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Curtis Mayfield: Here But I'm Gone

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The songwriting linchpins of the 1960s and '70s soul train were Smokey Robinson in Detroit, Allen Toussaint in New Orleans, Issac Hayes and Dave Porter in Memphis.

And Curtis Mayfield in Chicago.
Yes, and Curtis Mayfield in Chicago.

Besides scoring 13 of his own Top 10 singles in the '60s and '70s, Mayfield also wrote "The Monkey Time" and "Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um" for Major Lance, "Let's Do It Again" for the Staple Singers and the resplendent ballad "Rainbow" for Gene Chandler.

These songs shared Mayfield's affinity for gospel harmonies, horn charts more luscious than gritty Memphis or New Orleans brass, percussive bottoms and poetic wordplay.

Mayfield will be celebrated July 20 in a "Here But I'm Gone" tribute concert at the Avery Fisher Hall in New York City as part of the prestigious Lincoln Center Festival.
The show features Sinead O'Connor, The Roots, Memphis soul singer William Bell, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Kyp Malone and others. Chicago will be represented by my favorite Montana, Mavis Staples, and Mayfield's former singing group (1958-70) The Impressions. A 14-piece house band will be led by music director Binky Griptite of the Dap Kings.......


....It takes New York to pay tribute to the Chicago sound.
What was called the Chicago sound is overlooked, especially, when compared to the legacy of Motown and Stax-Volt.
The Chicago sound was a distinctive blend of the Southern and Northern spirits. While Motown was loyal to arrangements, Chicago was not as automated and more jazz inspired.

In Chicago, everything was framed around the singer--and his or her heart.
Mayfield died on Dec. 26, 1999 from complications from diabetes. He had been confined to his home in suburban Atlanta since August, 1990 when a lighting rig fell on him on an outdoor stage in Brooklyn, N.Y. He was paralyzed from the neck down. Mayfield was too ill to attend his March, 1999 induction into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame.

In February of 2003 I drove to Mayfield's home in Dunwoody, Ga.
I probably didn't even expense most of the trip, but seeing Mayfield was so imperative.

His affirmative messages of empowerment and love will stay with me the rest of my life. I had spoken to him several times over the years on the telephone, but the notoriously reserved singer-songwriter granted me a few hours bedside in the den of his home.
It was a magical trip in many ways---the night before I was in Nashville, drinking beers in the jukebox filled basement of Paul Kennerly (Emmylou Harris's ex husband) with Stax guitarist Steve Cropper.
And 24 hours later, I was already driving back from Georgia, inspired by the soul of a man.

"We in Chicago all had our big dreams," Mayfield said that afternoon in gentle tones. "I felt great about it because we sought out not to be like anybody but ourselves. We made true contributions toward the business. The difference was that we didn't have the money or the backing other people had. Most of us started out in a non-economical way."

Mayfield was born in Cook County Hospital. He attended at least nine grammar schools in Chicago.
When he was 12, the Mayfield family moved to 966 N. Hudson, into one of the tiny row houses of the Cabrini Homes, where he lived until his mid-20s. In 1995 the section of Hudson that runs through the Cabrini neighbohood was renamed for the composer-singer. Mayfield and his family moved to Atlanta in 1980.

"When we found out 2012 would have been the 70th birthday year of Curtis Mayfield and it didn't seem anything was happening across the country, we got in touch with the family," said Erica D. Zielinski, Lincoln Center Festival General Manager. "We're excited about having a tribute to Curtis in a way that hasn't been done before. Sinead O'Connor told me that Curtis Mayfield is more important to her than Bob Dylan. She cancelled all of her performances and made a very personal statement this was the one she wanted to do because it was so important to her. And the Mayfield family was very positive about the concert."
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Roots photo by Danny Clinch.

Mayfield had nine children, ranging in age from Lena, 29 to Curtis Mayfield III at age 49.
During our two hour session in 1993 I asked Mayfield to riff on a few of his best known songs. These are my abridged notes.
He is gone, but he is here:

* "People Get Ready," 1965. "That song just came to mind," Mayfield said in a whisper. "So many of my lyrics are so identifiable to most sermons you hear in church. I mean. . . ."

He slowly began to recite,

"People get ready, there's a train a coming.
You don't need no ticket, you just get on board.
All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming
And there's no hiding place.
.."
"How often do you hear in sermons that you can run but you cannot hide?" Mayfield asked as a tear welled up in his right eye.
"All these things were reflections of what I suppose was an inspirational mood."


* "It's All Right," 1963. "I wrote that in Nashville," Mayfield said. "Me and (fellow Impressions) Fred (Cash) and Sam (Gooden) were just sitting out in front of the club in between sets. I was running my mouth, talking about something inspirational and what was going to be in our future. Fred just said, `Well, all right, all right.' It just hit me. By the time we got back into the club and re-dressed to do the second show, we were singing `It's All Right.' We could have gone onstage and done it. That's how music comes to you through conversation.
"I brought it back to Chicago and as we were preparing to record it I asked (session arranger) Johnny Pate to give me some horn riffs from a Bobby Blue Bland song (`Ain't Nothin' You Can Do') I loved so much. The riffs were different, yet they were similar. And they locked in so beautifully. I was praying and thanking God all night because you knew in your heart you had a respectful song."


