“A few would-be biographers have tried to tell my father’s story; none have done it well,” wrote Todd Mayfield with Travis Aria in “Traveling Soul—The Life of Curtis Mayfield” (Chicago Review Press, 2017). “They failed because they had no access to his inner life, to what drove him. They had no knowledge of his deep insecurity over his dark skin, big teeth and small stature … of his profound need for control over music, money and relationships.”
What the other biographers lacked, Todd has in spades, you might say, and as one of the great musician’s sons, he paints an intimate, unsparing portrait of a man whose music is a soundtrack of a generation. No composer/performer gave such a powerful and poignant music to the turbulent ’60s, particularly the Civil Rights Movement.
It’s not until the second chapter of the book that Todd brings his father on the stage, noting his birth in Chicago, June 3, 1942. America had recently made its entry into World War II when Mayfield came screaming into the world. That scream segued smoothly into a lilting falsetto and by the time he was 14 and a high school dropout, he surrendered to his musical muse and to his guitar.
The foundation for his musical odyssey began in the church, like so many prominent African-American musicians. His grandmother was a spiritualist and she taught Mayfield the rudiments of music through lessons on the piano. But he soon gravitated to the guitar, which he tuned based on the black keys of the piano, fixing it in F-sharp key. After meeting Jerry Butler, who would be a lifelong friend, he joined the Impressions.
The group, after several years on the Chitlin’ Circuit, finally had a breakthrough recording, “For Your Precious Love,” in 1958. They were at the Apollo for a performance when Mayfield turned 16. But all was not groovy with the group, mainly because Butler’s name was in big bold letters on the marquee at the Apollo and the Impressions was cast in small letters. Mayfield and the others had no idea why Butler’s name was given top billing. In the biography, Todd explained the move engineered by the Vee-Jay record company. “Every label worth its salt had long realized that if one a group had a hit, the company could multiply its money by separating the lead singer and creating two acts,” Todd wrote, noting it had happened to other famous groups, such as Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters and James Brown and the Famous Flames.
It was just one of the lessons Mayfield absorbed as his musical prowess and productivity increased. In fact, he became so fast and proficient that he was not only writing hit tunes for the Impressions—“Gypsy Woman,” “It’s All Right” and “I’m So Proud”—there were minimally successful songs for Major Lance and Gene Chandler. When he penned “People Get Ready,” the Impressions soared into the limelight, their music inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, which quickly adopted the tune, giving it almost anthem-like appreciation.