Curtis Mayfield: Gentle Genius, Reluctant Preacher

Manhattan bass vocalist Blue Lovett once told me how he remembered Curtis Lee Mayfield.  Lovett said while most of the other RnB artists were chasing the promoter to make sure they got paid and others were chasing woman hoping to get laid. Not Curtis Lee. Lovett said Mayfield would be sitting quietly smoking his pipe and reading a book. June besides being Black Music Month it is the month that Mayfield was born. Mayfield who was born to Marion Washington and Kenneth Mayfield on June 3, 1942.

Today when you think about the music of Chicago you’ll think of R. Kelly, Common, and, of course, Kanye West. The controversial West continues to keep his name in the news. He first made worldwide news by criticizing U.S. president George W. Bush for his inaction around Hurricane Katrina. That was West’s “Back to Black “moment.   Since he married the controversial Kim Kardashian he has topped the gossip column charts everywhere. Chicago has also produced other Black musical giants like Mahalia Jackson, Sam and L.C. Cooke, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. The multi-platinum recording artist and producer Kanye West sampled Mayfield’s “Move on Up” for his smash single “Touch The Sky.” Mayfield continues to influence popular music in North America and around the globe.

Mayfield joined the ancestors on December 26th 1999 at the age of 57. He commanded respect. His body of work has earned him a special place in African, American and world history. In one sense, Mayfield was a true “star in the ghetto.” For whatever reason, he was never the darling of the mainstream, but African people from Cape Town to Nova Scotia loved him and his music madly. He was embraced by the hip-hop generation, millions in Africa, and Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer when they formed their group the Wailers.

Marley gives part of the writing credit for the song “One Love” to Mayfield. “There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner/ Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own,” is from the pen of Mayfield. Marley lifted these lyrics from “People Get Ready.” Death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal acknowledges Mayfield in his book “Live From Death Row”. Says Abu-Jamal, “to elder Curtis Mayfield , whose sweet rebel songs echoed  across America & helped many a Panther pass the day, singing, “We’re a winner, and never let anybody say that y’all can’t make it, ‘cuz them people’s mind is in yo’ way.” In Toronto, Canada members of the Afro American Progressive Association (AAPA) (one of Canada’s first Black Power organizations used “We’re a Winner” in the same manner. Lennie Johnston, the co-owner of the Third World Books and Crafts (and had a lovely singing voice) would lead the chant.

Mayfield burst on the scene as one of the Impressions in 1958. He was only 14 years of age.  He sang background vocals and played guitar on the hit “For Your Precious Love.” Jerry Butler sang lead on the song. The group disbanded for a time when Mayfield joined Butler as his guitarist and songwriter. Mayfield co- wrote “He Will Break Your Heart,” “Need to Belong to Someone” and “Find Yourself Another Girl.” In 1961 Mayfield rejoined the Impressions as their lead singer and chief songwriter. He had saved $1,000 and invested it in himself Sam Gooden and Fred Cash the Impressions.  They recorded “Gypsy Woman” for ABC Paramount and the rest is history.

Butler maintains that he told Mayfield to write about his own reality and to forget the fantasy world. Mayfield’s “Gypsy Woman” was inspired by a cowboy movie. Mayfield’s last fantasy song was “Minstrel and Queen.” He soon began to write songs like “I’m So Proud,” “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” “Meeting Over Yonder” and “We’re A Winner.” Following further hits with the Impressions (including,” Fool For You”, “This Is My Country” and the classic “Choice of Colors”), Mayfield decided to begin a solo career in 1970. Butler said Mayfield had one of the biggest libraries he’d ever seen.

Despite the fact that Mayfield had distinguished himself as a recording artist, producer, songwriter and entrepreneur (he started his own label Curtom Records in 1968), there was still no guarantee that he could make it as a solo act. His first solo effort Curtis proved that he had the right stuff. “The Gentle Genius” soon became the “King of the soundtrack” after he composed the music for the film “Superfly”. The success of “Superfly” led to soundtracks for “Sparkle”, “Let’s Do It Again”, “Claudine” and “Short Eyes”.