Curtis, far left, me in the crowd, far right.

* "Keep on Pushing," 1964. "In pop and R & B, there definitely is a hook line," he said. "You write around the hook line but eventually come back to it. That's what I tried to do with that song. I wrote `Keep on Pushing' in Washington, D.C., while we were working the Howard Theater. I wrote it as a gospel song during the civil rights struggles. This reflected on lifting oneself by the bootstraps. Instead of saying God gave me my strength, I said, `I've got my strength and it don't make sense not to keep on pushing.'
"I hope that is in many people's minds, black and white."

We didn't get to the number one 1975 Tony Orlando and Dawn hit "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You"), derived from the 1960 Mayfield-Jerry Butler-Calvin Carter original "He Will Break Your Heart."

* "I'm So Proud," 1964. "I wrote that for my love for women, period," Mayfield said. "That could be expressed to any woman you care for or any woman who is pretty to you. I think it was a polite way in its own simplicity to speak nicely toward a lady. I think it was received the same way."

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Altheida Mayfield was with Curtis for 28 years.

"Meeting Curtis was something that was meant to be," she said in an interview from New York where she was helping plan the concert. "I first met him when I was 11. Then I met Curtis again when I was 17. Then time from time I would run into him. I met him in Phoenix, Illinois right after they (the Impressions) did 'For Your Precious Love'." Jerry Butler was the lead singer and co-writer of the smash ballad for Chicago's Vee-Jay Records. "I was going to the store for my mother to pick up a prescription," she said. "They were in a yellow convertible. They came to Phoenix to do a record hop at Coolidge school. They followed me and my girl friend down the street. At the time I didn't know he was Curtis Mayfield.
"We were both introverts. We didn't go out on the streets and have a lot of friends. That seemed to work great for us. We had an understanding that was we were able to express to one another some of the hard times we had in life. With that expression you let go of your fears, throw it into the other person and trust them. Other people in relationships hold on to baggage. Sometimes they're scared to take that chance. We had our ups and downs but our relationship was very nice because I was able to open up. I think he did the same. That's what made it work."

What is Altheida Mayfield's favorite Curtis Mayfield song?
"'The Makings Of You'," she answered in a snap. Curtis Mayfield went down a Burt Bacharach path for the 1970 ballad with lush arrangements and lavish string that complemented his soaring falsetto.
"I don't have to think about it because I just love that song," she said. "I love the words to the song. I love the music put in that song. I love all of Curtis's songs but for some reason every time I listen to that song it brings tears to my eyes."

Mayfield is excited about the concert. She and the entire extended Mayfield family will be in attendance. Mayfield would like to see a similar tribute to her husband in Chicago and other major cities.

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Mrs. M., June 2012, photo by Eileen McMahon

Earlier this week former Impression and Mayfield compadre Jerry Butler told me, "It's interesting isn't it? City number one is doing it. Maybe we will wake up here in Chicago and start to celebrate other music that came out of this town in addition to the blues."

Zielinski said, "Lincoln Center is a presenting organization and not exactly a producing organization although we did put this show together. Eventually what happens is people who run other festivals or performing arts organizations will come to the show and hear about it and want to know how it came together. We're thrilled if something can be repeated. There have been some scenarios where performances happened and they hadn't been contacted. We generally don't take things out on the road but it would be possible to redo it especially in a city where there is a core of great musicians that could form the band."

Chicago did this for the late Don Cornelius and "Soul Train."
Certainly the city can pony up to honor Curtis Mayfield with the majesty he deserves.

Of course Altheida Mayfield might be biased, but she observed, "I saw Curtis take Major Lance, make an artist. Gene Chandler, make an artist. Everything the man put his hands on turned to gold. There was just something there that you just didn't see and you never really didn't know it because Curtis stayed so humble.

"He was always trying to reach out and help, this was just Curtis."

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Dave Hoekstra

Dave Hoekstra has been a Chicago Sun-Times staff writer since 1985. His collection of Sun-Times travel columns, "Ticket To Everywhere," was published in 2000 by Lake Claremont Press. He was lead writer for "Farm Aid: Song for America" (Rodale Press, 2005) which commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Willie Nelson inspired effort.
He won a 1987 Chicago Newspaper Guild Stick O-Type Award for Column Writing. Hoekstra wrote and co-proudced the WTTW-Channel 11 PBS special: "The Staple Singers and the Civil Rights Movement," nominated for a 2001-02 Chicago Emmy for a documentary program/cultural significance.
He lives in Chicago.

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This page contains a single entry by David Hoekstra published on July 12, 2012 4:22 PM.

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