Curtis Mayfield was a masterful songwriter and singer whose words of beauty emitted socially conscious commentaries on a tumultuous period in America's recent history. He was a legend in his own time and his influence on today's music is a testament to his enormous talent.
Born in Chicago on June 3, 1942, Curtis Mayfield enjoyed a childhood entrenched with music. He taught himself how to play the guitar and, inspired by his mother's love of poetry, started to develop his own songwriting skills. By the mere age of seven, he was singing in public. He was strongly influenced by a local gospel group, the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Prior to his teenage years, he was leading his own soul and gospel group, The Alphatones. In 1957, he was approached by Jerry Butler, a member of The Northern Jubilee Singers, who convinced Curtis to join his soul group, The Roosters. A 16-year-old Curtis Mayfield wrote and composed music for the group. Only six months later, the group renamed itself The Impressions, and quickly had its first pop hit, "For Your Precious Love," which reached No. 11 on the pop charts.
While Curtis sporadically performed with The Impressions, he spent his time playing guitar in Jerry Butler's touring band, and provided Jerry with his first R&B hit, "He Will Break Your Heart."
Despite some success, Mayfield was not content. He knew there was more opportunity awaiting him in the world of music, and so he decided to save some money from touring and working alongside Jerry Butler. With his hard-earned money in his pocket, he took The Impressions to New York to cut some demo tapes. His determination and talent paved the way for a recording contract with ABC Records that lasted until 1968 and produced more than 18 chart-making singles. The prolific legacy of The Impressions made them one of the most popular R&B acts of the 1960s.
The beauty of Mayfield's music was threefold: soulful rhythms, beautifully-crafted melodies and meaningful lyrics. Mayfield knew that he was in a position to influence, enlighten and educate, and his most beloved pieces reflect this wisdom. Some songs elicited social responsibility, while other songs like "We're A Winner" (released in January 1968) quickly became a declaration of pride for African-Americans fighting for civil rights. His lyrics focused on many of the important political, social, and racial issues of the time. He was not just an entertainer or an artist. He was also a radical thinker, brave enough to speak his mind about freedom and civil rights.
Curtis Mayfield also wrote and produced songs for many record labels, and launched his own label, Custom Records. In early 1970, Curtis Mayfield started yet another chapter of his life, and began a solo career. His debut album, Curtis, was greeted with much praise from critics, and music fans embraced his firey lyrics and funky grooves. But the best was yet to come.
During an appearance at Lincoln Center in New York City, Mayfield was asked to score and perform the soundtrack for the film Superfly, which proved to be one of the most successful black action films and soundtracks in history. This soundtrack would become his calling card. Superfly went on to sell over one million copies, receive four Grammy nominations and launch Mayfield to superstardom.
Mayfield's work has influenced later generations of musicians, and a remake of Superfly gave Mayfield another go-around on the charts. In 1989, Mayfield contributed to the soundtrack of the movie, I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, and The Return Of Superfly the following year. He also completed the album, Take It To The Streets, which featured the standout tracks, "Homeless" and "Do Be Down."
His work never ceased to address the plight of those who struggle everyday to survive. He did not shrink from singing honestly about poverty, unemployment and black-on-black violence. He was, in some ways, a voice for the voiceless.
In 1990, tragedy struck during an outdoor concert in Brooklyn. High winds dislodged a lighting rig, which collapsed on Mayfield and damaged his spine. He was paralyzed from the neck down. Though his health continued to deteriorate (he also had a leg amputated due to complications from diabetes), he continued to compose and play music. The year following his accident, Mayfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of The Impressions, and shortly after as a solo artist. Very few artists have been inducted more than once, and such deserving recognition showcases his immense talent and influence in history.
Curtis Mayfield died at the North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell, Georgia, at the age of 57. His genius lives on in the works of current popular music artists such as Herbie Hancock, Deniece Williams, Robbie Neville, En Vogue, and many hip-hop and rap artists. His talents led him through a musical career that lasted almost 40 years. As a singer, songwriter, composer and producer, Mayfield is considered by many in the music industry to be a visionary and hero.