Best known for his anthemic music with The Impressions and for composing the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Super Fly, Mayfield is highly regarded as a pioneer of funk and of politically conscious African-American music. He was also a multi-instrumentalist who played the guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, and drums. Curtis Mayfield is a winner of both the Grammy Legend Award (in 1994) and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award (in 1995), and was a double inductee into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted as a member of The Impressions into The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991, and again in 1999 as a solo artist. He is also a two-time Grammy Hall of Fame inductee.
Born on June 3, 1942 in Chicago, Illinois, Mayfield was the son of Marion Washington and Kenneth Mayfield. Mayfield's father left the family when Mayfield was five and his mother moved Curtis and his siblings into various Chicago projects before settling at the Cabrini–Green projects when Mayfield reached his teenage years. Mayfield attended Wells Community Academy High School. He dropped out of high school early to become lead singer and songwriter for The Impressions, then went on to a successful solo career. Perhaps most notably, Mayfield was among the first of a new wave of mainstream African-American R&B performing artists and composers injecting social commentary into their work. This "message music" became extremely popular during the 1960s and 1970s.
Two significant characteristics distinguish Mayfield's sound. First, he taught himself how to play guitar, tuning it to the black keys of the piano, thus giving him an open F-sharp tuning---F#, A#, C#, F#, A#, F#---that he used throughout his career. Second, he primarily sang in falsetto register, adding another flavor to his music. This was not unique in itself, but most singers sing primarily in the modal register.
Mayfield's career began in 1956 when he joined The Roosters with Arthur and Richard Brooks and Jerry Butler. Two years later The Roosters, now including also Sam Gooden, became The Impressions. The band had one big hit with "For Your Precious Love". After Butler left the group and was replaced with Fred Cash,(a returning original Roosters member), Mayfield became lead singer, frequently composing for the band, starting with "Gypsy Woman", a Top 20 Pop hit. Their hit "Amen," (Top 10) ,an updated version of an old gospel tune, was included in the soundtrack of the 1963 MGM film Lilies of the Field, which starred Sidney Poitier. The Impressions reached the height of their popularity in the mid-to-late-'60s with a string of Mayfield compositions that included "Keep on Pushing," "People Get Ready", "It's All Right" (Top 10),the uptempo "Talking about My Baby"(Top 20) , "Woman's Got Soul", "Choice of Colors,"(Top 20), "Fool For You," "This is My Country" and "Check Out Your Mind." Mayfield had written much of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, but by the end of the decade he was a pioneering voice in the black pride movement along with James Brown and Sly Stone. Mayfield's "We're a Winner", a Number 1 soul hit which also reached the Billboard pop Top 20, became an anthem of the black power and black pride movements when it was released in late 1967, much as his earlier "Keep on Pushing" (whose title is quoted in the lyrics of "We're a Winner" and also in "Move on up") had been an anthem for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
Mayfield was a prolific songwriter in Chicago even outside his work for The Impressions, writing and producing scores of hits for many other artists. He also owned the Mayfield and Windy C labels which were distributed by Cameo-Parkway, and was a partner in the Curtom label (first independent, then distributed by Buddha then Warner Bros and finally RSO.)
In 1970, Mayfield left The Impressions and began a solo career, founding the independent record label Curtom Records. Curtom would go on to release most of Mayfield's landmark 1970s records, as well as records by the Impressions, Leroy Hutson, The Staple Singers, Mavis Staples, and Baby Huey and the Babysitters, a group which at the time included Chaka Khan. Many of these records were also produced by Mayfield.
The commercial and critical peak of his solo career came with his music album Super Fly, the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film of the same name, and one of the most influential albums in African-American history. Unlike the soundtracks to other blaxploitation films (most notably Isaac Hayes' score for Shaft), which glorified the ghetto excesses of the characters, Mayfield's lyrics consisted of hard-hitting commentary on the state of affairs in black, urban ghettos at the time, as well as direct criticisms of several characters in the film. Bob Donat wrote in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1972 that while the film's message "was diluted by schizoid cross-purposes" because it "glamorizes machismo-cocaine consciousness... the anti-drug message on is far stronger and more definite than in the film." Along with Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, this album ushered in a new socially conscious, funky style of popular soul music.
He was dubbed 'The Gentle Genius' to reflect his outstanding and innovative musical output with the constant presence of his soft yet insistent vocals. The single releases "Freddie's Dead" and "Super Fly" both sold over one million copies each, and were awarded gold discs by the R.I.A.A.
Super Fly brought success that resulted in Mayfield being tapped for additional soundtracks, some of which he wrote and produced while having others perform the vocals. Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded Mayfield's soundtrack for Claudine in 1974, while Aretha Franklin recorded the soundtrack for Sparkle in 1976. Mayfield worked with Mavis Staples on the 1977 soundtrack for the film A Piece of the Action. He was in danger of overreaching himself being writer, producer, performer, arranger, and businessman but seemed to cope and still produce a remarkable output.
One of Mayfield's most successful funk-disco meldings was the 1977 hit "Do Do Wap is Strong in Here" from his soundtrack to the Robert M. Young film of Miguel Piñero's play Short Eyes. In his 2003 biography of Curtis Mayfield, titled "People Never Give Up", author Peter Burns noted that Curtis has 140 songs in the Curtom vaults. Burns indicated that the songs maybe already completed or in the stages of completion, so that they could then be released commercially. These recordings include "The Great Escape", "In The News", "Turn up the Radio", "Whats The Situation?" and one recording labelled "Curtis at Montreux Jazz Festival 87". Two other albums, featuring Curtis Mayfield present in the Curtom vaults and as yet unissued are, a 1982/83 live recording titled "25th Silver Anniversary" (which features performances by Curtis, The Impressions and Jerry Butler) and a live performance, recorded in September 1966 by The Impressions titled 'Live at the Club Chicago'.
