Curtis Mayfield grew up in Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects in the 1950s. He saw music as both a calling and a way to escape the grinding poverty of the projects, and dropped out of high school to sing with The Impressions, an established gospel/soul/doo- wop group. A strong vocalist and budding writer, Mayfield eventually wrote and sang the Impressions signature hit “People Get Ready” in 1965. Although it had a traditional gospel feel, “People Get Ready” was also an allusion to the social and political upheaval of the time.
By 1970 he’d gone solo and released “Curtis”, a record that showcased his many talents as he wrote, sang, and produced the album himself on a record label he owned. “Curtis” found Mayfield adding funk and psychedelia to his r&b roots, along with a continued lyrical focus on social issues. Mayfield felt that like his contemporaries in rock, he could use his lyrics to offer social commentary and often discussed racial and cultural themes in his songs. Along with Marvin Gaye, Mayfield became one of the prime movers in the “message music” movement in early ’70s r&b.
In 1972 he supplied the music for the classic blaxploitation film Super Fly. While the film is somewhat ambiguous about its stance on the morality of drug dealing, Mayfield’s songs are a damning indictment of the evils of drug addiction and those who profit from it. Super Fly is one of the few films in history which was actually outsold by its soundtrack.
Mayfield continued making music, though his popularity eventually waned from his ’70s heyday. In 1990 he was paralyzed from the neck down when a lighting truss fell on him during a concert. Though this rendered him unable to play any instruments, he remained undaunted and managed to painstakingly record a final album “New World Order”, which saw release in 1997.
Curtis Mayfield died on 12/26/99. The influence of his work can still be seen in the rap/r&b music of today (some of which directly samples his grooves). The socially conscious lyrics of Public Enemy, NWA and their progeny owe a great debt to Mayfield’s pioneering work.