I interviewed Curtis Mayfield in 1992 for the Washington Post. He welcomed me into his Georgia home. He spoke to me from his bed, where he lay paralyzed following a horrible on-stage accident in 1990. Here is some of our conversation:
DAVID MILLS: Who planted the musical seed in you? Was it a family thing?
CURTIS MAYFIELD: My mother was quite fond of music and poems. She used to recite a lot of the old [Paul Laurence] Dunbar poems. And my grandmother was a minister. And coming up in Chicago, we heard a lot of blues.
My grandmother, we followed her as young children, as she was out to gain her ministries. She became a preacher and had her own church, Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church. So I think I picked up a whole lot of sermons in there while I was asleep, you know. (smiles)
MILLS: You began to sing and perform as a youngster. That was with the choir, I guess?
MAYFIELD: My introduction vocally was with a group – most of them were my cousins – and we were known as the Northern Jubilees. That was really my introduction into harmonizing and singing around with different churches and being welcome to sing in our own church. And of course, those were the years of Sam Cooke, the Nightingales. There were quite a few good gospel singers from Chicago. …
Jerry Butler, I met him in that time and era. We used to have a lot of kids come to my grandmother's church. And Jerry came to the church, and obviously he enjoyed himself, and he saw that we were singing and he came to the house and asked if he could sing with us. So I met Jerry when I was about 8 years old. One member dropped out and Jerry came and filled his shoes and became one of the lead singers.
MILLS: Were you listening to a lot of popular music at the time?
MAYFIELD: Well, I listened to a lot of radio. Radio was definitely "in" during them years, so we did hear all the popular songs. All the blues things, you know, Little Walter, they were real big in Chicago. But I heard most of my gospel music on records, because my Uncle Charles would [bring] 'em over to my grandmother's, and they had a big Victrola. Things were 78 r.p.m. then. And of course we would rehearse to those songs we liked, as a starting gospel group. And we kind of got it together.
MILLS: Did there come a time when you realized that your life would be in music?
MAYFIELD: I think I really began to understand that I had a gift, or I had found myself as a musician, when I was about 12 or 13. Because then, the gospel group had kind of broken up, and I was singing some of the popular music. I began writing around 12 years old. Then Jerry came and found me when I lived in Cabrini-Green… and had me come join a group he was singing with. They were singing popular songs and songs that some of the fellas had written. And by then I had picked up a guitar and I was learning to play fairly well.
Come 13 years old, we had a recording of "For Your Precious Love," which Jerry and the Brooks brothers [Richard and Arthur] wrote. And we shopped around. There was Vee-Jay Records and Chess Records on Michigan Avenue, and we went out there one day and got a shot to go in Vee-Jay Records, sing the song. And Calvin Carter, who was the A&R man, liked it right off. And the next week we were in a studio recording. That was the beginning of the Impressions, which was Jerry, myself, Sam Gooden and the Brooks brothers.
MILLS: How did you all come to be discovered? How did the label know about you?
MAYFIELD: That was through a guy we used to know – still know – Eddie Thomas. He sort of picked us up singing in a little place, singing for the kids. We were then known as the Roosters. Most of the fellas, other than Jerry, were from Chattanooga, Tenn., and they were known as the Roosters, so we had joined their group.
So Eddie Thomas picked us up at a talent show, and he said he wanted to manage us. He decided to rename us. He said we had to get rid of that "Roosters," you know. (smiles) Somehow, he was just talking to us and saying how he wanted us to make an impression on the people, and that of course stood out. So we became the Impressions.
MILLS: Once you're out doing gigs and dealing with a record label, that's serious stuff. Did your family encourage you along those lines?
MAYFIELD: Oh yeah. I was a good kid back during those days. And Cabrini-Green wasn't as bad as it is now. And we got that break. Only thing that did happen was, I left high school at a very early age. Which for me was a blessing in disguise. I wouldn't say all kids [should] do that, but that's when I got out in the world. That's when I began to learn and really find myself. I was a writer. I lived with my guitar. I actually slept with my guitar.
A whole lot of things, of course, happened. Jerry went on to become a single vocalist. Which, in those years, '58 and '59 and prior to that, much of the lead singers came from vocal groups. So that wasn't surprising. It was a hurtful thing for the group, but those things happen. There again, it allowed me to become – I was already writing songs, and I became the lead singer of the Impressions.
MILLS: You say it was hurtful. Did the rest of you guys worry that you'd have to start all over again in the business? Prove yourselves all over again?
MAYFIELD: When the record "For Your Precious Love" came out, the record company had already put "Jerry Butler & the Impressions" on it. So of course when the deejay picked up the single to spin it, they'd just say, "Here's Jerry Butler." So that kind of crushed the fellas a little bit. And when we began to get lots and lots of mail, it was to Jerry Butler, you know? (laughs)
MILLS: What's amazing to think about is, while you were still a teenager you wrote "He Will Break Your Heart" and "Gypsy Woman" – huge hits. That doesn't even happen today where people that young write songs that popular. What do you think your knack was as a writer? Did you analyze it much?
MAYFIELD: It's funny how songs come about. If you read plenty Dr. Suess, and read your limericks, you know, and just different things that break down lyrics – If you know how to catch those little different steps, or those rhythmic movements, that's half of it. Then if you have an observant mind, and if you learn to speak from the heart, that's probably the other half. Many conversations become songs, in all honesty. It might be love, it may be current events. But I was a very observant child. Almost anything could become a song to me.
MILLS: In those days, your songs were very romantic. A kid growing up in Cabrini-Green today would probably write a rap song. Were those just sweeter, more romantic times back then?
MAYFIELD: Well, you've got to remember that what I was writing was not considered rock 'n' roll. It wasn't Clyde McPhatter, it wasn't Fats Domino, it wasn't even Little Richard. My songs usually had a different edge. A lot of my lyrics were things you might pick up in church. A lot of my songs lent food for thought. A lot of my songs would pick up on current events, like "If There's a Hell Below, We're All Gonna Go," you know? "We're a Winner." A lot of my songs [tied] into a people trying to gain equal rights in the country. … Every generation has a different edge. So here we are in the '90s, and the kids, they've got hip-hop.
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