“People must prove to the people a better day is coming for you and for me,” the Impressions sang in 1967’s “Choice of Colors,” one of Curtis Mayfield’s many civil rights anthems. Thirty-three years later, and two months after Mayfield’s death, Los Angeles’ First African Methodist Episcopal Church looked like the fulfillment of Mayfield’s dream, as people of all colors sang, swayed, clapped, laughed and wept in celebration of the Gentle Genius’ life and songs.
After the First AME’s Freedom Choir piped out a gospel rendition of Mayfield’s signature spiritual road song “People Get Ready,” Eric Clapton took the stage. “This is one of the greatest privileges I’ve ever had in my life,” said Clapton, who confessed that his nerves wouldn’t let him sleep the previous night. Then, guitar in hand and flanked by the surviving Impressions, he launched into their 1964 tune “I’ve Been Trying,” complete with four-part harmonies.
Premier disciple of soul Lauryn Hill was up next. Peering out from under a white kerchief, Hill said that Mayfield had a “huge impact on the way I grew up.” Backed by a band assembled by R&B producer Narada Michael Walden, she offered a tender version of Mayfield’s 1970 love ballad “The Makings of You,” which she introduced as “a song I found in the basement of my mother’s house.”
Stevie Wonder also cited Mayfield as a profound childhood influence. Seated at a piano, he told the story of being an eleven-year-old boy and first hearing “Gypsy Woman” on the radio. “I thought, ‘What is a gypsy woman, and why haven’t I seen one?'” Wonder said, drawing laughs from the congregation, which included Mayfield’s family (he was the father of ten children), friends and record business intimates. Wonder then offered some perspective for many also in town for Wednesday’s Grammy festivities. “As significant as the Grammys are, this opportunity is even more: to celebrate the life of Curtis Mayfield.” After a false start because his mike was off, Wonder asked the crowd — to thunderous applause — “Can we start again?” and then led the band through a gleeful version of the song that so captivated his eleven-year-old imagination.
After the Impressions returned to sing “I’m So Proud,” Mayfield’s longtime manager and business partner Marv Heiman shared his thoughts. “I believe he sat down next to Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke and the heavens are singing again,” he said.
Heiman gave way to Mayfield’s visibly moved wife Altheida, who announced the creation of a United Negro College Fund musical scholarship in her husband’s name.
The Impressions, with Clapton on guitar, returned for “We’re a Winner” and “It’s All Right,” during which Wonder and Hill joined in. Towards the end of the latter number Wonder bellowed, “Your music will live forever!”
Rev. Steven Johnson then assumed the pulpit for the eulogy, quoting as much from the “gospel according to Mayfield” as anything written by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. “It’s all right!” he exclaimed. “I’ve got to keep on pushing …I can’t stop now … This is my country!”
Everyone with two hands and a mouth then clapped and sang along to Mayfield’s spiritual “Amen” as they excited the church.
“It was great,” said the Impressions’ Sam Gooden. “To hear Stevie, Lauryn and Eric up there singing these songs, and the choir singing ‘People Get Ready,’ you sit there and you almost cry because you’re so proud that you were a part of this.”
Bandmate Fred Cash agreed. “Curtis is walking around playing his guitar and smiling right now. I know that this would have made him happy.”
“We were all here because we had a very special affection for Curtis Mayfield,” Wonder said after the show. “[His] music is a part of American culture.” When asked about his rather euphoric rendition of “It’s All Right,” Wonder laughed. “I sort of went out [there] a little bit, because I was getting into it, but how can you sing it any better than he did?”
Carole King, like Mayfield a member of the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, said, “I think every day should be a tribute to Curtis Mayfield.”
As for the Impressions, they plan to continue to spread Mayfield’s songs of love. “Oh, we’re gonna keep on singing them,” said Smokey Hampton. “We got to keep on pushing. We can’t stop now.”