Curtis Mayfield (June 3, 1942 – December 26, 1999) was an African American soul, funk and R&B singer, songwriter and noted guitarist best known for his soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Superfly. Mayfield came to prominence as lead singer/songwriter for The Impressions, then went on to have 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 '70s.
Mayfield's career began in 1958 (see 1958 in music), when he formed The Impressions with Jerry Butler, Sam Gooden, Richard Brooks, and Arthur Brooks. The band had hits with "For Your Precious Love" and "Gypsy Woman." After Butler left the group and was replaced with Fred Cash, Mayfield became lead singer, frequently composing for the band, as well. "Amen", an updated version of an old gospel tune, was included in the soundtrack of 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", "This is My Country", and "We People Who Are Darker than Blue." Mayfield's "We're a Winner" became a virtual anthem of the black power/black pride movement.
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, Baby Huey and the Babysitters (which at the time included Chaka Khan), Leroy Hutson , The Staples Singers, and Mavis Staples . Many of these records were produced by Mayfield, who also produced records by Gladys Knight & the Pips and Aretha Franklin.
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. Mayfield's lyrics included hard-hitting commentary on the state of affairs in black, urban ghettos at the time, previously unheard of in blaxploitation films. Bob Donat (1972), wrote in Rolling Stone 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.
On August 14, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after stage lighting equipment fell on him at a concert in Brooklyn, New York. He was unable to perform until 1997, when he released the album New World Order. In 1998, he had to have his right leg amputated due to diabetes. He died on December 26, 1999 in Roswell, Georgia.
The Impressions were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.
- Curtis (1970)
- Curtis Live (1971)
- Roots (1971)
- Superfly (1972)
- Back to the World (1973)
- Curtis in Chicago (1973)
- Sweet Exorcist (1974)
- Got to Find a Way (1974)
- There's No Place Like America Today (1975)
- Give, Get, Take and Have (1976)
- Never Say You Can't Survive (1977)
- Do It All Night (1978)
- Heartbeat (1979)
- Something to Believe In (1980)
- Love is the Place (1981)
- Honesty (1982)
- We Come in Peace With a Message of Love (1985)
- Live in Europe (1988)
- Take It To the Streets (1990)
- New World Order (1996)
- Bob Donat, review of Superfly, in Rolling Stone, November 9, 1972. On line at .