In later years, Mayfield's music would be featured in the movies I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Hollywood Shuffle, and Friday (though not on the soundtrack). Mayfield was also in the 1977 movie Short Eyes.
Mayfield was active throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though he had a somewhat lower public profile in the 1980s. On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after stage lighting equipment fell on him at an outdoor concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. The accident set him back, but Mayfield forged ahead. He was unable to play guitar, but he wrote, sang, and directed the recording of his last album, New World Order. Mayfield's vocals were painstakingly recorded, usually line-by-line while lying on his back.
Mayfield received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. In February, 1998, he had to have his right leg amputated due to diabetes. Mayfield was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 1999. Health reasons prevented him from attending the ceremony, which included fellow inductees Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Dusty Springfield, George Martin, and 1970s Curtom signee and labelmate The Staple Singers.
His last appearance on record was with the group Bran Van 3000 on the song "Astounded" for their album Discosis, recorded just before his death and released in 2001.
Curtis Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 at the North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell, Georgia due to his steadily declining health subsequent to his paralysis.
Curtis Mayfield (Chicago, 3 de junio de 1942 - 26 de diciembre de 1999) fue un cantante, compositor y guitarrista de soul y funk.
El legado de composiciones, grabaciones e interpretaciones de Mayfield es enorme. Como voz principal de la formación The Impressions, hizo algunas de las más importantes grabaciones del soul vocal de los 60.
Emprendió su carrera en solitario en la década de los 70, inspirado en el funk y añadiendo rasgos urbanos a la música soul, siendo uno de los máximos exponentes de estilos como el blaxploitation, el chicago soul, el uptown soul y el soul psicodélico.
Mayfield escribía la mayoría de su material, cuando esto no era habitual entre los cantantes soul. Fue uno de los primeros músicos que se involucró en el movimiento del orgullo de la cultura afroamericana, realizando mediante sus letras, de la misma forma que lo hacían Aretha Franklin o Nina Simone. Como productor y compositor fue uno de los grandes creadores del chicago soul, trabajando para y con artistas del género como Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler, Major Lance y Billy Butler.
Como guitarrista, manifiesta ciertas influencias de la música negra más latina, algo que también dejó entrever en ocasiones dentro de The Impressions en los años 60. Durante la década posterior mejoró su trabajo como guitarrista y productor añadiendo ciertas esencias del funk y el rock psicodélico.
Mayfield nunca estuvo dispuesto a sumarse a la corriente pop de acercarse a grandes masas como hacían, en especial, las estrellas de Motown.
En el año 2004 la revista Rolling Stone lo colocó en el puesto 99 de su lista 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Nació en Chicago, su carrera dentro de la música comenzó junto a Jerry Butler, con quien fundó de The Impressions en 1958; en ese mismo año consiguieron su primer éxito con "For Your Precious Love". Butler, que hasta entonces era el cantante principal de la banda, emprendió su carrera en solitario. Los dos fundadores de la banda se mantuvieron en contacto musical hasta que, en 1961, Mayfield junto a The Impressions consiguió colocar "Gypsy Woman" en el top20.
Como compositor creó uno de los grandes éxitos de la música negra, "People get ready", que ha sonado en las voces de artistas como Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, George Benson, Al Green, Rod Stewart y Alicia Keys (en la banda sonora de Glory Road).
Una de sus mayores influencias fue el gospel, algo que dejó ver desde sus comienzos, junto a influencias incipientes del doo wop o el pop arena. Con The Impressions solía usar habitualmente el modo de llamada respuesta tan usado en el gospel, y en cuanto a temática solía usar temas amorosos, pero también eran comunes los temas sobre el orgullo y costumbres de la comunidad afroamericana. Su uso de explosivas sección de viento metal, un ritmo punceante y la influencia latinad dieron origen al chicago soul; con este incipiente estilo y Mayfield a la cabeza como voz y guitarra, The Impressions consiguieron 14 top40 en la década de los 60, siendo de todos sus años 1964 el más importante.
En 1970, emprendió su carrera en solitario. Sus primeros sencillos tenían un aire muy funk, como "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go", en el que muchos creían excesiva la forma tan cruda con que se hablaba sobre hechos de la comunidad negra urbana. En solitario no cosechó tanto éxito como anteriormente, hasta que en 1972 llegó la banda sonora de Superfly y con ella el éxito, dando lugar al movimeinto blaxploitation. La banda sonora tuvo mucha más relevancia que la película por sí misma.
En aquel momento, Curtis Mayfield era, junto a Stevie Wonder y Marvin Gaye, el icono de un nuevo soul. Tras el éxito abrumador de Superfly cosechó éxitos menores como "Kung Fu", "So in Love" y "Only You Babe". A principios de los 80 volvió a conseguir algunos éxitos más, pero, en líneas generales, la década fue de decadencia y sólo publicaba de forma esporádica algún álbum.
En 1990, durante una actuación en Brooklyn, sufrió un accidente cuando una torre de luces cayó sobre él, dejándole paralizado de cuello para abajo. A mediados 90 aparecieron algunos álbumes tributo en compañía de artistas como Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen o Gladys Knight. En 1998, le fue amputada la pierna derecha debido a la diabetes que padecía.
Murió el 26 de diciembre de 1999 en el Hospital Regional North Fulton en Roswell, Georgia, debido a la disminución constante de su salud después de su parálisis.