By DJ Mo Wilks
Each week of Black Music Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul, profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into Curtis Mayfield’s incredible legacy.
Curtis Lee Mayfield was born June 3, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up listening to a variety of music; Curtis would later list artists such as blues legend Muddy Waters and gospel influencers within his family among his inspirations. When he discovered a guitar in his mother’s closet, Curtis started down the path to becoming a self-taught musician. He modeled his guitar style after the bluesy electric musicians who migrated to Chicago from the South.
In 1957, at 15 years old, he started working for the quartet The Impressions as both a vocalist and a guitarist. A year later, one of the group's cornerstones, Jerry Butler, left to embark on a solo career. The early 1960s would mark a groundbreaking period for soul music. During this time, it became infused with the socio-economic-political issues facing many in the African American community.
As The Impressions' lead vocalist and main songwriter, Mayfield brought soul to the party with his unique blend of a smooth falsetto powered by subtle sensuality. In 1961, the group recorded the romanticly smoldering ballad “Gypsy Woman.” The song became a Top 20 hit. In 1962, two additional members would leave the group—with Fred Cash, Sam Gooden, and a 20-year-old Curtis remaining.
INSPIRING SONGS IN DISGUISE
Mayfield and The Impressions' brand of soul was remarkably different from their soul/pop contemporaries at Motown. Whether it was 1963's self-affirming "It's All Right,” or the inspirational and empowering "Keep On Pushin,” from 1964, The Impressions exuded strength and empowerment to working-class African Americans during the tumultuous Civil Rights period. With their hit “People Get Ready” (1965), they blended gospel, blues, and an ounce of hope to suggest a brighter future. With lyrics like "You don't need no ticket, thank the Lord," this song was a great motivator for the individuals engaged in the Civil Rights Movement.
SOUNDTRACK OF 1970S SOUL
The late 1960s was pop music’s psychedelic period. A tight musical unit, The Impressions continued producing thought-provoking hits such as “You Got Me Runnin'” in 1967. Mayfield was a master storyteller who used vivid lyrics to tap into messages of Black pride, Black struggle, and bottomless Black resilience in overcoming obstacles. According to music charts, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions had 14 Top 40 hits in the 1960s. Five of these songs made the Top 20 in 1964.
STARTING A RECORD LABEL
The Impressions found success on the ABC Records label but opted to branch out independently due to the growing civil unrest in the U.S. Mayfield and fellow Impressions co-founder Eddie Thomas formed the Curtom record label in 1968. Buddah Records distributed this newly-formed label. One of their first projects was 1968’s “This is My Country.” With an abundance of soulfully delivered, socially conscious lyrics, it preceded Marvin Gaye's ground-breaking album What's Going On! Curtom Records was active until the 1990s.
1969: A CLEAN BREAK
Mayfield’s recipe for songwriting that focused on romantic relationships, hope, and empowerment remained intact for the duration of his time with The Impressions. By the 1970s, the time had arrived for him to go solo.
SOLO SOUL FUNK WORK
The 1970s brought along with it bell bottoms, longer hair, and an authority-questioning aesthetic by African American citizens that was increasingly reflected in their music. Curtis released his self-titled debut album in 1970. One of the hits from that release was “(Don't Worry) If There's A Hell Below We're All Going To Go.” Later in 1971, Mayfield added ecological concerns to his trademark with the psychedelic funk song “Underground.” With increased notoriety, Curtis Mayfield’s music hit a bigger stage.
Mayfield produced the soundtrack to Super Fly—one of the most notable Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s. The 1972 flick dealt with the life of a street hustler who was stuck at a crossroads. The soundtrack to Super Fly was the perfect marriage of a cinematic story scored by an artist who had his eyes and ears to the gritty urban landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Notable songs included the title track, "Freddie's Dead," and “Little Child Runnin' Wild.” Mayfield's artistry was at the height of his superpowers. Somehow, his thin voice resting on the top of the rift had an almost angelic and preaching quality.
Curtis Mayfield continued producing popular film soundtracks, writing and producing for his Buddah Records labelmates Gladys Knight & the Pips. Curtis produced the Claudine Soundtrack and later Short Eyes, a film he also starred in. The Sparkle soundtrack, a hidden gem released in the ’70s, paired Curtis Mayfield’s music with the powerhouse vocals of Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin.
When the music scene shifted in the late 1970s, soul singers like Mayfield weren't in demand for music distribution or radio outlets. Also, they were definitely not on the minds of the young music-buying-and-dancing public. Curtis would still produce music toward the end of the decade, but it wouldn't match the commercial success of Superfly. Hits such as “So In Love” and “Only You Babe” were some of his last chart movers.
In 1990, tragedy struck Mayfield in the form of a paralyzing accident during a stage performance. Although his life was drastically cut short at 57, the main reason many of today's musicians have soul and connected consciousness can be directly tied to influences like Curtis Mayfield. And “because you got soul and everybody knows,” as the Mayfield song goes, “It’s alright!”
WHO INFLUENCED CURTIS MAYFIELD
- Muddy Waters
- Sam Cooke
- Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights Movement
- Andres Segovia
- James Brown
- Marvin Gaye
WHO CURTIS MAYFIELD INFLUENCED
- Isley Brothers
- Sly Stone
- Van Hunt
- Pharrell Williams
- Digable Planets
- Lauryn Hill
- Childish Gambino
- Public Enemy
- Kendrick Lamar
- Bob Marley
- J. Cole
- Chance the Rapper
- “Gypsy Woman”
- “Keep On Pushin”
- “This is My Country”
- “Seven Years”
- “My Deceiving Heart”
- “Freddie's Dead”
- “Super Fly”
You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more.
Interested in exploring the soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Or, take a deep dive into R&B, hip-hop, and the legendary voices of soul alongside new and pioneering MCs by streaming ERS+.