The Music of Curtis Mayfield
--Bill Burns, Sandpaper Collective

Body grindin' and 'groovin, 'fingers poppin'. Spirit soaring and soaring. My heart, your heart opening. The sheer sounds of harmony washing over us. This was R&B, RHYTHM & BLUES music of the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. This was liberation music and it rocked a generation. Nobody wrote this music better and sang and expressed the political implications of this Soul music in more profound ways than Curtis Mayfield.

On December 26, 1999, this sweet soul, this spirit, diminished, died.

A memorial for Curtis, the man and his music, was held in February at the Autonomous Zone in Chicago. It was sponsored by the A-Zone and the Open University of the Left. Some 40 of us, young and old alike, came filing into the A-Zone on a cold and snowy night. We were lookin' to learn and groove with Curtis one more time and baby!— we were not disappointed!

Our host for the evening was Darrell Gordon, a genuine Doctor of R&B whose facts, details, and rare and precious videos of R&B performers made for a truly dynamite evening.

So let's hear about Curtis Mayfield, the man and his music. Curtis Mayfield was born June 3, 1942 in Chicago. At an early age he was already singing and playing the guitar with his first group, the Alphatones. By his teens he and his family were living in the Cabrini Green housing projects. Yeah, I said CABRINI.

Whoa! You mean good and talented people live in a housing project? Yep! The'powers that be' would have us believe that nothing good comes out of Cabrini. Well, hard times often times makes the creativity flow. It was to be here in Cabrini Green that the world famous musical group The Impressions was to be born, led in time by Curtis Mayfield.

As our host, Darrell Gordon pointed out, the original name of The Impressions was The Roosters. In 1958 came The Impressions first big hit, "For Your Precious Love," with Jerry Butler singing lead. This beautiful song heavily laden with gospel went to No. 3 on the R&B charts and was a Top 40 hit on the "white" charts. As Darrell so clearly pointed out, this song was unusual for the time because the words did not repeat themselves. It was also considered one of the first 'Soul' records.

The Impressions had the usual ups and downs of groups, but in 1961 they signed with ABC Paramount Records, and what followed was a string of hits. In 1961 out came "Gypsy Woman." In 1962, Curtis wrote the song "Mama didn't Lie," sung by singer Jan Bradley.

The year 1963 was another great year with the song "Monkey Time." This song swept the nation. Imagine hundreds of thousands of young teens down in their basements. The basements dark with nothing but a blue light shining and sweating, grinding, and gyrating of boy on girl and girl on boy. It was a time of rebellion, open sexuality, and it felt good not to be controlled.

Later in 1963, came a monster hit "It's All Right," which went to the very top of the Pop Charts! Both of these songs of 1963, Darrell had a video for us to see. Many of the young people in the audience at the A-Zone were struck by the fact that as "Monkey Time" was sung by The Impressions these black men were fronted by dancing "white girls." Darrell explained that these were the times. Album covers were often without black faces and acceptability was determined by "whiting" things up.

With all their success, The Impressions did appear on the Dick Clark's American Bandstand, but with their dark features they were nowhere to be found on the biggest variety show in America: The Ed Sullivan Show!

The year 1964 was a time of great turmoil below the Mason-Dixon Line. Blacks were marching all over the South to break down the walls of segregation. Beset upon by the Klan, police dogs, and fire hoses, Blacks could not, would not be stopped. The cry of freedom was in the air. And always Curtis was right there with us feeling the pulse of the people, inspiring us to greater efforts with his album Keep on Pushin', which would be in the top ten on National Billboard Charts. During these years, The Impressions were always busy doing background for various stars, and Curtis was writing songs for such legends as Major Lance, Gladys Knight, and Gene Chandler, who sang a Curtis song "Nothing Can Stop Me." This righteous song we were able to see on video at the A-Zone. And as it was playing I was 'tripping' on the folks at the A-Zone as they felt the rhythms come over them.

In 1967, Curtis and The Impressions had another big hit, "We're a Winner." And as I am listening to the music videos at the A-Zone, my mind is drifting back thirty some years to 1969. I am this long-haired white radical "running with some 'get down mutherfuckers'" called Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and I am sitting in my buddy Willie's 'crib.' In the house are Willie, his wife Slim, and their three-year-old daughter Deneen. Chicken is frying on the skillet and the greens are cooking. Deneen is nestled in her Daddy's lap. Several of us are stretched out on the floor, and Willie is telling his stories about the world so different than my own. About his partners Red with a lisp, and Cil with the smooth 'player moves,' of 'lovin and fightin,' and playing ball. I am the only white face in the group, but I feel so welcome. And we are jammin' the box, and the COLT 45 malt is going from mouth to mouth. And then with Curtis playing in the background, Willie starts talking about Vietnam. Of night patrols (the most dangerous duty) in dense jungle with boobytraps, snakes, and sudden ambushes. And I am sitting with my mouth open as Willie tells me that these night patrols were made up entirely of Blacks. It seems that Willie's sergeant, a good'ol redneck from down South, thought it would be a good idea! Willie did not want to go deep in all this but without the words he conveyed the screams, the paralyzing fear, the bodies...

"Hey man, don't hog the COLT."

And Curtis, with his sweet tenor continues to sing and I am back in the present. Curtis Mayfield and his music are no more and Willie has been dead probably five years. Done in by racism, Vietnam memories, and alcohol and drug addiction.

In 1969, The Impressions had their last big hit as a group with a song called "Choice of Colors." The year 1970 would see Curtis form his own music company called Curtom. It also would be a time when Curtis would leave the The Impressions. His new career as a writer/singer would travel roads of creativity throughout the 1970s which would bring a score of new hits with a definite 'funky' sound. In the early 1970's, out came the movie SUPERFLY. The movie was a huge hit, and the man who wrote the music was Curtis Mayfield. Curtis would also write the song "Let's Do it Again" for the movie Sparkle, and a beautiful song called "On and On" that Gladys Knight would sing in the movie Claudine.

In the early 1980s, Curtis lent his many talents to Harold Washington in his successful run for Mayor of Chicago.

Throughout the 1980s Curtis continued to write 'real' R&B. The creativity was still there. His lyrics and his use of the human voice and a variety of instruments was unsurpassed, but his music was no longer being effectively promoted. The mega conglomerate music companies owned by such giants as Time-Warner Inc. wanted a homogenous techno-driven sound that no longer required good lyrics, harmonies, and deep beautiful soulful voices!

Curtis Mayfield pushed on writing and doing benefits for public schools on the East Coast. One evening, standing on stage seeing to every detail so that the show that followed would be enjoyed by all, a huge piece of sound equipment broke loose and came crashing down and crushed Curtis. He would be near death for several days. The rebel that he was, though, he battled back. In time, he would go home but he was paralyzed from the chest down with only limited use of his hands.

In the 1990s, Curtis wrote a few songs. I mean, if that is how you express your being, then Baby! you write. But nothing took off. Finally in 1999, overcome by diabetes, Curtis Mayfield died.

For many of us who loved his music and appreciated what this man stood for, he will be missed.

For those who love R&B or are curious 'bout it, please take the opportunity to see a presentation by Darrell Gordon. His rare R&B videos of numerous legends, his attention to detail, and his political insight into how R&B music was exploited, controlled and eventually repressed is something that needs to be seen and heard.

Darrell Gordon c/o Sandpaper 1573 N. Milwaukee Ave. #420 Chicago, IL 60622 773.252.6019

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