Curtis Mayfield

(1942 – 1999)

As a songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and record-label owner, Curtis Mayfield was a significant force in shaping the Soul music of the 60s and 70s. Among his achievements, he is credited as a pioneer in bringing a social consciousness to Soul music, creating music that reflected the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s; his song “People, Get Ready” in particular was embraced as something of an anthem for the movement.

Born in Chicago and raised in the city’s massive Cabrini-Green housing project, Mayfield started singing in his grandmother's Traveling Soul Spiritualists' Church at age 7. He picked up guitar at 10, and at 16 left school to form a band with singer Jerry Butler, a fellow church member. A year later, under the name the Impressions, the group had a national hit with "For Your Precious Love." Butler left the group shortly after, leaving Mayfield as the new lead singer and leader.

With Curtis at the helm, the Impressions would have many hits, mostly written and produced by Mayfield. As the 60s progressed Mayfield’s songwriting began to reflect his growing focus on the struggles of African-Americans. In songs like "Keep On Pushin'," (1964), "People Get Ready" (1965) and “We’re a Winner” (1968) Mayfield offered messages of perseverance, spiritual affirmation and black pride, delivered in a soft, high tenor that carried “the spiritual power of a Martin Luther King,” in the estimation of Andrew Young, a leader in the Civil Rights movement who credited Mayfield’s music as a unifying and motivating force.

Mayfield’s most commercially successful recording came in 1972 with the soundtrack to the “blaxploitation” movie "Superfly," which sold several million copies. Songs like the hit singles "Superfly" and "Freddie's Dead" were street-smart tales of the harsh realities of inner-city life, reflecting another way Mayfield brought a social consciousness to his music.

In the summer of 1990, while doing a sound check for an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, NY, Mayfield was struck when high winds toppled a stage lighting rig, and paralyzed from the neck down. Struggling to overcome this setback, he eventually began writing and recording again. Complications from his paralysis and diabetes led to declining health, though, and he died aged 57 in 1999, leaving behind a body of work that, in the words of Public Enemy’s Chuck D., “left an impression on our soul.”

Related Lessons

Funk Asserts Itself

Grades: High
Subjects: Social Studies/History

How did 1970s Funk respond to African-American life in the decade following the Civil Rights movement?

Music and Political Movements

Grades: High
Subjects: Civics, ELA, Social Studies/History

How did Sixties Soul help give voice to the Civil Rights movement?

Seventies Soul: The Soundtrack of Turbulent Times

Grades: High
Subjects: General Music, Social Studies/History

How did changes in the Soul music of the early 1970s reflect broader shifts in American society during that time?