The Impressions are an R&B, soul and gospel group whose roots go all the way back to 1958. They actually started out as a group called the Roosters and then became Jerry Butler and the Impressions. Their first hit was a song called “For Your Precious Love.” (I note with some interest that this single came out on Vee-Jay records. Vee-Jay issued the initial Beatles songs when Capitol Records was too stupid to recognize what they had.)
Sixteen-year-old Curtis Mayfield – a high school friend of Butler’s – was a member of the Impressions. “The music that surrounded and informed him came via his grandmother’s Travelling Soul Spiritualists’ Church, Gospel music and the rich mother lode that was Chicago’s electric blues scene. A guitar, discovered at age seven in a closet in the small apartment where he lived with his mother and seven siblings, changed everything. He played some piano but the guitar was different, very personal. “…like another me,” he said.”
It’s not entirely clear to me how Curtis developed his songwriting skills other than being around other people (like Butler) who did it. In fact, he and Butler (along with songwriter Calvin Carter) wrote a hit for Butler called “He Will Break Your Heart” in 1960. (Butler had by then left the band.)
But now that Mayfield had developed his songwriting skills, with Butler gone, he became the main force in the band. He helped usher in the genre known as “Chicago Soul.” Wikipedia’s description is worth repeating here: “It is a style of soul music that arose during the 1960s in Chicago. Along with Detroit, the home of Motown, and Memphis, with its hard-edged, gritty performers, Chicago and the Chicago soul style helped spur the album-oriented soul revolution of the early 1970s.
The sound of Chicago soul, like southern soul with its rich influence of black gospel music, also exhibited an unmistakable gospel sound, but was somewhat lighter and more delicate in its approach. Chicago vocal groups tended to feature laid-back sweet harmonies, while solo artists exhibited a highly melodic and somewhat pop approach to their songs.”
And in 1964, The Impressions released their eponymous debut album with nine (of twelve) songs being written by Mayfield. “It’s All Right” was a pretty big hit. Not all black artists in the Sixties were part of the tightly controlled Motown machine:
Six of the tunes on the album (including the great “Gypsy Woman) were hits. And the Impressions were on the map. Their next album, 1964’s The Never Ending Impressions included the beautiful love song “I’m So Proud” (later covered by one of Jeff Beck’s bands.) Who talks about being proud of their lover?
And it would hurt, hurt to know
If you ever were untrue
Sweeter than the taste of a cherry so sweet
And I’m so proud (I’m so proud)
I’m so proud of you
Compliments to you from all the people we meet
Yes, and I’m so proud (I’m so proud)
Now I mentioned Motown earlier. Well, one thing that not being under Berry Gordy’s thumb gave artists like Mayfield and Sam Cooke was the ability to express themselves in regards to the burgeoning civil rights movement. (Motown wouldn’t really get around to this till the late ’60’s, early ’70’s by which time they could no longer hold their artists back.)
But Mayfield put it out there with 1965’s “People Get Ready.” Well, not explicitly. But the lyrics convey imagery of a train taking people somewhere. To me, it sounds more like religious imagery. But in the context of the volatile racial situation of America in the ’60’s, anything a black man sang that wasn’t “I love you, you love me” was politically charged.
From Curtis’ website: “The business plan of black popular music in the 1960s was governed by dance music and love songs. But Mayfield had ideas that would place his music on a different track. Outside the recording world, Black America faced Civil Rights, inner-city poverty, drug use and abuse and, unprompted, Mayfield addressed these matters the only way he knew how, through his music, a provocative step that turned him into a musical force for change in the Black community.
Singer Mavis Staples (of the Staple Singers) defined this transformation: “[Curtis] had a long history of writing wonderful love songs that made you want to dance slow to in the basement. And then, all of a sudden, he went and wrote some of the best message songs that could be out there.”
“People Get Ready” is the first tune in which Curtis’ guitar is featured. It’s really just an interlude, barely a solo at all. Interestingly, Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart covered this song. I know Rod was a huge soul fan and I guess Jeff is too:
In 1968, Mayfield and his manager launched the now-defunct Curtom Records, which was one of the first labels ever owned by an African-American artist. (After Motown.) In addition to his own records, the label also issued records by, among others, Donny Hathway, the Staple Singers, and Mavis Staples.
The first album released on Curtom was called This is My Country and it’s a mix of love songs and black empowerment songs. The title tune says it all:
Too many have died in protecting my pride
For me to go second class
We’ve survived a hard blow and I want you to know
That you must face us at last
And I know you will give consideration
Shall we perish unjust or live equal as a nation
This is my country
Probably inevitably, Curtis left the Impressions in 1970 to launch his solo career. Outside of music circles, his name was not well-known. But within a short couple of years of his going solo, all that would change.
Next (and final) post – Superfly. Stardom. And a tragic end.
Sources: Wikipedia; Curtis Mayfield web site