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Curtis Lee Mayfield (June 3, 1942 – December 26, 1999) was an American singer-songwriter, guitarist, and record producer, and one of the most influential musicians behind soul and politically conscious African-American music. He first achieved success and recognition with the Impressions during the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, and later worked as a solo artist.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Mayfield started his musical career in a gospel choir. Moving to the North Side he met Jerry Butler in 1956 at the age of 14, and joined the vocal group the Impressions. As a songwriter, Mayfield became noted as one of the first musicians to bring more prevalent themes of social awareness into soul music. In 1965, he wrote "People Get Ready" for the Impressions, which displayed his more politically charged songwriting. Ranked at no. 24 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the song received numerous other awards, and was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, as well as being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
After leaving the Impressions in 1970 in the pursuit of a solo career, Mayfield released several albums, including the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Super Fly in 1972. The soundtrack was noted for its socially conscious themes, mostly addressing problems surrounding inner city minorities such as crime, poverty and drug abuse. The album was ranked at no. 72 on Rolling Stone's list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after lighting equipment fell on him during a live performance at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York, on August 13, 1990. Despite this, he continued his career as a recording artist, releasing his final album New World Order in 1996. Mayfield won a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995, and was a double inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as a member of the Impressions in 1991, and again in 1999 as a solo artist. He was also a two-time Grammy Hall of Fame inductee. He died from complications of type 2 diabetes in 1999 at the age of 57.
Curtis Mayfield was born on June 3, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Marion Washington and Kenneth Mayfield and grew up one of five children in an impoverished family.  Mayfield's father left the family when Curtis was five; his mother moved the family into various Chicago projects before settling at Cabrini–Green when he reached his teenage years. Mayfield attended Wells Community Academy High School until dropping out his sophomore year. His mother taught him the piano, and she, along with his grandmother encouraged him to enjoy gospel music; when he was seven he was a singer with the gospel quintet, the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. When he was 14 years old he formed the Alphatones when the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers decided to try their luck in the heart of Chicago. Fellow group member Gooden was quote "It would have been nice to have him there with us, but of course, your parents have the first say." Mayfield stayed behind. When he was 14 he joined his school friend Jerry Butler's group the Roosters in 1956, with Arthur and Richard Brooks. He wrote and composed for this group who would become the Impressions two years later.
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 Sam Gooden, became the Impressions. The band had two hit singles with Butler, "For Your Precious Love" and "Come Back My Love", then Butler left. Mayfield temporarily went with him, co-writing and performing on Butler's next hit, "He Will Break Your Heart", before returning to the Impressions with the group signing for ABC Records and working with the label's Chicago-based producer/A&R manager, Johnny Pate.
Butler was replaced by Fred Cash, a returning original Roosters member, and 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 United Artists 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 up-tempo "Talking about My Baby"(Top 20) and "Woman's Got Soul".
He formed his own label, Curtom Records in Chicago in 1968 and the Impressions joined him to continue their run of hits including "Fool For You," "This is My Country", "Choice Of Colors" 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" was their last major hit for ABC. A Number 1 soul hit which also reached the Billboard pop Top 20, it 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 (first independent, then distributed by Buddah then Warner Bros and finally RSO) and Thomas labels (first independent, then distributed by Atlantic, then independent again and finally Buddah).
Among Mayfield's greatest songwriting successes were three hits that he wrote for Jerry Butler on Vee Jay ("He Will Break Your Heart", "Find Another Girl" and "I'm A-Tellin' You"). His harmony vocals are very prominent. He also had great success writing and arranging Jan Bradley's "Mama Didn't Lie". Starting in 1963, he was heavily involved in writing and arranging for OKeh Records (with Carl Davis producing), which included hits by Major Lance, Walter Jackson, Billy Butler and the Artistics. This arrangement ran through 1965.
In 1970, Mayfield left the Impressions and began a solo career. Curtom released many of Mayfield's 1970s records, as well as records by the Impressions, Leroy Hutson, the Five Stairsteps, the Staples Singers, Mavis Staples, Linda Clifford and Baby Huey and the Babysitters, a group which at one time included Chaka Khan. Gene Chandler and Major Lance, who had worked with Mayfield during the 1960s, also signed for short stays at Curtom. Many of the label's recordings were produced by Mayfield.
The commercial and critical peak of his solo career came with Super Fly, the soundtrack to the blaxploitation Super Fly film. 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 [Mayfield's soundtrack] is far stronger and more definite than in the film." Because of the tendency of these blaxploitation films to glorify the criminal life of dealers and pimps in order to target a mostly black lower class audience, Mayfield's album set this movie apart. With songs like "Freddie's Dead", a song that focuses on the demise of Freddie, a junkie that was forced into "pushin' dope for the man" because of a debt that he owed to his dealer, and "Pusherman", a song that reveals how many people in the ghetto fell victim to drug abuse, and therefore became dependent upon their dealers, Mayfield illuminated a darker side of life in the ghetto that these blaxploitation films often failed to criticize. However, although Mayfield's soundtrack criticized the glorification of dealers and pimps, he in no way denied that this glorification was occurring. When asked about the subject matter of these films he was quoted stating "I don’t see why people are complaining about the subject of these films”, and “The way you clean up the films is by cleaning up the streets.”
