Curtis Mayfield began his career when he was just a young teenager, singing back-up vocals for Jerry Butler in the Impressions. One of his first hit songs was “For Your Precious Love,” although he soon took more of the spotlight with the release of “He Will Break Your Heart.” This song made use of Mayfield’s skills on electric guitar, adopting a tango-like rhythm that would eventually inspire the song “Spanish Harlem” by Ben E. King. Mayfield was popularized through the Impressions in the late 1950s, and by the early 1960s his name began to stand on its own as a big name in soul, funk, and rhythm and blues.
In fact, Mayfield took the forefront quite a bit after the success of “He Will Break Your Heart.” He was no longer just a back-up vocalist, taking the role of lead singer on the song “Gypsy Woman.” From a lyrical standpoint, the song was solid. From a musical standpoint, the song was genius. Not only did it make profound use of minor chords, but Mayfield’s guitar style quickly became legend. He had a clear impact on musician Jimi Hendrix, and the influence of this song is present in Hendrix’s popular “Little Wing.”
Even if Mayfield weren’t a phenomenally impressive guitar player, he still would have made waves with his vocals. Mayfield was working in an era in which rock music and funk music were almost certainly influencing one another, and he managed to adopt a voice that seemed fairly suited to both. Despite the power of his voice, he had the soul of a blues musician, a quality especially prevalent in songs such as “The Wonder of You.” Mayfield knew that the key to a great soul singer was to let his audience hear the emotion in his songs, and this came out in just about everything he recorded.
This emotion was especially beneficial when he began using his songs to speak on more than love and relationships. He began performing pieces that seemed almost inspired by gospel music, with motivational lyrics such as “I know you can make it.” The gospel element in such songs was largely evident in the harmonies, which were generally grand and beautiful. Then, as many artists in his field were prone to do, Mayfield began pursuing more specific messages. He became something of an activist, commenting on the state of America’s urban communities. He was far from the only artist to do this, being joined by the likes of Marvin Gaye.
No matter what subject Mayfield’s music was commenting on, he never forgot to bring the funk. Anyone who disagrees can simply listen to the Superfly soundtrack. Mayfield’s dynamism was especially prominent in this music. Unfortunately, it was not fated to last throughout the entirety of his life.
In 1990, while Mayfield was performing in New York, lighting equipment fell on him and paralyzed the musician from the neck down. It was the last time that he would be able to play guitar. He was still able to write and sing to an extent, but his last album was no easy feat. He had to record most of the lyrics on his final album, New World Order, one line at a time. Nine years later, he was in such poor health that he could not even attend his own induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. While the end of his career was fraught with turmoil, Mayfield’s message of standing up for one’s beliefs, as immortalized in the gospel-influenced Impressions song “People Get Ready,” lives on today with every person who is familiar with his music.
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