Obituary: Curtis Mayfield

Spencer Leigh
Tuesday 28 December 1999 01:02 GMT

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.

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