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Curtis Mayfield Biography

Inductee: Curtis Mayfield (vocals, guitar; born 6/3/42, died 12/26/99)

Curtis Mayfield is among an elite few members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who have been inducted more than once. Mayfield was first inducted with the Impressions in 1991 and then as a solo artist in 1999. His solo career, which began in 1970, is significant for the forthright way in which he addressed issues of black identity and self-awareness. He has been cited as an influence by such latter-day performers as Lenny Kravitz, Ice-T, Public Enemy and Arrested Development. Mayfield’s ability to voice hard truths through funky, uplifting music has rendered him one of the great soul icons.

In 1968, while still with the Impressions, Mayfield launched the Curtom label (his third, after the Mayfield and Windy C imprints). Two years later, his solo debut, Curtis, appeared. It contained one of his most forthright message songs, “Don’t Worry (If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go),” and was the first of 14 albums that he released in the Seventies. Whereas his Sixties work both with the Impressions and as a songwriter-producer defined Chicago soul-a regional scene comparable to Motown in Detroit and Stax in Memphis-Mayfield left his imprint on the Seventies by couching social commentary and keenly observed black-culture archetypes in funky, danceable rhythms. He explained the shift in subject matter as “a feeling in me that there need to be songs that relate not so much to civil rights but to the way we as all people deal with our lives.”

Working on a seemingly parallel track with Marvin Gaye circa What’s Going On, Mayfield’s third solo album, Roots (1971), sounded urgent pleas for peace and brotherhood over extended, cinematic soul-funk tracks that laid out a fresh musical agenda for the new decade. Mayfield’s solo career found him giving freer reign to his guitar playing, a choppy, rhythm-based style that owed much to his Chicago blues heritage and a self-devised tuning based on the black keys of the piano. His most popular and lasting work was Superfly, a film soundtrack in which he painted a gritty portrait of black life in America’s inner cities. Mayfield struck a creative and commercial motherlode with Superfly‘s smoldering rock-disco grooves and pointed social commentary. The soundtrack album yielded massive crossover hits in “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly.” Against a hypnotic backdrop of conga drums, strings and wah-wah guitar, Mayfield sang of a high-rolling ghetto drug dealer’s lifestyle in a sweet, stinging falsetto. As an aural document, Mayfield’s music for this classic “blaxploitation” film anticipated the reality-based rap and hip-hop of the Nineties.

Throughout his career Mayfield also shone brightly as a producer and songwriter for other artists, including soul and R&B giants like Jerry Butler and Major Lance (in the Sixties) and Aretha Franklin, the Staple Singers, and Gladys Knight and the Pips (in the Seventies). As a solo artist, he continued to score R&B hits into the mid-Eighties, many of them in a disco vein. Getting back to his roots, Mayfield joined the Impressions in 1983 for a reunion tour and revived his dormant Curtom label in 1990.

A freakish onstage accident in August 1990 left Mayfield paralyzed from the neck down. However, this tragedy did not diminish his spirit or end his career. In 1996, he released his 22nd solo album, New World Order. In his own words: “How many 54-year-old quadriplegics are putting albums out? You just have to deal with what you got, try to sustain yourself as best you can, and look to the things that you can do.” Despite his positive attitude, Mayfield’s health steadily deteriorated. He lost a leg to diabetes in 1998 and died a year later at age 57. On that day, the music world lost a man of great talent and conscience. In the words of Aretha Franklin, “Curtis Mayfield is to soul music what Bach was to the classics and Gershwin and Irving Berlin were to pop music.”

Curtis Mayfield