Curtis Mayfield (June 3, 1942 – December 26, 1999) was an United States soul music, funk and R&B singer, songwriter and guitarist best known for his anthemic music with The Impressions and composing the Superfly (soundtrack) to the blaxploitation film Superfly (film). From these works and others, he was highly regarded as a pioneer of funk and of politically conscious African-American music. He was also a bassist, pianist, saxophonist and drummer.
Early years and the Impressions
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Mayfield attended Wells High School. He dropped out of high school early to become lead singer and songwriter for The Impressions (American band), then went on to a successful solo career. Perhaps most notably, Mayfield was among the first of a new wave of mainstream African-American Rhythm and blues performing artists and composers who injected social commentary into their work. This "message music" became extremely popular during the period of political ferment and social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s.
Mayfield had several distinctions to his style of playing and singing, adding to the uniqueness of his music. When he taught himself how to play guitar, he tuned the guitar to the black keys of the piano, giving him an open F-sharp tuning -- F#, A#, C#, F#, A#, F# -- that he used throughout his career. Also, he sang most of his lines in falsetto (not unique in itself, but other singers in his time mostly sang tenor), adding another flavor to his music.
Mayfield's career began in 1956 in music when he joined The Roosters with Arthur and Richard Brooks and Jerry Butler (singer). Two years later The Roosters, now including also Sam Gooden, became The Impressions (American band). http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/579113.stm The band had hits with "For Your Precious Love" and "Gypsy Woman." After Butler left the group and was replaced with Fred Cash, Mayfield became lead singer, frequently composing for the band, as well. "Amen," an updated version of an old gospel music tune, was included in the soundtrack of the 1963 in film Metro Goldwyn Mayer film Lilies of the Field, which starred Sidney Poitier. The Impressions reached the height of their popularity in the mid to late 1960s, with a string of Mayfield compositions that included "Keep On Pushin'," "People Get Ready (song)," "Choice of Colors," "This is My Country" and "Check Out Your Mind." Mayfield had written much of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement alongside Bob Dylan and others in the early '60s, but by the end of the decade he was a pioneering voice in the black pride movement, in the company of James Brown and Sly Stone. Mayfield's "We're a Winner" became an anthem of the black power and black pride movements when it was released in late 1967.
In 1970 in music, Mayfield left The Impressions and began a solo career, founding the Independent record label 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, and 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 1972 album Superfly (soundtrack), the soundtrack to the blaxploitation Superfly (film) of the same name, and one of the most influential albums in history. Mayfield's lyrics included hard-hitting commentary on the state of affairs in black, urban area ghettos at the time, previously unheard of in blaxploitation films. 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 Mayfield's soundtrack 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 social consciousness, funk music style of popular soul music.
Superfly's success 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 (movie) in 1974, while Aretha Franklin recorded the soundtrack for Sparkle (1976 film) in 1976. Mayfied worked with Mavis Staples on the 1977 soundtrack for the film A Piece of the Action (film).
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 epochal Miguel Pinero film Short Eyes.
Mayfield was active throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though he had a somewhat lower public profile. On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after stage lighting equipment fell on him at a concert in Brooklyn, New York. This tragedy 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.
In February, 1998, he had to have his right leg amputated due to diabetes. Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 in Roswell, Georgia. His last work came to be the song Astounded, with the group Bran Van 3000, recorded just before his death and released in 2000. As a member of The Impressions, Mayfield was posthumously inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.
Mayfield is remembered for his introduction of social consciousness into R&B and for pioneering the funk style in the 1970s. Many of his recordings with the Impressions became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and his most famous album, "Superfly", is regarded as an all-time great (#69 on The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time). His distinctive, hard guitar riffs influenced the development of funk; he is also regarded as influencing other landmark albums, like Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters. One magazine notes, "eulogies...have treated him...as a sort of secular saint--rather like an American Bob Marley". That noted, he is not as well-known as contemporaries like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or James Brown, perhaps because of their more consistent streams of hits or more mainstream style of music. Nevertheless, he is still highly regarded for his numerous innovations in the 1960s and 1970s and for his unique style of music, perhaps best described as "black psychedelia...remarkable for the scope of its social awareness".
Albums: Curtis (album) (1970) Curtis/Live! (1971) Roots (Curtis Mayfield) (1971) Superfly (soundtrack) (1972) Back to the World (Curtis Mayfield album) (1973) Curtis in Chicago (1973) Got to Find a Way (1974) Claudine (album) (Gladys Knight and the Pips) (1974) Sweet Exorcist (1974) Let's Do It Again (Curtis Mayfield album) (The Staples Singers) (1975) There's No Place Like America Today (1975) Sparkle (Aretha Franklin album) (Aretha Franklin) (1976) Give, Get, Take and Have (1976) A Piece of the Action (Curtis Mayfield) (Mavis Staples) (1977) Short Eyes (1977) Never Say You Can't Survive (1977) Do It All Night (Curtis Mayfield) (1978) Heartbeat (Curtis Mayfield) (1979) Something to Believe In (1980) The Right Combination (with Linda Clifford) (1980) Love is the Place (1982) Honesty (Curtis Mayfield) (1983) We Come in Peace with a Message of Love (1985) Live in Europe (Curtis Mayfield) (1988) People Get Ready: Live at Ronnie Scott's (1988) Take It to the Streets (1990) New World Order (Curtis Mayfield) (1997)
Compilations: The Anthology 1961-1977 (1992) People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story (1996) The Very Best of Curtis Mayfield (1997) Soul Legacy (2001) Greatest Hits (2006)
Bob Donat, review of Superfly, in Rolling Stone, November 9, 1972. On line at http://www.superseventies.com/spsuperfly.html.
Courtesy of: http://www.wikipedia.org/