Curtis Mayfield Biography

3 June 1942, Chicago, Illinois, USA, d. 26 December 1999, Roswell, Georgia, USA. As songwriter and vocalist with the Impressions, Mayfield established an early reputation as one of soul music’s most intuitive talents. In the decade between 1961 and 1971, he penned a succession of exemplary singles for his group, including ‘Gypsy Woman’ (1961), ‘It’s All Right’ (1963), ‘I’m The One Who Loves You’ (1963), ‘You Must Believe Me’ (1964), ‘People Get Ready’ (1965), ‘We’re A Winner’ (1968) and ‘Choice Of Colors’ (1969), the subjects of which ranged from simple, tender love songs to broadsides demanding social and political equality. Years later Bob Marley lifted lines from ‘People Get Ready’ to populate his own opus, ‘One Love’. The independent record companies, Windy C, Mayfield and Curtom Records, emphasized Mayfield’s statesman-like role within black music, while his continued support for other artists - as composer, producer or session guitarist - enhanced a virtually peerless reputation. Jerry Butler, Major Lance, Gene Chandler and Walter Jackson were among the many Chicago-based singers benefiting from Mayfield’s involvement.

Having parted company with the Impressions in 1970, the singer began his solo career with November’s US Top 30 hit ‘(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Going To Go’, a suitably astringent protest song. The following year Mayfield enjoyed his biggest UK success with ‘Move On Up’, a compulsive dance song that reached number 12 in the UK but surprisingly did not chart in the USA. There however, the artist’s commercial ascendancy was maintained in 1972 with ‘Freddie’s Dead’ (US R&B number 2/number 4 pop hit) and the theme from Superfly, a ‘blaxploitation’ movie that he also scored. Both singles and the attendant album achieved gold status, inspiring further excursions into motion picture soundtracks, including Claudine, A Piece Of The Action, Sparkle and Short Eyes, the last of which featured Mayfield in an acting role. However, although the singer continued to prove popular, he failed to sustain this high profile, and subsequent work, including his production of Aretha Franklin’s 1978 album, Almighty Fire, gained respect rather than commercial approbation.

In 1981, Mayfield joined the Boardwalk label, for which he recorded Honesty, his strongest album since the halcyon days of the early 70s. Sadly, the death of the label’s managing director Neil Bogart left an insurmountable gap, and Mayfield’s career was then blighted by music industry indifference. The singer nonetheless remained a highly popular live attraction, particularly in the UK where ‘(Celebrate) The Day After You’, a collaboration with the Blow Monkeys, became a minor hit.

In 1990, a tragic freak accident, in which part of a public address rig collapsed on top of him during a concert, left Mayfield permanently paralyzed from the neck down. The effects, both personal and professional, proved costly, but not completely devastating in terms of his musical career. The material for BBC Radio 1 Live In Concert was gathered from the gig at London’s Town And Country Club during Mayfield’s 1990 European tour. In 1993, Warner Brothers Records released A Tribute To Curtis Mayfield featuring various artists, including Lenny Kravitz, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Elton John and Steve Winwood. The album was an excellent tribute to the Mayfield songbook. Winwood contributed the highlight, a sparkling version of ‘It’s All Right’. A year later Charly Records reissued the majority of Mayfield’s 70s albums on CD as well as several compilations. The icing on the cake came in 1996 when Rhino Records collated the best material in a three-CD box set. At the end of the same year a new studio album, New World Order, was released to excellent reviews. The album stands up to repeated listens, but some particularly enthusiastic critics may have been swayed by their affection for such an important man, together with sympathy for his tragic disability. During the recording Mayfield had to lie on his back in order to give some gravitational power to his singing.

Mayfield’s contribution to soul music remains immense, whatever the limitations of his disability brought to his last years. He died in hospital on December 26, 1999. The tributes were mighty and genuine; Mayfield had no enemies, only admirers. On his death Aretha Franklin stated he was ‘the black Bach’. He was an exemplary songwriter who never descended into cliché, even though most of his work espoused peace, love and freedom. His recorded voice remains with us, perfect, sweet and unique.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.