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'. The single releases "Freddie's Dead" and "Super Fly" each sold over one million copies, 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 also worked with The Staples Singers on the soundtrack for the 1975 film Let's Do It Again, and teamed up with Mavis Staples exclusively on the 1977 film soundtrack A Piece of the Action (both movies were part of a trilogy of films that featured the acting and comedic exploits of Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier and were directed by Poitier).
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, People Never Give Up, author Peter Burns noted that Mayfield has 140 songs in the Curtom vaults. Burns indicated that the songs were 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", "What's 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 Mayfield, the Impressions and Jerry Butler) and a live performance, recorded in September 1966 by the Impressions titled Live at the Club Chicago.
In 1980, Mayfield decided to move to Atlanta with his family, closing down his recording operation in Chicago and effectively ending the era of the Chicago soul sound. The label had gradually reduced in size in its final two years or so with releases on the main RSO imprint and Curtom credited as the production company. Mayfield continued to record occasionally, keeping the Curtom name alive for a few more years, and to tour worldwide.
In later years, Mayfield's music was included in the movies I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Hollywood Shuffle, Friday (though not on the soundtrack album), Bend It Like Beckham, The Hangover Part II and Short Eyes, where he had a cameo role as a prisoner.
Curtis Mayfield was known for introducing social consciousness into African-American music. Having been raised in the Cabrini-Green projects of Chicago, he witnessed many of the tragedies of the urban ghetto first hand, and was quoted saying “With everything I saw on the streets as a young black kid, it wasn’t hard during the later fifties and sixties for me to write my heartfelt way of how I visualized things, how I thought things ought to be.”
Following the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, his group the Impressions produced music that became the soundtrack to a summer of revolution. It is even said that "Keep On Pushing" became the number one sing along during the Freedom Rides. Black students sang their songs as they marched to jail or protested outside their universities, while King often used "Keep On Pushing", "People Get Ready" and "We're A Winner" because of their ability to motivate and inspire marchers. Mayfield had quickly become a civil rights hero with his ability to inspire hope and courage.
Mayfield was unique in his ability to fuse relevant social commentary with melodies and lyrics that instilled a hopefulness for a better future in his listeners. He wrote and recorded the soundtrack to the 1972 blaxploitation film Super Fly with the help of producer Johnny Pate. The soundtrack for Super Fly is regarded as an all-time great body of work that captured the essence of life in the ghetto while criticizing the tendency of young people to glorify the "glamorous" lifestyles of drug dealers and pimps, and illuminating the dark realities of drugs, addiction, and exploitation. His work influenced many, and it is said that Mayfield truly introduced a new style of black music.
Mayfield, along with several other soul and funk musicians, spread messages of hope in the face of oppression, pride in being a member of the black race and gave courage to a generation of people who were demanding their human rights, without abandoning the struggle for equality. He has been compared to Martin Luther King, Jr. for making a lasting impact in the civil rights struggle with his inspirational music. By the end of the decade Mayfield was a pioneering voice in the black pride movement, along with James Brown and Sly Stone. Paving the way for a future generation of rebel thinkers, Mayfield paid the price, artistically and commercially, for his politically charged music. Mayfield's "Keep On Pushing" was actually banned from several radio stations when riots began flaring up in some cities. Regardless of the persistent radio bans and loss of revenue, he continued his quest for equality right until his death. His lyrics on racial injustice, poverty and drugs became the poetry of a generation.
Mayfield was also a descriptive social commentator. As the influx of drugs ravaged through black America in the late 1960s and 1970s his bittersweet descriptions of the ghetto would serve as warnings to the impressionable. "Freddie's Dead" is a graphic tale of street life, while "Pusherman" revealed the role of drug dealers in the urban ghettos.
Later years and death
Mayfield remained active in the 1970s. Then his career began to slow down during the 1980s.
On August 13, 1990, Mayfield became paralyzed from the neck down, after stage lighting equipment fell on him at an outdoor concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. Afterwards, though he was unable to play guitar, he continued to compose and sing. He also directed the recording of his last album, New World Order.
Mayfield's vocals were recorded, usually line-by-line, while he was 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. He 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 signees and labelmates the Staple Singers.
Mayfield's 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.
Mayfield died from complications of type 2 diabetes on December 26, 1999, at the North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell, Georgia. His health had steadily declined following his paralysis.
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