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  Curtis Mayfield 

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Curtis Mayfield's name is synonymous with soul.  Throught his achievements as architect of the Chicago sound, as well as his success as a solo artist, producer, and entrepreneur, there were no areas in which he did not make a major impact.  His strident compositions made him the voice of the civil rights movement, a soul equivalent of Bob Dylan as a chronicler of the changing times.

Mayfield's career began at a young age, forming the Impressions with church buddies Sam Gooden, Fred Cash, and Jerry Butler.  Success came to the young men quickly with "For Your Precious Love" in 1958.  Unfortunately, Vee Jay credited the song to the Impressions featuring Jerry Butler, quickly placing Butler into a lead role he did not want to accept.  However, the die already having been cast, he soon split amicably from the group and embarked on a very successful solo career with Mayfield writing much of his early material. 

With Butler's departure, Mayfield, who had been content to remain in the background, became the focal point of the Impressions.  They garnered the first of many top 40 pop singles with 1961's "Gypsy Woman," an early example of Mayfield's talents as a composer of love songs. 

Still steeped in their gospel background, many Impressions songs were what can be termed secular gospel, with call-and-response vocals and themes of empowerment, perseverance and love.  Their definitive tunes of the era were "People Get Ready" and "Keep On Pushin'."  Released in the aftermath of the March On Washington, "People Get Ready" was one of the first songs to explicitly mirror the moods of the black community as the struggle for civil rights gained momentum.

Indeed, Mayfield, along with Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," was one of the first soul artists to be outspoken about the concerns and issues of the community, predating James Brown's commentary by several years.  From this perspective, the Impressions were as important as Brown, Stax, or Motown.

In addition to his work with the Impressions, Mayfield also wrote and produced for a number of artists, including Major Lance, Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, and Billy Butler.  His distinctive use of Latin rhythms, horns and spritely melodies came to be known as the Chicago Sound, most closely associated with Okeh Records, who employed Mayfield as a house producer.

Around this time, he also ventured into ownership, an area virtually unheard of for soul artists, establishing a series of labels such has Mayfield and Windy C.  The Five Stairsteps were among the many artists he helped introduce to the public. 

More importantly, in the early 1960s he formed his own publishing company, Curtom, which was also the name of a label he formed in 1968.  At the time, only Sam Cooke had attempted to control his work in this manner, making him a business pioneer on the level of Berry Gordy in addition to his performance and writing genius. 

As the tenor of the times grew darker, so did his work, and he produced some of his greatest anthems during the 1967-69 period.  "We're A Winner," "Choice Of Colors," and "Check Out Your Mind" were alternately uplifting and confrontational, asking pointed questions about identity and self-knowledge. Albums such as The Young Mod's Forgotten Story and This Is My Country reflected a growing interest in making album-length statements.

In 1970, Mayfield officially left the Impressions, selecting Leroy Hutson as his replacement.  Freed from the conventions of a group dynamic, Mayfield took his musical activism to another level, unleashing the hard-hitting funk of "If There's A Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go" as his first single.  This kind of potency and fury had rarely been expressed so boldly in soul music, yet this was only the beginning of his peak period. 

Using a more biting guitar style than previously displayed and making prominent use of Henry Gibson's impeccible conga playing, Mayfied made a seemless transition into funk.   His albums became a blend of furious funk and his trademark love songs, making him one of the first album-oriented soul artists alongside Isaac Hayes and Sly and the Family Stone.

Following a well-received intimate live album and Roots, he recorded his acknowledged masterpiece, Superfly.  The soundtrack to a controversial film about a well-meaning dope dealer, Mayfield undercut the movie's de facto celebration of cocaine with track after track of blistering critiques of drug culture. "Freddie's Dead," "Little Child Running Wild" and "Superfly" captured the essence of the movie even for those who hadn't seen it and helped to usher in the socially conscious soul era. 

While Superfly represented his commercial zenith, Mayfield continued to record masterful albums with a message.  There's No Place Like America Today, with its classic cover illustration of the divergent paths of black and white America, and Back To The World, which addressed Vietnam veterans, remain essential listening.

As the decade progressed, Mayfield became deeply involved with soundtracks, at one point seeming to be as popular a choice among Hollywood as Quincy Jones. Some of his strongest mid-70s work was performed by Gladys Knight (Claudine), the Staples Singers (Let's Do It Again) and Aretha Franklin (Sparkle).  He also wrote the music for the prison drama Short Eyes.  

Like many classic soul artists, Mayfield struggled to keep pace with disco's influence, and his sales tailed off toward the end of the decade.  Curtom was officially closed in 1980, and he moved to Neil Bogart's Boardwalk label for his early 80s releases.  He would  reopen Curtom Records by the end of the decade.

On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed as the result of a stage accident.  He managed to record one album, New World Order, before dying on December 26, 1999.  He is a member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame as a member of the Impressions and a solo artist, and 2000 inductee into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame.
Curtis Mayfield's Deepest Grooves

Curtis (Curtom, 1970)
Curtis Live (Curtom, 1971)

Roots (Curtom, 1971)

Superfly (Curtom, 1972)

Back To The World (Curtom, 1973)

Sweet Exorcist (Curtom, 1974)

Got to Find a Way(Curtom, 1974)

There's No Place Like America Today (Curtom, 1975)

Give Get Take And Have (Curtom, 1976)

Never Say You Can't Survive (Curtom, 1977)

Short Eyes (Curtom, 1977)

Do It All Night (Curtom, 1978)

Heartbeat (Curtom, 1979)

Something To Believe In (Curtom, 1979)

The Right Combination (Curtom, 1980)
Duet album with Linda Clifford is one of the label's last releases.

Honesty (Boardwalk, 1982)

Love Is the Place(Boardwalk, 1983)

We Come In Peace With A Mesage Of Love (CRC, 1985)

Live In Europe (Curtom, 1988)

Take It To The Streets (Curtom, 1990)

The Anthology 1961-1977 (Rhino, 1992)
The first collection to bring together his Impressions classics with solo hits.

New World Order (Warner Brothers, 1996)


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