The Gentle Genius of Soul: Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions

The gospelish group behind "Chicago Soul"

The Impressions
The Impressions.

Who are Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions?

Curtis and original Impressions singer Jerry Butler were one of the earliest groups to explore the possibility of soul music with 1957's "For Your Precious Love," but when Butler went solo, Mayfield explored several directions at once, including activist R&B, sweet soul balladry, and cinematic funk 

Where you might have heard them His solo "Superfly" and "Freddie's Dead" are two deathless (and endlessly sampled) slices of prime early-'70s funk, but Mayfield also created a pop standard with the Impressions' "People Get Ready" and a beach music anthem in "It's All Right." "Keep on Pushing" was featured in the movie Vanilla Sky, and "Gypsy Womancan be heard during a stakeout in an episode of HBO's series "The Wire"

Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions' most popular songs:

  • "People Get Ready"
  • "It's All Right"
  • "For Your Precious Love"
  • "We're a Winner"
  • "Keep on Pushing"
  • "Amen"
  • "Gypsy Woman"
  • "I'm So Proud"
  • "Woman's Got Soul"
  • "This Is My Country"

Formed 1958 (Chicago, IL)

Styles Soul, R&B, Doo-wop, Funk, Gospel

Members:

Curtis Mayfield (b. June 3, 1942, Chicago, IL; died December 26, 1999, Roswell, GA): vocals, guitar (falsetto)
Fred Cash (b. October 8, 1940, Chattanooga, TN): lead vocals (tenor)
Sam Gooden (b. September 2, 1939, Chattanooga, TN): vocals (baritone)

Claims to fame:

  • Created "Chicago soul" with their angelic harmonies and smooth grooves
  • Brought black activism into the R&B and soul mainstream
  • Introduced three-part gospel vocal harmony tradeoffs into soul
  • One of a handful of artists who helped merge R&B with gospel to create soul in the early Sixties
  • Produced vastly influential talents in Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield, the latter of whom came to define the "blaxploitation" sound of the early Seventies

    History of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions

    Early years

    The story of the Impressions is really the story of two R&B singers, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield, who met in a Chicago church choir in the late Fifties. Realizing even then that they wanted to sing secular music, they joined the local doo-wop group the Roosters in 1957.

    By the next year, they'd become Jerry Butler and the Impressions, and with their contacts at the local Vee-Jay label, scored a huge R&B hit with Mayfield's "For Your Precious Love." After just one followup, however, Butler left to go solo, although Curtis continued to write and even gig with him immediately afterwards.

    Success

    Although "For Your Precious Love" and its ultra-reverent style were a harbinger of the soul movement to come, the most endearing form of the Impressions music wasn't to take shape until 1961 and the hit "Gypsy Woman." Utilizing three-part gospel harmony and backed by an easygoing, lightweight, uplifting groove, the new Impressions (now a trio) scored massive hits throughout the Sixties. Mayfield soon began to incorporate coded messages of encouragement to the black race during the civil-rights movement, culminating in outright solidarity with late-Sixties hits like "We're a Winner" and "This Is Our Country."

    Later years

    After the turn of the decade, Mayfield left for a solo career, taking his style and welding it to funk for a series of hits typified by his 1972 soundtrack to the movie Superfly. His former group struggled on for a half decade, scoring the occasional hit in modern styles, but eventually fell off the charts.

    Tragically, Mayfield was hit by a lighting tower while performing in 1990, leaving him almost completely paralyzed for the rest of his life. He died from diabetic complications in 1999; the original trio, now with the addition of singer Reggie Torian, still performs the classic hits today.

    More About Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions

    Other Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions facts and trivia:

    • Other members included: Jerry Butler, vocals (1957-1959); Arthur Brooks, vocals (1957-1962); Richard Brooks, vocals (1957-1962); Leroy Hutson, vocals (1970-1973); Ralph Johnson, vocals (1973-1976); Reggie Torian, vocals (1973-present); Nate Evans, vocals (1976-present)
    • Mayfield tuned his guitar to the black keys on the piano, resulting in a unique open F-sharp tuning
    • The group's hit version of the gospel standard "Amen" was recorded after seeing it used in the Sidney Poiter movie Lilies Of The Field (1963)
    • Mayfield was known as "The Gentle Genius" and has also been likened to an American version of Bob Marley
    • Mayfield wrote or co-wrote Jerry Butler's hit "He Will Break Your Heart," Aretha Franklin's "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," the Staple Singers' "Let's Do It Again," and Major Lance's two big pop hits "The Monkey Time" and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um"

    Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions Awards and Honors Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (1991), Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2003)

    Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions hit songs and albums:

    #1 hits
    R&B "It's All Right" (1963), "We're a Winner" (1968), "Choice of Colors" (1969), "Finally Got Myself Together (I'm a Changed Man)" (1974)

    Top 10 hits
    Pop "It's All Right" (1963), "Keep On Pushing" (1964), "Amen" (1965)

    R&B "For Your Precious Love" (1958), "Gypsy Woman" (1961), "Keep on Pushing" (1964), "People Get Ready" (1965), "Woman's Got Soul" (1965), "I Loved and I Lost" (1968), "Say You Love Me" (1968), "Fool for You" (1968), "This Is My Country" (1968), "(Baby) Turn on to Me" (1970), "Check out Your Mind" (1970), "Same Thing It Took" (1975), "Sooner Or Later" (1975)

    #1 albums
    R&B People Get Ready (1965)

    Top 10 albums
    Pop Keep On Pushing (1964)

    R&B Keep On Pushing (1965), One By One (1965), The Impressions Greatest Hits (1965), Ridin' High (1966), We're a Winner (1968), This Is My Country (1969)

    Notable covers Todd Rundgren included a fauthful cover of "I'm So Proud" in the soul medley center of his masterpiece A Wizard, A True Star; teen idol Bryan Hyland scored an unlikely but excellent hit with a 1970 version of "Gypsy Woman"; Bob Marley worked "People Get Ready" into his own classic "One Love," while Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck teamed up again for a hit cover version of "Ready" in the mid-'80s

    Movies and TV Curtis appears as himself in the blaxploitation classic Superfly (1972), as well as the movies  Save The Children (1973) and Short Eyes (1977), the latter of which he also penned the soundtrack for; he also made a cameo as one of the closing "Pepperland guests" in the notorious 1978 flop Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

    The entire group was celebrated in the 2008 documentary "Movin' On Up"