Odds are that when you read the news Monday that singer Curtis Mayfield had died at age 57, you thought, `That's sad,' and then felt slightly pressed to remember why, exactly, the name meant something.
Maybe you remembered that he had written "People Get Ready." Perhaps you recalled that he had been responsible for the classic 1972 soundtrack to "Superfly." But beyond that, you may have had trouble fitting a face with the name, or even a voice with the songs.
Don't feel bad. In many ways, that was the story of Mayfield's life.
Even though Mayfield was acclaimed by musicians and critics alike as one of R&B's greatest talents, his popular profile was distressingly low. Of the 23 albums he released as a solo artist, only "Superfly" cracked the Billboard Top 10. He did a little better on the singles chart, where both "Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly" were hits. But he was hardly a superstar.
A shame, really, because Mayfield's catalog had so much to offer. From such early efforts as the joyous "It's All Right!" and the haunting "Gypsy Woman," to such later work as "Choice of Colors" and "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Gonna Go," Mayfield was one of the most gifted and insightful writers of his generation. He also wrote and produced hits for others, including "On and On" for Gladys Knight and the Pips in 1974, the chart-topping "Let's Do It Again" for the Staple Singers in 1975, and "Something He Can Feel" for Aretha Franklin in 1976. (Retitled "Giving Him Something He Can Feel," a remake of the song took En Vogue to No. 6 in 1992).
No wonder his work inspired not one but two tribute albums in 1993: "A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield," featuring Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston and Elton John, and "People Get Ready," with David Sanborn, Jerry Butler and Vernon Reid.
Mayfield was an early inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and was frequently cited as an influence by well-known rock and soul stars. But instead of enjoying "elder statesman" status, the way B.B. King, Ronald Isley and George Clinton have, Mayfield was bedridden the last nine years of his life, having been paralyzed from the neck down after a lighting rig collapsed on him during a 1990 performance in Brooklyn.
A terrible tragedy, to be sure, but if Mayfield ever felt bitter about his bad luck, he never let it show. Instead, he bore his tribulations with a true Christian spirit, accepting the cards life dealt him with grace, serenity and hope. Further, he refused to let his physical state stymie his creativity, and released his last album, "New World Order," in 1997.
Such forbearance in the face of adversity was a hallmark of Mayfield's career. Invariably described as gentle and cheerful, Mayfield endured more bad breaks than any artist deserved. After starting out as a gospel singer with the Northern Jubilee Singers, the Chicago-born Mayfield hooked up with Jerry Butler to form the Impressions in 1957. Like many R&B harmony groups of the era, the Impressions owed much to their gospel roots, but the group parlayed that tradition into a smooth, sweet sound that presaged the pop-savvy approach of Motown groups like the Miracles and the Temptations.
Although the Impressions scored a number of hits, starting with "For Your Precious Love" in 1958, the group never enjoyed the commercial clout the Motown acts had. Still, the Impression's track record in the early and mid-'60s was impressive, boasting such memorable titles as "It's All Right," "Keep On Pushing," "Amen" (which was featured in the Sidney Poitier film "Lilies of the Field"), "People Get Ready" and "Woman's Got Soul."
An incredibly prolific artist, Mayfield worked as a record producer while writing for, singing in and playing guitar with the Impressions. Not only did this allow him other outlets for his creativity, it helped him find a home for songs that were more drivingly rhythmic than what the Impressions were known for. So he gave Major Lance the dance classics "Monkey Time" and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um," and Gene Chandler the R&B hits "Nothing Can Stop Me" and "Just Be True."
By the end of the decade, Mayfield had formed his own company, Curtom Records, which gave him greater creative freedom (even if its distribution, through the independent Buddah label, was sometimes less than robust). Mayfield's 1970 solo album, "Curtis," was an instant classic, not only producing a Top-Five R&B hit in "(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below We're All Gonna Go," but anticipating the jazzy sophistication of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" by a year.