Friday, June 02, 2006

Curtis Mayfield: The Gentle Genius, Black Music Month Tribute

Curtis Mayfield: The Gentle Genius

By Norman Otis Richmond

Today when you think about the music of Chicago you’ll think of R. Kelly, Common, and of course Kayne West. The controversial West has continued to keep his name in the news by criticizing U.S. president George W. Bush for his inaction around Hurricane Katrina, or making good music. Chicago has also produced other Black musical giants like Mahalia Jackson, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. The multi-platinum recording artist and producer Kanye West sampled Mayfield’s “Move On Up” for his smash single “Touch The Sky”. Mayfield continues to influence popular music in North America and around the globe.

Mayfield joined the ancestors on December 26th 1999 at the age of 57. He commanded respect. His body of work has earned him a special place in African, American and world history. In a sense, Mayfield was a true "star in the ghetto". For whatever reason, he was never the darling of the mainstream, but African people from Cape Town to Nova Scotia loved him and his music madly. He was embraced by the hip-hop generation, millions in Africa, and Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer when they formed their group the Wailers.

Marley gives part of the writing credit for the song "One Love" to Mayfield. ‘here ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner/ Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own’, is from the pen of Mayfield. Marley lifted these lyrics from "People Get Ready”. Death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal acknowledges Mayfield in his book Live From Death Row. Says Abu-Jamal, "to elder Curtis Mayfield , whose sweet rebel songs echoed across America & helped many a Panther pass the day, singing, "We’re a winner, and never let anybody say that y’all can’t make it, ‘cuz them people’s mind is in yo’ way?"

Mayfield, who was born on June 3, 1942, burst on the scene as one of the Impressions in 1958. He sang background vocals and played guitar on the hit "For Your Precious Love". Jerry Butler sang lead on "For Your Precious Love". The group disbanded for a time when Mayfield joined Butler as his guitarist and songwriter. Mayfield co-wrote "He Will Break Your Heart, "Need to Belong to Someone" and "Find Yourself Another Girl". In 1961 Mayfield rejoined the Impressions as their lead singer and chief songwriter. They recorded "Gypsy Woman" for ABC Paramount and the rest is history.

Butler maintains that he told Mayfield to write about his own reality and to forget the fantasy world. Mayfield's "Gypsy Woman" was inspired by a cowboy movie. Mayfield’s last fantasy song was "Minstrel and Queen". He soon began to write songs like "I’m So Proud", "Keep On Pushing", "People Get Ready", "Meeting Over Yonder" and "We’re A Winner". Following further hits with the Impressions (including,” Fool For You", "This Is My Country" and the classic "Choice of Colors"), Mayfield decided to begin a solo career in 1970.

Despite the fact that Mayfield had distinguished himself as a recording artist, producer, songwriter and entrepreneur (he started his own label Curtom Records in 1968), there was still no guarantee that he could make it as a solo act. His first solo effort Curtis proved that he had the right stuff. "The Gentle Genius" soon became the "King of the soundtrack" after he composed the music for the film Superfly. The success of Superfly led to soundtracks for Sparkle, Let’s Do It Again, Claudine and Short Eyes.

One of the few "white spots" on Mayfield’s resume is the fact that he violated the cultural boycott of South Africa and performed there. He redeemed himself with the anti-apartheid movement when he apologized and vowed not to return until power was in the hands of the people.

Like many Black music makers, Mayfield never finished high school. He dropped out when he was 16. He did so only because an opportunity came up that he could join the Impressions. His mother allowed him to join the group with the proviso that he continue to study. Butler said Mayfield had one of the biggest libraries he’d ever seen. Blue Lovett of the Manhattans remembers Mayfield always reading a book backstage and not wasting time.

Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Staple Singers, Rod Stewart, Steppenwolf, Elton John, Herbie Hancock, UB40, The Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy and Ice T, are just a few of the diverse rage of artists to have acknowledged Mayfield’s considerable musical talents and recorded his songs.

While Mayfield supported Dr. Martin Luther King and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, he visited Angela Davis in prison, "at her request", he once pointed out to this writer. He performed acappella at a "Free Huey P. Newton" rally in Oakland along with the two other Impressions, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden. He is also acknowledged by Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz in her book Growing Up X.

Mayfield was paralyzed in a 1990 accident in which he was struck by a light that toppled while he was doing a benefit concert in Brooklyn. Even this could not keep Mayfield down. In 1993 Shanachie Records released People Get Ready: A Tribute To Curtis Mayfield with artists Jerry Butler, Don Covey, Steve Cropper, Huey Lewis & the News, Vernon Reid, David Sanborn, Bunny Wailer and others.

In 1994, Warner Bros. released All Men Are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield. This CD featured Mayfield’s compositions preformed by Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, The Isley Brothers, Elton John and the Sounds of Blackness, B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Branford Marsalis and the Impressions, Stevie Wonder and others. Among the "others" was a group called the Repercussions and Curtis Mayfield. This song was Mayfield’s return to the world of recording.

Mayfield recorded his last album A New World Order in 1996. The album earned him a Grammy nomination and was used in Spike Lee’s film Get on the Bus. Nelson George pointed out that Mayfield balanced art and business and romance and revolution. Sam Cooke was Mayfield’s role model as an African American entrepreneur and message music maker. Cooke wrote and sang” A Change Is Gonna Come". Mayfield, in my humble opinion, took Cooke’s ideas to the next level. A change did come with Mayfield.

The Gentle Genius wrote love songs and social commentary. His love songs were always a cut above the rest and were respectful of women. His message songs also represented his search for answers to the problems confronting humanity. The quietly spoken musician went on to explain that he also tried to avoid preaching at his audience. "With all respect, I'm sure that we have enough preachers in the world. Through my way of writing I was capable of being able to say these things and yet not make a person feel as though they're being preached at."

Norman Otis Richmond is a broadcast journalist based in Toronto, Canada. He hosts three radio programs on CKLN, 88.1 FM [ http://www/ ]. The programs are "Saturday Morning Live", 10:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m., "Another Viewpoint", Sunday evenings from 6:00 p.m.-6:30 p.m. and "Diasporic Music", Thursday nights from 8:00 p.m.-10:00 p.m.

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