Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Curtis Mayfield

nsn"Not only a pioneer of funk, Curtis Mayfield, through his music with  The Impressions during the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, was also a pioneer in the realm of social activism through song. Born Curtis Lee Mayfield , June 3, 1942  in Chicago, Illinois, Mayfield utilized two distiguishing qualities that informed his work. One was his falsetto voice, not just a falsetto, but an eerily distinctive falsetto that has yet to be duplicated. The second thing was that being a self-taught guitarist, he tuned the guitar to the black keys of the piano, giving him an open F# tuning (F#,A#,C#,F#,A#,F#) that he used his entire career. He also played piano, saxophone, bass and drums, and deserves due credit for the popularization of  "message music". When left to handle lead vocals for the Impressions due to the departing of Jerry Butler, Mayfield wrote hit after hit for the group. There were love songs like "Gypsy Woman"(top 10) and "I'm So Proud", gospel reworkings such as "Amen"(top 20)  and "People Get Ready"(top 10)  and  Black Pride anthems like "Choice Of Colors" and the top 20 hit "We're A Winner"

Not one to sit idle, Mayfield was a prolific writer even in the early days of his career, writing and producing for many artists along with his work with the Impressions. These artists included Gene Chandler, Major Lance, The Five Stairsteps and Jerry Butler. He was also the owner of the Mayfield and Windy C record labels which were distributed by Cameo-Parkway, and was a partner in the Curtom label which was at first independent, then distributed by Buddah then by Warner brothers and finally by RSO.
After leaving the Impressions for a solo career in 1970, Mayfield founded the then-independent Curtom Records which in addition to recording his major work also featured acts such as Leroy Hutson, The Staple Singers and Baby Huey And The Babysitters who at the time featured Chaka Khan. But Mayfield's critical and commercial peak came with the release of Super Fly , a soundtrack to the blaxploitation film of the same name, and one of the most infuential films in cinema history.

Both of the singles "Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly" each sold over a million copies and were awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A.
The success of his Superfly soundtrack resulted in him being tapped for others where he wrote and produced with other artists actually performing them. Gladys Knight And The Pips sang on the soundtrack for the film Claudine in 1974, while his soundtrack for 1976's Sparkle was performed by Aretha Franklin. Later on his music would appear in the movies I'm Gonna Get You,Sucka, Hollywood Shuffle and Short Eyes , where he had a cameo role as a prisoner.

Mayfield's social activism came with a price, one that he was more than willing to pay. His uncompromising expression of his beliefs resulted in radio airplay bans and loss of revenue. Through it all he remained a staunch advocate for equality and black empowerment through his music and otherwise, paving the way for later politically conscious artists, Gil Scott-Herron, Public Enemy and Fishbone to name a few.
He remained active into the 1980s though with a somewhat lower public profile. On August 13, 1990 Mayfield suffered an injury when a section of lighting equipment fell on him during a concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York. The injury left him paralyzed from the neck down. Unable to play guitar, he nonetheless wrote, sang and produced his last album, New World Order. He accomplished this task painstakingly, at times singing line-by-line while laying flat on his back.

Curtis Mayfield received  The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. In February of 1998 he had to have his right leg amputated due to complications from diabetes. He was inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame March 15,1999, but was unable to attend because of his poor health. A two-time inductee, he had already been inducted as a member of The Impressions in 1991.
On December 26,1999 Mayfield died having succumbed to steadily declining health following his paralysis.

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