A pioneer of 1960s soul music and 1970s funk music, Curtis Mayfield was a founding member of the Impressions and a successful solo musician.
Curtis Lee Mayfield was born on June 3, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois, to Marion Washington and Kenneth Mayfield. His father abandoned the family when Mayfield was five years old. Mayfield’s family moved a lot before settling in the city’s Cabrini-Green public housing project when he was a teenager. At home, his mother played gospel records, listened to popular music on the radio, and taught her son to play piano at an early age. At his grandmother’s storefront church, Mayfield heard different styles of gospel music performed and joined the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, a gospel vocal quintet, at age seven. Mayfield taught himself how to play guitar, and by instinct he tuned the guitar to the black keys of the piano. The result was a distinctive open F-sharp tuning (F sharp, A sharp, C sharp, F sharp, A sharp, F sharp), which he used throughout his career.
Mayfield sang in several short-lived gospel groups before quitting high school after tenth grade to focus on music. He teamed up with the Roosters, a vocal group from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the group soon changed their name to the Impressions.
The Impressions signed their first record contract with a subsidiary of Vee Jay records in 1958 and recorded their first single, “For Your Precious Love,” which sold 150,000 copies in two weeks. Mayfield was sixteen years old when the Impressions sold out New York’s Apollo Theater in Harlem for a week.
The Impressions had difficulty duplicating the success of their debut, and they disbanded after Vee Jay chose not to renew their contract. Due to the inactivity of the group, former-Impression Jerry Butler asked Mayfield to join him on a sold-out tour as his guitarist, and Mayfield continued to write and cowrite songs for Butler and the Impressions.
Angered by receiving so little money for his songs, Mayfield founded his own music publishing business, Curtom, in 1960. By 1961 Mayfield had reformed the Impressions, and they signed a five-year contract with ABC-Paramount, a relationship that produced twenty-two hit singles and twelve hit albums on the rhythm-and-blues charts.
In spite of their success, rifts in the band developed that led to several lineup changes. The loss of two members didn’t stop the group, however, and the Impressions continued to produce albums and hit singles like “Keep On Pushing” and “People Get Ready” as a trio. During this period, Mayfield’s lyrics became more politically and culturally conscious, and such songs as “We’re a Winner,” “Choice of Colors,” “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey),” and “People Get Ready” are identified with the civil rights movement.
After the termination of the Impressions’ contract with ABC-Paramount, Mayfield expanded Curtom to become a record company in 1968. In 1970 he released his first solo album, entitled Curtis, and the last Impressions album to include his voice, Check Out Your Mind, was also released. He quit the group to concentrate on his own albums and on producing other Curtom artists.
In 1972 Mayfield released the soundtrack to the “blaxploitation” film Superfly, which became his greatest commercial and critical success. Superfly sold more than a million copies and was nominated for four Grammy Awards. The popular songs “Freddie’s Dead,” “Pusherman,” and “Superfly” depict the destructive side of drug use; the songs stood in juxtaposition to the movie’s glamorization of drugs and the criminal activity accompanying the illegal drug business. The success of Superfly led to a string of soundtrack recordings that lasted until the decline of Curtom records in the late 1970s and 1980s. During this period Mayfield composed and produced the albums of many important artists, including Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Move to Atlanta
With his record sales down, in 1980 Mayfield moved Curtom from Chicago to Atlanta. By 1990 he had relaunched his record label, begun collaborating with rap artists, and released two new solo albums. During a performance that same year, a lighting tower collapsed on top of Mayfield as he took the stage during a powerful windstorm. The accident left him a quadriplegic. After years of forced retirement, he released his final album, New World Order, in 1996.
Mayfield died in Roswell on December 26, 1999, and in commemoration Atlanta chose “People Get Ready” as its millennium theme song. Mayfield’s musical legacy includes being sampled in the work of countless rap and hip-hop acts, and influencing musicians Lenny Kravitz, Bob Marley, Prince, and Vernon Reid. In addition to receiving many recording industry awards, he was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, the Soul Train Hall of Fame, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, both for the Impressions and his solo material. He was married three times and had eleven children.