Curtis Mayfield: A Message in the Music

Curtis  Mayfield- soul, R&B, and funk singer, songwriter, and record producer- best known for his anthemic music with The Impressions and composing the soundtrack to film Super Fly. From these works and others, he was highly regarded as a pioneer of funk and of politically conscious African-American music. Using his blues and gospel-based framework Mayfield’s song writing and music spoke to the soul of black America with his the group the Impressions.

The Impressions reached the height of their popularity in the mid to late 1960s, with a string of Mayfield compositions that included Keep On Pushing, People Get Ready, It’s All Right, Woman’s Got Soul, Choice of Colors, Fool For You, This is My Country and Check Out Your Mind. Mayfield wrote much of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement 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, a Number 1 soul hit which also reached the Billboard pop Top 20, 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.
Moreover in Sixties,  Mayfield work both with the Impressions and as a songwriter-producer defined Chicago soul-a regional scene comparable to Motown in Detroit and Stax in Memphis-Mayfield left his imprint on the Seventies by couching social commentary and keenly observed black-culture archetypes in funky, danceable rhythms. He explained the shift in subject matter as “a feeling in me that there need to be songs that relate not so much to civil rights but to the way we as all people deal with our lives.”
In the Seventies, Mayfield, launched his solo career. Mayfield’s solo career found him giving freer reign to his guitar playing, a choppy, rhythm-based style that owed much to his Chicago blues heritage and a self-devised tuning based on the black keys of the piano. His most popular and lasting work was Superfly, a film soundtrack in which he painted a gritty portrait of black life in America’s inner cities. Mayfield struck a creative and commercial motherlode with Superfly‘s smoldering rock-disco grooves and pointed social commentary. The soundtrack album yielded massive crossover hits in Freddie’s Dead and Superfly. Against a hypnotic backdrop of conga drums, strings and wah-wah guitar, Mayfield sang of a high-rolling ghetto drug dealer’s lifestyle in a sweet, stinging falsetto. As an aural document, Mayfield’s music for this classic film anticipated the reality-based rap and hip-hop of the Nineties.
He has been cited as an influence by such latter-day performers as Lenny Kravitz, Ice-T, Public Enemy and Arrested Development. Mayfield’s ability to voice hard truths through funky, uplifting music has rendered him one of the great soul icons. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked Mayfield #99 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In the words of Aretha Franklin, “Curtis Mayfield is to soul music what Bach was to the classics and Gershwin and Irving Berlin were to pop music.”


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