One of the few “white spots” on Mayfield’s resume is the fact that he violated the United Nations- sanctioned cultural boycott of South Africa and performed there. He redeemed himself with the anti-apartheid movement when he apologized and vowed not to return until power was in the hands of the people. Elombe Brath and his organizations the Patrice Lumumba Coalition and the Unity and Action Network knew Butler and convicted him to get Mayfield to vow not to return to South Africa until apartheid was finished. The Patrice Lumumba Coaltion, the Toronto-based Biko-Rodney –Malcolm Coalition (BRMC) and the Albany, New York’s Capital District Coalition against Apartheid and Racism worked together on this issue.

Like many Black music makers, Mayfield never finished high school. He dropped out when he was 16. He did so only because an opportunity came up that he could join the Impressions. His mother allowed him to join the group with the proviso that he continue to study. Mayfield’s mother bought him up on Paul Lawrence Dunbar. He came out of home that had books. Anna Belle Mayfield, his grandmother’s of the Traveling Soul Spiritualists Church helped develop him musically, spiritually and in business.

Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Steppenwolf, Elton John, Herbie Hancock, UB40 , The Jam , Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy and Ice T, are just a few of the diverse range of artists to have acknowledged Mayfield’s considerable musical talents and recorded his songs.

While Mayfield supported Dr. Martin Luther King and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, he visited Angela Davis in prison, “at her request,” he once pointed out to this writer. He performed a cappella at a “Free Huey P. Newton” rally in Oakland along with the two other Impressions, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden. He is also acknowledged by Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz in her book “Growing up X”.

Mayfield was paralyzed in a 1990 accident in which he was struck by a rig that toppled while he was doing a benefit concert in Brooklyn. Even this could not keep Mayfield down. In 1993 Shanice Records released “People Get Ready: A Tribute To Curtis Mayfield”  with artists Jerry Butler, Don Covey, Steve Cropper, Huey Lewis & the News, Vernon Reid, David Sanborn, Bunny Wailer and others. In 1994, Warner Bros. released “All Men Are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield”. This CD featured Mayfield’s compositions performed by Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, The Isley Brothers, Elton John and the Sounds of Blackness, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Branford Marsalis and the Impressions, Stevie Wonder and others. Among the “others” was a group called the Repercussions and Curtis Mayfield. This song was Mayfield’s return to the world of recording.

Mayfield recorded his last album “A New World Order” in 1996. The album earned him a Grammy nomination and was used in Spike Lee’s film “Get on the Bus”. Nelson George pointed out that Mayfield balanced art and business and romance and revolution. Sam Cooke was Mayfield’s role model as an African born in America entrepreneur and message music maker. Cooke wrote and sang” A Change Is Gonna Come.” Mayfield, in my humble opinion, took Cooke’s ideas to the next level. A change did come with Mayfield.

The Gentle Genius/ Reluctant Preacher wrote love songs and social commentary. His love songs were always a cut above the rest and were respectful of women. His message songs also represented his search for answers to the problems confronting humanity. The quietly spoken musician went on to explain that he also tried to avoid preaching at his audience. “With all respect, I’m sure that we have enough preachers in the world. Through my way of writing I was capable of being able to say these things and yet not make a person feel as though they’re being preached at.”

I was blessed to have seen Mayfield three times when I was a teenager in Los Angeles. After the show we watched Fred, Sam and Curtis ride out in the Limo. There was one woman in the car and she sit next to Mayfield. After his tragic accident I was fortune to speak to him by phone. I met Bunny Wailer days after Mayfield’s accident. Wailer said Mayfield influenced Peter, Bob and himself, because, “He was the youngest and was the leader of the Impressions who sang lead, played guitar and write the songs. “We all wanted to be like Curtis.”