Best Of '99:
Family Recall Curtis Mayfield's Influence, Persistence
Two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee
brought social consciousness to '60s soul
music and helped pioneer funk in '70s.
Staff Writers Teri vanHorn and Chris Nelson report:
[Editor's note: Over the holiday season, SonicNet is looking
back at 1999's top stories, chosen by our editors and
writers. This story originally ran on Monday, Dec. 27.]
Curtis Mayfield's friends on Monday (Dec. 27) remembered
him as an inspiration to other musicians, a lifelong learner and an early
proponent of civil rights.
"Curtis got into it before most other performers did," his former bandmate
and longtime friend Jerry
Butler said of the "People Get Ready" singer. "He seemed to me always out
in front of the
movement. That's what genius is."
The two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, whose voice and guitar
brought social consciousness to 1960s soul music and helped pioneer funk
the '70s, died Sunday morning in a Roswell, Ga., hospital at age 57. He
been admitted to the hospital Wednesday after slipping into a coma.
Mayfield's wife, Altheida, and his children were at his bedside when he
according to Karen Lee, his publicist at Warner Bros. Records. A cause
death was not specified, but Lee said Mayfield had been ill.
Butler, who knew Mayfield since their childhoods and sang with him in the
Impressions, remembered his humor, intelligence, civil rights activism
perseverance, which was tested by the 1990 onstage accident that left him
paralyzed below the neck.
"Right after his accident, he told me, 'Jerry, you know what really bugs
about this? I can't reach over and get my guitar. ... I have these thoughts
melodies running through my mind and I can't pick it up and do it,' " recalled
the 60-year-old Butler, who is serving his 14th year as a Cook County
Commissioner in Chicago.
But Mayfield continued to record, releasing his last album of original
World Order, in 1996. Wade Murray, part of Organized Noize, the
Grammy-nominated production team that worked on the album, recalled in
Atlanta Journal Constitution watching Mayfield record most of his vocals
"It was amazing that that voice, that incredible, influential voice, was
even when he was flat on his back," Murray is quoted as saying.
Murray and his brother Ray are working with fellow producers Dallas Austin
and Jermaine Dupri on a remake of Mayfield's 1965 single "People Get
Ready," according to the newspaper.
Mayfield, who was inducted into the Rock Hall both as a member of the Impressions
and as a solo
artist, was born in Chicago on June 3, 1942. He formed the Roosters in
1956 with fellow
church-choir member Butler, brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks and Sam
Gooden; they later
renamed themselves the Impressions. Mayfield wrote, sang and played on
most of the group's
many hits, including the atmospheric "Gypsy Woman," the uplifting, oft-covered
"It's All Right" and
the gospel-inflected "People Get Ready," which was adopted as an anthem
by the civil rights
Butler left the group in 1960, but he and Mayfield continued to collaborate,
even regrouping in the
Impressions for a 1983 reunion tour. "I did more than work with Curtis,
I grew up with him," said
Butler, who met Mayfield when the late singer was 8. "We developed a friendship
over time that
came very close to being family." Butler's latest release of new material
is Time and Faith (1992).
Butler said most fans might not know Mayfield was a "lover of knowledge"
with an extensive home
library, as well as a prankster who loved practical jokes.
But more than anything, he said, "Curtis was his music. "That was his life."
In addition to scoring 13 top-10 singles in the '60s and '70s, Mayfield
wrote hits for several fellow
Chicago soul singers, including Major Lance ("The Monkey Time") and Billy
Butler and the
Enchanters ("I Can't Work No Longer"). He also penned the Staple Singers'
"Let's Do It Again,"
which became the title track to the 1975 film that starred Bill Cosby and
"That was the only secular song we've ever done," Mavis Staples told the
Sunday. "We were excited. But when we went into the studio and Pops heard
his part — 'I like you
lady/ So fine with your pretty hair' — he said, 'Man, I ain't singing that,
Curtis,' and Curtis said,
'Pops, come on. It's a movie score. It's not changing your religion. Do
it for me, please?' And Daddy
just got tickled. He couldn't say no to Curtis. He was that inspiring."
Mavis Staples performed "People Get Ready" with U2 frontman Bono at this
year's Rock Hall of
Fame induction ceremony, while Pops Staples recorded the song for his 1994
Butler said the lyrics to "People Get Ready" — "People get ready, there's
a train a-comin'/ You
don't need no ticket, just get on board" — were about more than the civil
rights movement. "That
train was love and peace and all of that," he said.
"He wanted people to think about themselves and the world around them,
hoping it would make this
a better place for everyone to live," Marv Heiman, Mayfield's longtime
manager, said in a statement.
Mayfield began his solo career in 1970, with the album Curtis, on which
he moved away from the
softer sound of the Impressions and toward a bass-driven funk style.
His 1972 soundtrack to the movie "Superfly" decried inner-city woes while
helping to define the funk
sound of heavy bass and wah-wah guitar, as reflected on such classics as
"Freddie's Dead" and
"Pusherman." Mayfield continued to release solo albums throughout the '70s
while scoring films
and writing and producing for such artists as Aretha Franklin. His R&B
hits of that decade also
included "Future Shock," "Kung Fu" and "Between You Baby and Me," a duet
with Linda Clifford.
Among the many artists who have cited Mayfield as an influence are Lauryn
Hill, Eric Clapton,
Bruce Springsteen, Ice-T and Whitney Houston. Springsteen covered "Gypsy
Woman" on the 1994
album A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, which also featured Houston, Clapton,
Rod Stewart and Stevie
Wonder. Mayfield recorded the single "Superfly 1990" with Ice-T in 1990,
and, for this year's
soundtrack to The Mod Squad, recorded "Here But I'm Gone (Part II)" with
"I lost my husband, the father of our children, my best friend and my soulmate,"
Altheida, said in a statement. "Thank God his music and his legacy will
live far beyond today."
(Staff Writer Brian Hiatt and Contributing Editor Frank Tortorici contributed
to this report.)