Keenen Ivory Wayans’ hilarious blaxploitation spoof “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” “Superfly” is a superhero?s theme music. The song’s horn blasts and frenzied guitar conjure the image of a thug’s perilous existence, while Mayfield sings, “The only game you know is do or die.”
But listening to the one line that Mayfield desperately repeats several times in the song — “trying to get over” ?- the song is as much about escape as it is about being the Man.
Throughout the remainder of ’70s and ’80s, Mayfield continued to release albums, most of which earned mixed reviews and a lackluster public response.
Tragedy struck in 1990, just as Mayfield was on the verge of a comeback. Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down when a lighting tower fell on him before a concert in New York. In the mid-’90s, complications from diabetes resulted in the amputation of one of his legs.
Though his health would never fully recover from the accident, Mayfield did record the much-lauded “New World Order” in 1996. The album was his 25th solo release and earned him a Grammy nomination.
In recent years, Mayfield was honored with a series of awards for his achievements. He became a Grammy Legend Award winner in 1994 and won the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. He was also inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame twice, once with the Impressions in 1991, and as a solo performer in 1999.
Recently, rumors said Mayfield was planning a duet with Eric Clapton, though that appears to have been only in the planning stages.
Despite his and the Impressions’ numerous hits and the many accolades that were bestowed upon him in later years, Mayfield never achieved the level of fame that some predicted he would.
His influence, however, is widespread, especially in the African-American community. Diverse artists like D’Angelo, Dr. Dre, Public Enemy and countless others would drop Mayfield’s name in interviews and/or grab samples from his records.
Mayfield’s influence even reached out to Jamaica, where a young Bob Marley helped form the Wailers as an Impressions-style singing group.
For More Info:
- Unofficial Curtis Mayfield page
- The Impressions at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame
- Curtis Mayfield at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame
Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.
©Copyright 1999 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.