Curtis Mayfield (June 3, 1942 – December 26, 1999) was an American soul, R&B, and funk singer, songwriter, and record producer best known for his anthemic music with The Impressions and composing the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Superfly. From these works and others, he was highly regarded as a pioneer of funk and of politically conscious African-American music. He was also a multi-instrumentalist who played the guitar, bass, piano, saxophone, and drums.
In February, 1998, he had to have his right leg amputated due to diabetes. Mayfield was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 1999. Unfortunately, health reasons prevented him from attending the ceremony.
Death of Curtis Mayfield
Curtis Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 in Roswell, Georgia from Diabetes
Curtis Mayfield was 57 years old at the time of his death
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Curtis Mayfield – Superfly
Back to the World (1973)
Got to Find a Way (1974)
Claudine (Gladys Knight and the Pips) (1974)
Sweet Exorcist (1974)
Let’s Do It Again (The Staple Singers) (1975)
There’s No Place Like America Today (1975)
Sparkle (Aretha Franklin) (1976)
Give, Get, Take and Have (1976)
A Piece of the Action (Mavis Staples) (1977)
Short Eyes (1977)
Never Say You Can’t Survive (1977)
Do It All Night (1978)
Something to Believe In (1980)
The Right Combination (with Linda Clifford) (1980)
Love is the Place (1982)
We Come in Peace with a Message of Love (1985)
Take It to the Streets (1990)
New World Order (1997)
Curtis in Chicago (1973)
Live in Europe (1988)
People Get Ready: Live at Ronnie Scott’s (1988)
The Anthology 1961-1977 (1992)
People Get Ready: The Curtis Mayfield Story (1996)
The Very Best of Curtis Mayfield (1997)
Soul Legacy (2001)
Greatest Hits (2006)
Early years and The Impressions
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Mayfield attended Wells High School. He dropped out of high school early to become lead singer and songwriter for The Impressions, then went on to a successful solo career. Perhaps most notably, Mayfield was among the first of a new wave of mainstream African-American R&B performing artists and composers who injected social commentary into their work. This "message music" became extremely popular during the period of political ferment and social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s.
Mayfield had several distinctions to his style of playing and singing, adding to the uniqueness of his music. When he taught himself how to play guitar, he tuned the guitar to the black keys of the piano, giving him an open F-sharp tuning — F#, A#, C#, F#, A#, F# — that he used throughout his career. Also, he sang most of his lines in falsetto, adding another flavor to his music.
Mayfield’s career began in 1956 when he joined The Roosters with Arthur and Richard Brooks and Jerry Butler. Two years later The Roosters, now including also Sam Gooden, became The Impressions. The band had one big hit with "For Your Precious Love". After Butler left the group and was replaced with Fred Cash, Mayfield became lead singer, frequently composing for the band, as well, starting with "Gypsy Woman". Their hit "Amen," an updated version of an old gospel tune, was included in the soundtrack of the 1963 MGM film Lilies of the Field, which starred Sidney Poitier. The Impressions reached the height of their popularity in the mid to late 1960s, with a string of Mayfield compositions that included "Keep On Pushin’," "People Get Ready," "Choice of Colors," "Fool For You," "This is My Country" and "Check Out Your Mind." Mayfield had written much of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement alongside Bob Dylan and others in the early 1960s, but by the end of the decade he was a pioneering voice in the black pride movement, in the company of James Brown and Sly Stone. Mayfield’s "We’re a Winner" became an anthem of the black power and black pride movements when it was released in late 1967, much as his earlier "Keep on Pushing" (whose title is quoted in the lyrics of "We’re a Winner") had been an anthem for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
Independent from his work with The Impressions, Mayfield became a songwriting powerhouse in Chicago, writing and producing scores of hits for other artists, including:
"Mama Didn’t Lie"/Jan Bradley
"We Girls"/Jan Bradley
"The Monkey Time"/Major Lance
"Um, Um, Um, Um, Um"/Major Lance
"Gypsy Woman"/Brian Hyland
"Just Be True"/(and numerous other hits) by Gene Chandler,
Walter Jackson, and The Five Stairsteps, among others. He also owned the Mayfield and Windy C labels, distributed by Cameo-Parkway, and was partners in the Curtom label (first independent, then distributed by Atlantic, then Buddah and finally Warner Bros.)
