Born on June 3, 1942 in Chicago, Illinois, Mayfield's mother moved Curtis and his siblings into the legendary Cabrini–Green projects when Curtis was a teenager. He dropped out of high school early to become lead singer and songwriter for The Impressions, then went on to a successful solo career.
Mayfield was among the first of a new wave of mainstream African-American R&B performing artists and composers injecting social commentary into their work.
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Two significant characteristics distinguish Mayfield's sound from that of other performers. The first is that when he taught himself how to play guitar, he tuned the guitar to the black keys of the piano, giving him an open F-sharp tuning — F#, A#, C#, F#, A#, F# — that he used throughout his career. Another key characteristic of Mayfield's sound is that he sang most of his lines in falsetto.
Mayfield's career began in 1956 when he joined The Roosters with Arthur and Richard Brooks and Jerry Butler. Two years later The Roosters, now also including Sam Gooden, became The Impressions. The band had one big hit with "For Your Precious Love."
After Butler left the group and was replaced with Fred Cash, Mayfield became lead singer, frequently composing for the band, starting with "Gypsy Woman," a Top 20 Pop hit. Their hit "Amen,"an updated version of an old gospel tune, was included in the soundtrack of the 1963 MGM film Lilies of the Field, starring Sidney Poitier.
The Impressions reached the height of their popularity in the mid-to-late-'60s with a string of Mayfield compositions that included "Keep on Pushing," "People Get Ready," "It's All Right," "Talking about My Baby," "Woman's Got Soul," "Choice of Colors," "Fool For You," "This is My Country" and "Check Out Your Mind."
Mayfield had written much of the soundtrack of the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, but by the end of the decade he was a pioneering voice in the black pride movement along with James Brown and Sly Stone.
Mayfield's "We're a Winner," a Number 1 soul hit which also reached the Billboard pop Top 20, became an anthem of the black power and black pride movements when it was released in late 1967, much as his earlier "Keep on Pushing" had been an anthem for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
Mayfield was a prolific songwriter beyond his work for The Impressions, writing and producing scores of hits for many other artists. In 1970, Mayfield left The Impressions and began a solo career, founding the independent record label Curtom Records.
Curtom would go on to release most of Mayfield's landmark 1970s records, as well as records by the Impressions, Leroy Hutson, The Staple Singers, Mavis Staples, and Baby Huey and the Babysitters, a group which at the time included Chaka Khan. Many of these records were also produced by Mayfield.
The commercial peak of his solo career came with his music album Super Fly, the soundtrack for the film of the same name. He was dubbed 'The Gentle Genius' to reflect his outstanding and innovative musical output with the constant presence of his soft yet insistent vocals. The single releases "Freddie's Dead" and "Super Fly" both sold over one million copies each, and were awarded gold discs by the R.I.A.A.
Super Fly brought success that resulted in Mayfield being tapped for additional soundtracks, some of which he wrote and produced while having others perform the vocals. Gladys Knight & the Pips recorded Mayfield's soundtrack for Claudine in 1974, while Aretha Franklin recorded the soundtrack for Sparkle in 1976. Curtis also worked with Mavis Staples on the 1977 soundtrack for the film A Piece of the Action.
Mayfield was active throughout the 1970s and 1980s, though he had a somewhat lower public profile. On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down after stage lighting equipment fell on him at an outdoor concert at Wingate Field in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York.
He was unable to play guitar, but he wrote, sang and directed the recording of his last album, New World Order. Mayfield's vocals were painstakingly recorded, usually line-by-line while lying on his back.
Mayfield received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. In February, 1998, he had to have his right leg amputated due to diabetes.
He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on March 15, 1999. Health reasons prevented him from attending the ceremony.
His last appearance on record was with the group Bran Van 3000 on the song "Astounded" for their album Discosis, recorded just before his death and released in 2001.
Curtis Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 at the North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell, Georgia due to his steadily declining health after his paralysis.