Mayfield’s music fueled an era

THE IMPRESSIONS: Sam Gooden, Curtis Mayfield and Fred Cash racked up 17 Top 10 hits in the R&B field.
THE IMPRESSIONS: Sam Gooden, Curtis Mayfield and Fred Cash racked up 17 Top 10 hits in the R&B field.
(Reelin’ in the Years Productions)
Special to The Times

If asked to name the recording artist whose music came closest to serving as a soundtrack for the civil rights movement in the 1960s, most pop fans would probably think of James Brown, Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan.

But a new DVD makes a strong case that the best answer is Curtis Mayfield. With the Impressions vocal group and on his own, Mayfield was a commanding, trailblazing songwriter, singer and guitarist, and he used those skills to create some of the most influential and inspirational recordings of the civil rights era.

Three years before Brown’s landmark “Say It Loud -- I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the Impressions broke into the R&B Top 10 in 1965 with “People Get Ready,” a gospel-tinged tune by Mayfield that became one of the anthems of the movement. Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and U2 are among the scores of recording artists who have sung the song.

Then, three years before Marvin Gaye’s socially conscious “What’s Going On” and five years before Wonder’s wake-up call in the “Innervisions” album, Mayfield and the Impressions reached No. 1 on the R&B chart in 1968 with another glorious expression of black pride, “We’re a Winner.”

Andrew Young, the civil rights activist and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who was interviewed for the DVD, “Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions,” says he frequently heard the “spiritual power” of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Mayfield’s music. Public Enemy’s Chuck D too is convincing when he says Mayfield “left an impression on our soul” and helped inspire rappers to reflect on personal inner-city life struggles.

The DVD, released today, focuses on Mayfield’s message, but its main value rests in the vintage footage of Mayfield and the group, which also included Fred Cash and Sam Gooden. In nearly two dozen performances, we can see Mayfield evolve from a young, somewhat awkward musical hopeful to one of the most supremely gifted and confident artists of the modern pop era. It’s an illuminating and invaluable work.

Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions

“Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions”

Reelin’ in the Years Productions/Universal Music Group International

The back story: Mayfield, who died in 1999 at the age of 57, was honored several times in his life, including two inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- once as a member of the Impressions and then as a solo artist. Still, he isn’t as widely known today as some of his gifted contemporaries, including Wonder and Brown.

One reason is because he recorded chiefly for labels, including ABC-Paramount and his own Curtom, that couldn’t match the star-making, promotional machinery of Motown. In addition, so much of the Impressions’ music seemed so tied to the civil rights movement that mainstream pop radio stations shied away from it.

All this contributed to Mayfield & the Impressions doing far better in the R&B field (17 Top 10 singles) than in the broader pop field (only three Top 10 singles). On his own, Mayfield had additional pop success, thanks to the wide exposure of such songs as “Freddie’s Dead,” which he wrote for the film “Superfly.”

Mayfield’s unbending optimism and faith came to him naturally. At the peak of his success in the early 1970s, he told me his grandmother was one of his biggest influences. “She was a very religious person. She always had something inspiring to say,” he added in that gentle, distinctive high tenor voice.

Taking over as leader of the group after singer Jerry Butler left in the late 1950s, Mayfield wrote a battery of hits, including “Keep On Pushing” and “Choice of Colors,” before leaving for a solo role himself in 1970. Cash and Gooden, who are interviewed in the DVD, brought in Leroy Hutson to replace Mayfield. While the group continued to have hits, its legacy is tied to the Mayfield years.

Despite the “Superfly” success of the early 1970s, Mayfield changed his priorities and eventually began devoting more time to his family than his music.

Just when Mayfield seemed to be on the verge of a comeback, he was hurt in a freak accident in the summer of 1990 in Brooklyn that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He was in such bad shape by the time he recorded his last album, 1996’s “New World Order,” that he had to record the vocals while lying down to preserve his strength.

Mayfield’s high-pitched voice on his records often seemed at odds with the power of his vocals, but his guitar riffs conveyed much of the power and tension of his songs.

Future listening: The most rewarding way to sample Mayfield & the Impressions on CD is Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions’ “The Anthology 1961-1977,” a two-disc set from Geffen/MCA that includes 40 of the best-known tunes, including “Superfly” material.

Backtracking is a biweekly feature devoted to CD reissues and other historical pop items.