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The Impressions

How the Impressions’ Curtis Mayfield created his own brand of mantric protest funk

The Impressions, Jerry Butler, Sam Gooden, Curtis Mayfield

The Impressions; Posed studio group portrait - Jerry Butler (top left) Sam Gooden (top middle) and Curtis Mayfield (bottom right). Circa 1958.

Gilles Petard/Redferns/Getty

The Impressions were the crucial link in the evolution of black popular music from the ebullient sexuality of Fifties rhythm & blues and doo-wop’s raw choral passion to me sophisticated grooves, celebratory vocal intensity and poetic dignity of classic Sixties soul. With earthy, immaculate harmonies, stylish, swinging arrangements and an uncommonly gifted singer-songwriter in Curtis Mayfield, the legendary Chicago group produced a rich body of work – including classic hits like “Gypsy Woman,” “Keep On Pushing” and “People Get Ready” – that revolutionized rock & roll and eloquently articulated the fierce pride and embattled but invincible spirit at the heart of the civil-rights struggle.

Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler were childhood friends living on the west side of Chicago – and already veterans of the gospel touring circuit – when they put together the Impressions’ original five-man lineup in 1957 with Sam Gooden and Richard and Arthur Brooks. A year later the young quintet blew out of the Windy City and into the Top Forty with “For Your Precious Love,” a masterpiece of dramatic R&B melancholia, distinguished by the haunting juxtaposition of Butler’s noble, pleading baritone, the loamy dignity of the group’s harmonies and Mayfield’s distant, tremulous tenor.

Sudden success was nearly the group’s undoing. Butler left the group in 1959 to pursue a solo career, and the Impressions went into limbo while Mayfield concentrated on songwriting and production. Ironically, he scored his first big hit with his old band mate Jerry Butler, co-writing and playing on the latter’s 1960 smash “He Will Break Your Heart.” With renewed confidence, Mayfield reconvened the Impressions – with Fred Cash replacing Butler – and quickly hit pay dirt, in 1961, with “Gypsy Woman,” a soulful marriage of hypnotic flamenco rhythm and dreamy sensuality evoked by Mayfield’s floating falsetto.

The Brooks brothers left the group soon after, reducing the Impressions to the classic trio of Mayfield, Cash and Gooden. Their string of mid-Sixties chart successes – which included such lustrous soul jewels as “It’s All Right,” “You Must Believe Me” and “I’m So Proud” – rivaled that of the Motown hit factory. Indeed, Mayfield had his own Berry Gordy-style assembly line going at the same time, producing and writing hits for Jan Bradley (“Mama Didn’t Lie”), Major Lance (“The Monkey Time,” “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um”) and Gene Chandler (“Man’s Temptation,” “Just Be True”). In 1968, Mayfield started his own record label, Curtom, which became home not only to the Impressions and Mayfield’s assorted studio protégés but also to Mayfield himself, who finally went solo in 1970.

Both Mayfield and Butler continued to make pop history, as well as hit records, as solo artists. In late 1967, Butler hooked up with the songwriting and production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Together, on hits like “Hey, Western Union Man,” “Never Give You Up” and “Only the Strong Survive,” they laid the foundation for the stirring orchestral-soul sound that later became the trademark of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label. Mayfield fell under the spell of electric R&B shamans like Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone and created his own brand of mantric protest funk, epitomized by his million-selling 1972 album Superfly. Mayfield was still actively recording and performing until last August, when he was hospitalized following a freak accident during an outdoor show in Brooklyn.

Thirty-three years after “For Your Precious Love,” the Impressions continue to be a major influence on popular music. Their sound and vision, and that of Mayfield’s and Butler’s solo work, can still be heard – in rap, contemporary-soul balladry and the incipient school of black rock.

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