Curtis Lee Mayfield (June 3, 1942 – December 26, 1999) was an American soul, R&B, and funk singer, songwriter, and record producer best known for his anthemic music with The Impressions and composing the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Super Fly. 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 multi-instrumentalist who played the guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, and drums.
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 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, Mayfield became lead singer, frequently composing for the band, starting with "Gypsy Woman". Their hit "Amen," 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 1960s, with a string of Mayfield compositions that included "Keep On Pushing," "People Get Ready," "It's All Right", "Woman's Got Soul", "Choice of Colors," "Fool For You," "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 1960s, 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", 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") had been an anthem for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
Independent from his work with The Impressions, Mayfield became a songwriting powerhouse in Chicago, writing and producing scores of hits for other artists, including:
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 [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 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.
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'.
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.
Curtis Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 in Roswell, Georgia surrounded by his family. 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.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Mayfield #99 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
Hip hop producer Just Blaze has used a slowed down sample of Mayfield's "Move On Up" for the 2006 Kanye West/Lupe Fiasco hit single "Touch The Sky". Eminem sampled Mayfield's song "Pusherman" for his debut LP on the song "I'm Shady". Late rapper 2Pac sampled him consistently as well . "Pusherman" was also covered by Doyle Bramhall II
Jay-Z sampled "Short Eyes" for his 2007 song "American Gangster" from the eponymous album.
Mary j. blige samples "give me your love" for her 1994"Im the only woman"
In 1988, Fishbone acknowledged Mayfield's influence on their own vision, "a melting pot of ska, punk, and funk [with] hard rock (...) added to the mix", by choosing to cover Mayfield's early 70's hit "Freddie's Dead" to open their well-regarded Truth and Soul LP, which "also featured (...) several musically varied tracks that deal with the same topic: racism, past and present (...)"
In 1996 Australian - Sydney Vocal Band Human Nature recorded 2 accapella versions of "People Get Ready" One without the Middle Verse which was one their 1996 telling everybody album and the other with included the middle verse which was on their 2001 Here And Now The Best of Human Nature Album.
Monica sampled "The Makings of You" on her 2006 single "A Dozen Roses". The title of her album does reference to Curtis' song.
Every phase of Jamaican music, starting with rocksteady, was profoundly influenced by Curtis Mayfield's body of work. The Techniques, The Uniques, Bob Marley and the Wailers, and many other early vocal groups in Jamaica were deeply influenced by the songwriting, vocal harmonies, and black consciousness that appear as hallmarks on Impressions recordings from the early to mid 1960s. Many of the Wailers early ska recordings are Impressions covers. One of Marley's most well known songs, 'One Love' (Studio 1 - 1965), is in fact a take on 'People Get Ready'.
In 1993, three years after the accident which caused Mayfield's paralysis, Shanachie records released the album People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, featuring Jerry Butler, Don Covay, Steve Cropper, lani Groves, Michael Hill, Huey Lewis & The News, Delbert McClinton, Vernon Reid, David Sanborn, Jonathan Sanborn, Angela Strehli, Bunny Wailer, Kim Wilson. According to the album cover, "Fifty percent of all royalties will benefit Curtis Mayfield."