Curtis Mayfield was a driving force in black music from the early '60s through the mid-'70s, as a singer, writer, producer, and label owner.
Mayfield began singing with gospel groups such as the Northern Jubilee Singers, who were part of his grandmother's Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church. He met lifelong friend and collaborator Jerry Butler at a gospel function, and they went on to form the Impressions, a rhythm & blues vocal group, in 1957. In 1958 they, along with Sam Gooden and Richard and Arthur Brooks, recorded "For Your Precious Love" on Vee-Jay Records. Butler's cool baritone dominated the record, and he left to pursue a solo career. Mayfield and Butler teamed up again in 1960, with Butler singing and Mayfield writing and playing guitar on "He Will Break Your Heart" (Number Seven pop, Number One R&B). A re-formed Impressions with Mayfield, Gooden, and Fred Cash signed with ABC-Paramount and scored with Mayfield's flamenco-styled "Gypsy Woman" (Number 20 pop, Number Two R&B).
Mayfield then entered a prolific period during which his writing and singing would come to define the Chicago sound, which rivaled Motown in the early and mid-'60s. With the Impressions, Mayfield produced, wrote, and sang lead on numerous hits; some included uplifting civil-rights-movement messages. "It's All Right" (Number Four pop, Number One R&B) in 1963; "I'm So Proud" (Number 14 pop), "Keep On Pushing" (Number 10 pop), and "Amen" (Number Seven pop, Number 17 R&B) in 1964; "People Get Ready" (Number 14 pop, Number Three R&B) in 1965; and "We're a Winner" (Number 14 pop, Number One R&B) in 1968 reflect the quality of Mayfield's work.
Meanwhile, as the staff producer for Columbia-distributed Okeh Records, Mayfield wrote memorable music for Major Lance — "The Monkey Time" (Number Eight pop, Number Four R&B) and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" (Number Five pop) — and for Gene Chandler: "Just Be True" (Number 19 pop) and "Nothing Can Stop Me" (Number 18 pop, Number Three R&B). On his own Windy C and Mayfield labels, he produced hits with the Five Stairsteps and Cubie, "World of Fantasy" (Number 12 R&B), and the Fascinations, "Girls Are Out to Get You" (Number 13 R&B), respectively.
In the late '60s Mayfield started his third company, Curtom, this one distributed by Buddah Records. During the '70s Curtom moved from Buddah to Warner Bros. to RSO Records for distribution. In 1970 Mayfield also made a major career move, leaving the Impressions to go solo, though he continued to direct the group's career through the decade.
Solo albums — Curtis (Number 19), Curtis/Live! (Number 21), and Roots (Number 40) all sold well, establishing Mayfield as a solo performer. But it was his soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Superfly that is generally considered his masterpiece — an eerie yet danceable blend of Mayfield's knowing falsetto with Latin percussion and predisco rhythm guitars. The 4-million-selling album (Number One, 1972) included two gold singles, "Superfly" (Number Eight pop, Number Five R&B) and "Freddie's Dead" (Number Four pop, Number Two R&B); it sold an additional million copies as a tape. It foreshadowed Mayfield's continued involvement with film in the '70s. He scored Claudine, writing the Gladys Knight and the Pips' single "On and On" in 1974; Let's Do It Again, which featured the Staples Singers on the title song in 1975; and Sparkle with Aretha Franklin in 1976. Two years later Mayfield and Franklin would team again for Almighty Fire. In 1977 Mayfield would both score and act in the low-budget prison drama Short Eyes, a critical success.
As a solo artist, Mayfield continued to score with "Future Shock" (Number 11 R&B, 1973), "If I Were Only a Child Again" (Number 22 R&B, 1973), "Can't Say Nothin' " (Number 16 R&B, 1973), "Kung Fu" (Number Three R&B, 1974), "So in Love" (Number Nine R&B, 1975), "Only You Babe" (Number Eight R&B, 1976), and two duets with Linda Clifford: "Between You Baby and Me" (Number 14 R&B, 1979) and "Love's Sweet Sensation" (Number 34 R&B, 1980).
In 1980 Mayfield, who by then had moved with his family (including six children) from Chicago to Atlanta, signed with Boardwalk Records and enjoyed a popular album and singles with Love Is the Place and "She Don't Let Nobody (But Me)" (Number 15 R&B) and "Toot 'n' Toot 'n' Toot" (Number Two R&B). Mayfield rejoined the Impressions for a 1983 reunion tour. Mayfield's recording career hit a wall when Boardwalk went bankrupt, but he formed his own CRC label to release 1985's We Come in Peace With a Message of Love, which went unnoticed, as did his 1990 album for the revived Curtom label (distributed by Atlanta's Ichiban). Mayfield continued touring, however, and was especially popular in England, where the band the Blow Monkeys recorded a duet with him in 1987, "(Celebrate) The Day After You."
In 1990 Mayfield scored the dud movie Return of Superfly; the music was released on an album, Superfly 1990, on which Mayfield collaborated with rapper Ice-T — one of several '90s stars, such as Arrested Development and Lenny Kravitz, to cite Mayfield's influence. On August 14, 1990, while Mayfield was performing an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, New York, a lighting rig fell atop him, leaving him permanently paralyzed from the neck down. Mayfield and the Impressions were subsequently inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a lavish and emotional tribute was paid to Mayfield at the 1994 Grammy Awards gala.
In 1994 Shanachie Records released an all-star Mayfield-tribute album entitled People Get Ready, which featured Delbert McClinton, Jerry Butler, Bunny Wailer, and Huey Lewis and the News. Another tribute, A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, included Eric Clapton, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Gladys Knight, and Jerry Butler, among others. The enduring appeal of Mayfield's songs is evidenced in the wide range of artists who have recorded them: Deniece Williams ("I'm So Proud"), UB40 ("I Gotta Keep Moving"), David Allan Coe ("For Your Precious Love"), Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck ("People Get Ready"), and En Vogue ("Giving Him Something He Can Feel").
In 1996 Mayfield released his last album, New World Order, which included guest appearances by Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples. Considerably weakened by his quadriplegia, Mayfield was forced to record some of his vocals one line at a time. (This is because the diaphragm, which is crucial to vocal control, was rendered paralyzed by Mayfield's spinal cord injury.) The record was warmly greeted. Unfortunately, complications from diabetes, which had resulted in the amputation of a leg in 1998, led to his death at age 57 in 1999. Just prior to his death, he and the Impressions had recorded their part of an all-star version of "People Get Ready" for the Atlanta's Year 2000 celebration. In 2000 Mayfield was posthumously inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame and, with the Impressions, he received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation's Pioneer Award.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).