“A few would-be biographers have tried to tell my father’s story; none have done it well,” wrote Todd Mayfield with Travis Aria in “Traveling Soul—The Life of Curtis Mayfield” (Chicago Review Press, 2017). “They failed because they had no access to his inner life, to what drove him. They had no knowledge of his deep insecurity over his dark skin, big teeth and small stature … of his profound need for control over music, money and relationships.”
What the other biographers lacked, Todd has in spades, you might say, and as one of the great musician’s sons, he paints an intimate, unsparing portrait of a man whose music is a soundtrack of a generation. No composer/performer gave such a powerful and poignant music to the turbulent ’60s, particularly the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s not until the second chapter of the book that Todd brings his father on the stage, noting his birth in Chicago, June 3, 1942. America had recently made its entry into World War II when Mayfield came screaming into the world. That scream segued smoothly into a lilting falsetto and by the time he was 14 and a high school dropout, he surrendered to his musical muse and to his guitar.
The foundation for his musical odyssey began in the church, like so many prominent African-American musicians. His grandmother was a spiritualist and she taught Mayfield the rudiments of music through lessons on the piano. But he soon gravitated to the guitar, which he tuned based on the black keys of the piano, fixing it in F-sharp key. After meeting Jerry Butler, who would be a lifelong friend, he joined the Impressions.
The group, after several years on the Chitlin’ Circuit, finally had a breakthrough recording, “For Your Precious Love,” in 1958. They were at the Apollo for a performance when Mayfield turned 16. But all was not groovy with the group, mainly because Butler’s name was in big bold letters on the marquee at the Apollo and the Impressions was cast in small letters. Mayfield and the others had no idea why Butler’s name was given top billing. In the biography, Todd explained the move engineered by the Vee-Jay record company. “Every label worth its salt had long realized that if one a group had a hit, the company could multiply its money by separating the lead singer and creating two acts,” Todd wrote, noting it had happened to other famous groups, such as Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters and James Brown and the Famous Flames.
It was just one of the lessons Mayfield absorbed as his musical prowess and productivity increased. In fact, he became so fast and proficient that he was not only writing hit tunes for the Impressions—“Gypsy Woman,” “It’s All Right” and “I’m So Proud”—there were minimally successful songs for Major Lance and Gene Chandler. When he penned “People Get Ready,” the Impressions soared into the limelight, their music inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, which quickly adopted the tune, giving it almost anthem-like appreciation.
“Keep on Pushin’” was another Mayfield composition that found traction in the movement, and soon he was in such great demand that he could hardly fulfill all the requests from major entertainers, all of them wanting a tune tailored to their style and interpretation. Another lesson Mayfield learned in the process was to control his products. He had witnessed what had happened to other songwriters and performers who were often unaware of how they were being rooked by the recording companies. With his longtime associate and manger, Eddie Thomas, Mayfield formed Custom, a merger of their names, thereby ensuring the control of his songs and increasing his wealth.
Five years after “People Get Ready,” Mayfield was ready for a change and embarked on a solo career. Imbued with the social and political consciousness of the previous decade, he was hired to write the soundtrack to “Super Fly,” a film that was a hallmark of the Blaxploitation phase in Hollywood. “Freddie’s Dead” and the title song stood out in a score that pulsed with an anti-drug message. The album was ranked at No. 72 on the Rolling Stones’ list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
“I didn’t put Priest down,” Mayfield said of the film’s main character. “He was trying to get out [of the drug business.] His deeds weren’t noble ones, but he was making money and he had intelligence. And he did survive. I mean, all this was reality.”
But it was Freddie who gained Mayfield’s deepest feelings, and according to his son, he crafted “Freddie’s Dead” on the Fender Rhodes piano. “It took him five minutes to write the song,” Todd wrote. One of Mayfield’s best love songs, “Give Me Your Love,” deepened the feelings between Priest and his girlfriend during a bathtub scene. Again, as in the past, Johnny Pate’s arrangement was flawless.
Despite amassing four Grammy nominations “Super Fly” lost in every category. Mayfield received a similar setback during the Academy Award nominations after “Freddie’s Dead” was nominated for Best Original Song, and then disqualified because the film only featured the instrumental version. “I’m glad I was in a position to let everybody see what the Academy Awards are—a personalized social club with exclusive members,” Mayfield said at the time. “I’m from R&B music, so I’d rather lose an Oscar than to lose in the streets.”
It was literarily back to the streets with “Back to the World,” and the lead single “Future Shock” brought Mayfield back to the fold, notwithstanding the shocks he received from the Grammys and the Oscars. Always a workaholic, Mayfield wrote a slew of songs for the Impressions and produced several albums, including “Curtis in Chicago,” before agreeing to score music for the films “Three the Hard Way” and “Claudine.”
After balking on doing the soundtrack for “Let’s Do It Again,” Mayfield signed on and delivered, as the album went gold and the film was praised. He experienced a similar success with his songs for “Sparkle,” but time had to be set aside to establish Mayfield Music, his new publishing company. Even so, there were soundtracks for “Short Eyes” and “A Piece of the Action.”
When the ’80s arrived and the disco craze emerged, Mayfield was not that excited, although he continued to pump out music, particularly in keeping with his concern for the social and political climate, with its intense violence. The rampant violence turned him from his hometown and to Atlanta and the subsequent “Love Is the Place.”
Mayfield’s influence, as it had done for Bob Marley, surfaced again when rap and hip-hop commanded the stage. His message was never more in force than when Grandmaster Flash issued “The Message,” incorporating licks Mayfield laid down during the “Super Fly” phase. There were further nods from KRS-One, who said, “Curtis Mayfield was hip-hop.”
In the summer of 1990, Mayfield was asked to perform at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn. During a live performance, amid a brewing storm, a piece of lighting equipment fell and struck and paralyzed Mayfield. The accident only delayed his comeback, and six years later he released his final album “New World Order.” Then came a slew of awards, including two inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, one as a member of the Impressions and the other as a solo artist.
Mayfield died of complications of type 2 diabetes in 1999. He was 57.