In 1970, Mayfield left The Impressions and began a solo career, founding the independent record label Curtom Records. Curtom would go on to release most of Mayfield’s landmark 1970s records, as well as records by the Impressions, Leroy Hutson, The Staple Singers, and Mavis Staples, and Baby Huey and the Babysitters, a group which at the time included Chaka Khan. Many of these records were also produced by Mayfield.
The commercial and critical peak of his solo career came with his 1972 album Superfly, the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film of the same name, and one of the most influential albums in history. Unlike the soundtracks to other blaxploitation films (most notably Isaac Hayes’ score for Shaft), which glorified the excesses of the characters, Mayfield’s lyrics consisted of hard-hitting commentary on the state of affairs in black, urban ghettos at the time, as well as direct criticisms of several characters in the film. Bob Donat wrote in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1972 that while the film’s message "was diluted by schizoid cross-purposes" because it "glamorizes machismo-cocaine consciousness… the anti-drug message on [Mayfield’s soundtrack] is far stronger and more definite than in the film." Along with Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, this album ushered in a new socially conscious, funky style of popular soul music. He was dubbed ‘The Gentle Genius’ to reflect his outstanding and innovative musical output with the constant presence of his soft yet insistent vocals.
Superfly’s success resulted in Mayfield being tapped for additional soundtracks, some of which he wrote and produced while having others perform the vocals. Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded Mayfield’s soundtrack for Claudine in 1974, while Aretha Franklin recorded the soundtrack for Sparkle in 1976. Mayfield worked with Mavis Staples on the 1977 soundtrack for the film A Piece of the Action. He was in danger of overreaching himself being writer, producer, performer, arranger and businessman but seemed to cope and still produce a remarkable output.
One of Mayfield’s most successful funk-disco meldings was the 1977 hit "Do Do Wap is Strong in Here" from his soundtrack to the Robert M. Young film of Miguel Piñero’s play Short Eyes.
Mayfield was active throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though he had a somewhat lower public profile. On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after stage lighting equipment fell on him at an outdoor concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. This tragedy set him back, but Mayfield forged ahead. He was unable to play guitar, but he wrote, sang and directed the recording of his last album, New World Order. Mayfield’s vocals were painstakingly recorded, usually line-by-line whilst lying on his back.
Mayfield received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
In February, 1998, he had to have his right leg amputated due to diabetes. Mayfield was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 1999. Unfortunately, health reasons prevented him from attending the ceremony, which included fellow inductees Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Dusty Springfield, George Martin, and 1970s Curtom signee and labelmate The Staples Singers. Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 in Roswell, Georgia surrounded by his family. His last work came to be the song "Astounded", with the group Bran Van 3000, recorded just before his death and released in 2000. As a member of The Impressions, Mayfield was posthumously inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.
Mayfield is remembered for his introduction of social consciousness into R&B and for pioneering the funk style in the 1970s. Many of his recordings with the Impressions became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and his most famous album, Superfly, is regarded as an all-time great that influenced many and truly invented a new style of modern black music (#69 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums). His distinctive, hard guitar riffs influenced the development of funk, and was highly influential on a young Jimi Hendrix who cited Mayfield as his biggest influence. He is also regarded as influencing other landmark albums, like Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters. One magazine notes, "eulogies…have treated him…as a sort of secular saint–rather like an American Bob Marley". That noted, he is not as well-known as contemporaries like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, or James Brown, perhaps because of their more consistent streams of hits or more mainstream style of music. Nevertheless, he is still highly regarded for his numerous innovations in the 1960s and 1970s and for his unique style of music, perhaps best described as "black psychedelia…remarkable for the scope of its social awareness". In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Mayfield #99 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time
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