Curtis Lee Mayfield (June 3, 1942 – December 26, 1999) was an African American soul, R&B, and funk singer-songwriter, guitarist, and record producer, who was one of the most influential musicians behind soul and politically conscious African-American music.
He first achieved success and recognition with the Impressions during the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, and later worked as a solo artist.
As a songwriter, Mayfield became noted as one of the first musicians to bring more prevalent themes of social awareness into soul music.
In 1965, he wrote “People Get Ready” for the Impressions, which displayed his more politically charged songwriting.
Ranked at no. 24 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, the song received many other awards, and was included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, as well as being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
Mayfield’s father left the family when Mayfield was five; his mother moved the family into various Chicago projects before settling at Cabrini–Green when Mayfield reached his teenage years.
Mayfield attended Wells Community Academy High School.
His mother taught him the piano, and encouraged him to enjoy gospel music; when he was seven he was a singer with the gospel quintet, the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers.
In 1970, Mayfield left the Impressions and began a solo career.
Curtom released many of Mayfield’s 1970s records, as well as records by the Impressions, Leroy Hutson, the Five Stairsteps, The Staple Singers, Mavis Staples, Linda Clifford and Baby Huey and the Babysitters, a group which at one time included Chaka Khan.
Gene Chandler and Major Lance, who had worked with Mayfield during the 1960s, also signed for short stays at Curtom.
Many of the label’s recordings were produced by Mayfield.
In 1994 Shanachie Records released an all-star Mayfield-tribute album entitled People Get Ready, which featured Delbert McClinton, Jerry Butler, Bunny Wailer, and Huey Lewis and the News.
Another tribute, A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, included Eric Clapton, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Gladys Knight, and Jerry Butler, among others.
The enduring appeal of Mayfield’s songs is evidenced in the wide range of artists who have recorded them: Deniece Williams (“I’m So Proud”), UB40 (“I Gotta Keep Moving”), David Allan Coe (“For Your Precious Love”), Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck (“People Get Ready”), and En Vogue (“Giving Him Something He Can Feel”).
In 1996 Mayfield released his last album, New World Order, which included guest appearances by Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples.
Considerably weakened by his quadriplegia, Mayfield was forced to record some of his vocals one line at a time.
(This is because the diaphragm, which is crucial to vocal control, was rendered paralyzed by Mayfield’s spinal cord injury.) The record was warmly greeted.
Unfortunately, complications from diabetes, which had resulted in the amputation of a leg in 1998, led to his death at age 57 in 1999.
Just prior to his death, he and the Impressions had recorded their part of an all-star version of “People Get Ready” for the Atlanta’s Year 2000 celebration.