Curtis Mayfield Biography

Singer (1942–1999)
Curtis Mayfield was a singer-songwiter known for his racially conscious soul and funk who had a number one album with his score for the film Superfly.


Curtis Mayfield was born on June 3, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. He met singer Jerry Butler while performing in a church choir in 1956 and joined Butler's band, the Impressions. In 1970, Mayfield embarked on a solo career, with his most memorable project credited as the classic 1972 soundtrack to Superfly. Mayfield was paralyzed during a 1990 stage accident in Brooklyn, New York, but continued to record until his death in 1999.

Early Life

Rhythm and blues singer, songwriter and producer Curtis Mayfield was born on June 3, 1942, in Chicago, Illinois. In his four decades in the music business, Mayfield helped bring a unique racial consciousness to popular music and introduced an innovative sound that greatly influenced following generations of musicians.

Mayfield began singing by the age of 7. He also taught himself to play guitar, led his own gospel and soul group, the Alphatones, and began composing music and writing lyrics before he was a teenager. In 1956, Mayfield moved with his family to Chicago's North Side, where he met singer Jerry Butler while performing in a church choir. Butler convinced the 14-year-old Mayfield to join his soul band, then called the Roosters. Two years later, after renaming itself the Impressions, the group scored a No. 11 hit with "For Your Precious Love."

Commercial Success

After Butler left the Impressions to pursue a solo career, the group reformed with Curtis Mayfield as its leader. Mayfield wrote the songs, produced the records, played guitar and sang lead. During the 1960s, the heyday of the Impressions, the group brought its potent mixture of gospel, soul, and doo-wop to a total of 14 Top 10 recordings, including "Gypsy Woman" and "It's All Right."

In 1964, with the hit song "Keep on Pushing," Mayfield became one of the first R&B singer-songwriters to bring a racial and political consciousness to his music. "Keep on Pushing," along with other inspirational anthems such as "People Get Ready" and "I'm So Proud," established Mayfield as both a pioneer of soul music and a singular voice of the Civil Rights Movement.

Solo Career

In 1970, Mayfield began a solo career, recording a series of albums and working as a producer for artists like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight and the Pips. His most memorable solo project was the classic 1972 funk album Superfly, the soundtrack to the hit "blaxploitation" film of the same name. Superfly was the No. 1 album on the pop charts for four weeks and solidified Mayfield's legacy as one of the late-20th century's most innovative songwriters and performers.

Though his popularity began to fade in the late 1970s with the rise of disco, Mayfield continued to record hopeful, inspirational music and tour actively in the United States, Europe, and Japan. In 1990, during an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, New York, a lighting scaffold fell on Mayfield; the accident left him paralyzed from the neck down. The amazingly indefatigable musician continued to compose and record music, learning to sing while lying flat on his back and letting gravity create the necessary pressure on his lungs. In 1996, the year after he received a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement, Mayfield released his final album, New World Order.

In the years following his accident, Mayfield's health continued to deteriorate, and in 1998, his right leg was amputated due to complications from diabetes. On December 26, 1999, Mayfield died at the age of 57, in Roswell, Georgia. A two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (he gained admission with the Impressions in 1991 and as a solo performer in 1999), Mayfield had been living in Atlanta, Georgia, with his wife, Altheida. He had 10 children and seven grandchildren.

Powerful Influence

Curtis Mayfield's influence on other performers over the past several decades is undeniable. As early as the 1960s, performers like Sam Cooke, James Brown and Marvin Gaye had followed Mayfield's lead and brought a new kind of social awareness to their music. In the 1990s, the musician inspired two different tribute albums (including 1994's All Men are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, featuring Whitney Houston, Elton John, the Isley Brothers and Aretha Franklin). Over the past several years, his songs have been sampled or covered by a host of performers, from rappers like Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J, Coolio and Dr. Dre to singers like Herbie Hancock, Deneice Williams, En Vogue and Mary J. Blige.

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