This Is My Country. People Get Ready. We’re A Winner. Mighty, Mighty (Spade and Whitey). Keep On Keepin On. Future Shock. We Gotta Have Peace. Power To The People. Ever since the Middle Passage, African-American struggles for freedom, justice and dignity have had a soundtrack.
At first it may only have been patterns beaten on a resonating surface and field songs of cruel Southern plantation work. But their steady elaboration into country blues, urban jazz and Sunday gospel forms became electrified after millions migrated north before and during the Second World War.
Today any Black Lives Matter playlist needs a generous helping from Chicago’s Curtis Mayfield (1942-99). Active over 40 years from the mid-1950s this distinctive singer, guitar stylist, song and film-score writer, bandleader and businessman remains an artistic and campaigning inspiration. He expanded the secularised gospel force of soul music during the 1960s with The Impressions from the modern era of civil rights to the militancy of black power in hugely complex and innovative solo studio productions of the 1970s.
This excellent new biography benefits from the personal access of his second-eldest son Todd who tells us of dad’s chaotic, impoverished childhood as “man-of-the-house” aged five; the “house” being one room in the rat and junkie infested derelict White Eagle hotel.
Curtis’s unique and highly-influential guitar playing stemmed from the loner’s motivation to tune a guitar that was lying around to black notes of a nearby piano creating the F-sharp chord that rang out once he strummed. His mother Marion’s readings of black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, the falsetto on shellac of the Swan Silvertones’ lead vocalist Claude Jeter and the money-spinning acumen of his granny Annie Bell’s Spiritualist Church of the Traveling Souls all shaped his adult work indelibly.
He was harmonising in his first vocal quartets aged 14 while shocked at his contemporary Chicagoan Emmet Till’s murder on a visit south in 1954, emboldened by Rosa Parks’s defiance of segregated buses in 1955 and conscious of a burgeoning Nation of Islam presence in his neighbourhood.
Curtis came to fame when The Impressions first hit, For Your Precious Love, made number 11 on Billboard Pop charts and number 3 on the RnB charts when he was 16 in 1958. Soon in competition with Detroit’s great Motown acts their songs and style would influence Bob Marley in his pre-Wailers days. Ten years later Curtis founded his own Curtom label which released a string of brilliant solo projects in the early 1970s.
Curtis never shook off the insecurities born of childhood traumas which make for painful reading at times. Most tragically he was paralysed when a stage lighting rig fell on him in 1990, dying nine years later. At his funeral The Impressions’ hit adapted spiritual was sung by a survivor, Jerry Butler. Amen.