Only a select handful of artists are able to transcend their momentary impact on pop culture. But such individuals don’t just revolutionize the music worldat their most potent, they help define and redefine social agendas for current and future generations. They can change views and shape visions that endure well past their lifetimes.
Curtis Mayfield, who died Dec. 26 at age 57, was certainly one of those people. While he wrote and performed numerous classic songs that date back to the late ’50s, his symbolic importance as a voice for truth and justice surpassed those worthy achievements. Mayfield didn’t back down from critics who questioned his motives, and he expressed his positions on a myriad of issues, from racism to the record business, in crystal-clear, succinct fashion.
Integrity, passion, and commitment were qualities that epitomized not only his music and compositions, but his entire life. Mayfield was a pioneer in several arenas: He was among the first African American songwriter-artists to retain his publishing rights and among the first to start his own record label. He was versatile enough to pen hit dance tunes for Major Lance and memorable ballads for Gene Chandler while also ranking among the finest falsetto vocalists and instrumental accompanists in soul music history. Bob Marley, for one, spoke long and often about the impact that Mayfield’s singing and writing had on his own career.
Though his earliest endeavors were as a composer, Mayfield rose to fame as a performer with Chicago soul group The Impressions. The original lineup also included Jerry Butler, whose debonair vocals were surrounded by Mayfield’s nimble, evocative acoustic guitar riffs and by mellow backing vocals from Fred Cash and Sam Gooden. The Impressions helped usher in the shift from doo-wop to gospel-tinged soul with their influential hit ”For Your Precious Love“ in 1958. But once Butler departed in 1960, Mayfield’s writing and production moved the remaining trio into new terrain; they still performed heartache ballads and romantic pieces, but the singer-songwriter wasn’t content specializing just in love material.
Indeed, Mayfield never accepted the widely held notion during the ’60s that soul audiences wouldn’t accept anything besides short, catchy ballads and novelty tunes. Thus he penned stirring inspirational pieces like ”Keep on Pushing“ in 1964 and ”We’re a Winner“ in 1968, songs with lyrics so poignant and direct they served as anthems of the civil rights movement. Although some Southern radio stationseven those ostensibly programming ”black“ musicrefused to air these songs for fear of alienating white listeners, both singles numbered among The Impressions’ many hit records.
By the early ’70s, Mayfield had left The Impressions and embarked on a fruitful solo career. He began incorporating Afro-Latin beats into his production, increasing his song lengths, and moving into soundtracks. Such records as Superfly, ”Let’s Do It Again,“ Sparkle, and ”Short Eyes“ explored topics including drug use, prison violence, even racial strife within the black community. Superfly, released in 1972, was ultimately Mayfield’s most famous album, but might also have been his least understood work. A starkly anti-drug statement, it was the soundtrack to one of the decade’s most famous ”blaxploitation“ films. As a result, some listeners thought Mayfield was glorifying drug use and pimp lifestyles when he was actually ripping thema trend that extended into the hip-hop era, as various gangsta rappers sampled tunes off the album.
A couple years earlier, Mayfield’s 1970 debut solo LP Curtis triggered controversy for the stark language in such songs as ”Don’t Worry (If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go)“ and ”We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue.“ He offered no apologies, saying instead that he was using words that were uttered daily; he wanted to expose the hypocrisy of people spewing racial epithets in private, then publicly espousing brotherhood and harmony. A year before, The Impressions’ single ”Choice of Colors“ b/w ”(Mighty Mighty) Spade & Whitey“ had already made it clear that Mayfield didn’t accept simplistic explanations for bigotry, nor was he willing to reduce complicated issues to sound bites and rhetoric. In the ensuing years, similar masterpieces like Roots, Back to the World, There’s No Place Like America Today, and Curtis Live in Chicago skillfully blended thoughtful commentary with frenetic rhythms, jubilant vocals, and inventive playing.
Mayfield continued his superb work through the ’80s, then was victimized in a tragic onstage accident at a 1990 show in Brooklyn that left him a quadriplegic. But not even this shattering blow diminished his creative prowess: Mayfield continued writing through the decade, and his ’96 release New World Order earned three Grammy nominations. Fortunately, Mayfield lived long enough to be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, receive a NARAS Lifetime Achievement award, and have two tribute albums of his music recorded in 1993 and 1994.
While his compositions persevere, Curtis Mayfield’s spirit and memory are even more vital. He is irreplaceable as a creative force, but his records will forever testify to his musical innovation and to his deeply transcendent social and moral conscience.
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