Obituary: Curtis Mayfield

WHEN CURTIS Mayfield sang, "I've got my strength and it don't make sense not to keep on pushing", he was singing his own epitaph. He may not have had much success in the UK record charts, but he is among the most influential musicians of the past 30 years.

Mayfield was born in Chicago in 1942 and was raised by his mother as his father left the family home. He criticised parents who have left the family home and a sense of family pervades his own work. His mother wrote poetry and encouraged his sense of rhythm and verse. In 1996, he dedicated his book of lyrics Poetic Licence to her. Mayfield was singing publicly from the age of seven and was soon teaching himself to play guitar. He commented, "I was writing songs from when I was 12. My songs always came from questions that I need answers for." He also said, "My fights and arguments, even with God, went down on paper."

When Mayfield was 14, he met Jerry Butler, who was three years older, and sang with him in a gospel group, the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. They befriended a vocal group, the Roosters, who had come, chasing success, from Chattanooga to Chicago. Butler joined them as a lead singer and Mayfield sang tenor and played guitar. Their first performances as the Roosters were not successful as the audiences would crow as soon as they heard the name. They became the Impressions and secured an audition with Chess Records. When the receptionist would not let them through, they went to Vee-Jay Records and recorded one of Butler's songs, a soaring ballad, "For Your Precious Love", and its style was a considerable influence on the 16-year-old Mayfield.

"For Your Precious Love" made the US Top Twenty but the billing on the record label, "Jerry Butler and the Impressions", created friction. After a promotional tour, Butler went solo but he retained his friendship with Mayfield who wrote several of his records, notably "He Will Break Your Heart", a No l R&B hit in 1960, and "Find Another Girl".

Mayfield with the brothers Richard and Arthur Brooks, Sam Gooden and Fred Cash made further records as the Impressions for Vee-Jay, Bandera and Swirl, but their break came when they signed to ABC Paramount Records in 1961. Their US hit single "Gypsy Woman" contained erotic imagery ("Her eyes were like that of a cat in the dark") and was the first of many tender love songs that they took on to the charts. Their gospel influence showed in their biggest US hit, "It's All Right", which climbed to No 4 in 1963.

Despite the British invasion of the US charts by the Beatles and their acolytes, the Impressions did remarkably well in 1964 and each single was a classic: "Talking About My Baby" (No 25), "I'm So Proud" (14), "Keep On Pushing" (10), "You Must Believe Me" (15) and a stunning arrangement of the gospel song "Amen" (7). Mayfield also wrote for Major Lance and one of the songs, "Um Um Um Um Um Um", was a UK Top Ten hit for Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders.

With his sublime sense of melody and sensuality, Mayfield could have become a leading pop songwriter, rivalling the tunesmiths in the Brill Building. However, he was impressed by Bob Dylan, who had brought civil- rights issues into popular songs, but Dylan was white and Mayfield wanted to present songs from a black perspective. He believed in the creed "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you", and he idolised Martin Luther King. Both "I'm So Proud" and "Keep On Pushing" reflect his philosophy, but he became more explicit with the years, releasing an inspirational single, "Choice of Colours", backed with "Mighty Mighty Spade and Whitey", in 1968. His music was more melodic and less raucous than James Brown's and, hence, less threatening to a white audience.

Mayfield's greatest moment is with the stunning "People Get Ready", a US hit for the Impressions in 1965. It is both a gospel song and an anthem for the civil-rights movement. Bob Marley and Rod Stewart are just two artists who have recorded successful versions.

Mayfield wrote many songs that were successful for other performers, notably "Mama Didn't Lie" (Jan Bradley), "The Monkey Time" (Major Lance), "I Can't Work No Longer" (Billy Butler and the Enchanters) and "Just Be True" and "Think Nothing About It" (both for Gene Chandler). Mayfield and his business partner Eddie Thomas set up publishing companies so that he could control his own work and they established their own label, Curtom.

His first solo album, Curtis (1970), was a poignant picture of ghetto life including three of his best songs, "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go", the UK dance hit "Move On Up" and surely one of the best song titles of all time, "We the People Who are Darker Than Blue". He followed this with a stunning double album, Curtis/ Live (1971), where his spoken introductions are as moving as his songs.

In 1972 he was asked to score a "blaxploitation movie", Super Fly. As with Isaac Hayes' Shaft, the soundtrack was far better than the film and Mayfield used the film, which centred around cocaine deals, to comment on America today. Both "Freddie's Dead", which was banned by the BBC, and the title song were US Top Ten hits.

This led to Mayfield's scoring other black films, often working with other performers. They include Claudine (1972) and Pipedreams (1976), both for Gladys Knight and the Pips, Sparkle (1976) with Aretha Franklin and Let's Do It Again (1975) with the Staple Singers. He had difficulty with the Staple Singers as their leader, Pops Staples, refused to sing the word "funky" as he disliked its sexual connotations.

Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is a key album of the early 1970s and Mayfield expanded Gaye's concepts with Back to the World (1973) and the ironic There's No Place Like America Today (1975). In 1978 he produced a second album for Aretha Franklin, Almighty Fire.

In 1983 Butler, Mayfield, Gooden and Cash reunited as the Impressions for a tour and LP. He toured regularly and he became involved with British politics when he attacked Thatcherism in "(Celebrate) The Day After You", which he recorded with the Blow Monkeys in 1987. This might have become a significant hit record but it too was banned by the BBC.

In August 1990 Mayfield was paralysed from the neck down when a lighting rig fell on him during a concert in Brooklyn, but he determined to continue with his music. He wrote songs for Erykah Badu and in 1996 was nominated for a Grammy for his album New World Order, which he had had to record one line at a time. In 1998 he contracted diabetes and had a leg amputated.

Mayfield was twice inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, once as a member of the Impressions and once as a solo performer. In 1998 the Georgia House of Representatives honoured him calling him "an undisputed genius of modern music".

His songs have been used in contemporary films and Ice-T sampled his "Super Fly" recording for The Return of Superfly in 1990. One of his older songs, "Giving Him Something He Can Feel", was a hit for En Vogue in 1992. Mavis Staples summarised his work - "There's a beauty about him, an angelic state. Everything he wrote had a whole lot of love."

Curtis Mayfield, singer and songwriter: born Chicago 3 June 1942; twice married (10 children); died Roswell, Georgia 26 December 1999.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future