Born in Chicago in June 1942, Curtis joined a vocal harmony group called The Roosters in 1956 with his friend Jerry Butler. The other members were Sam Gooden and Arthur and Richard Brooks. They changed their name to The Impressions and their first recording, For Your Precious Love, made the American R&B charts.
Butler left the group and Curtis worked as his guitar player for two years before The Impressions (pictured below) re-formed with Fred Cash – who had been in the original Roosters – and scored with Curtis’ composition, Gypsy Woman.
Other Mayfield hits followed, including Amen, I’m So Proud, Keep On Pushin’, People Get Ready, Choice Of Colors and This Is My Country. Most of the songs had a political message for Black America – such as the politically fired soul number Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey) – and drew on Curtis’ gospel roots in their inspirational character.
A role model for Black Power, Curtis Mayfield preached civil rights through spiritual soul while owning his own publishing company and record label. A self-taught guitarist in an open F-sharp tuning, he honed his craft at Chicago’s Travelling Soul Spiritualist Church, led by his grandmother, the Reverend A B Mayfield.
An indelible songwriter who provided material for Gene Chandler, Jan Bradley and Major Lance, Curtis left The Impressions in 1970 to concentrate on songwriting, producing and on his Chicago record company, Curtom.
His irresistible Move On Up was politically empowering, morally demanding, and effortlessly propulsive, powered by swinging horns and tangy congas – the nine-minute LP version, with its powerful drum break, laid a foundation for disco and hip-hop alike.
He released a solo album (Curtis) and followed it with Curtis Live and Roots before releasing the Superfly soundtrack in 1972.
Curtis actually wrote, arranged and performed the soundtrack of the film as well as appearing in it, and it gave his career a great boost.
The Superfly album won him a gold disc three weeks after release and spawned successful singles Superfly and Freddie’s Dead – a warning against the dangers of drug addiction.
By 1975 black American music was becoming very disco-oriented, with most songs simple celebrations of hedonism. Curtis reacted with the album There’s No Place Like America Today, one of the bleakest ever artistic comments on being black in the United States.
On release, the album proved popular with black Americans but – perhaps unsurprisingly – was ignored by whites.
Curtis was paralysed from the neck down when a lighting rig collapsed on him at an outdoor show in Brooklyn, New York, in August 1990, and in February 1998 he had to have his right leg amputated owing to diabetes.
He died on 26 December 1999, aged 57, at the North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell, Georgia, after his health declined following his paralysis.