Curtis Mayfield: People Never Give Up
Peter Burns, who has contributed the Johnny Moore feature this issue (In The Basement May ’03), is as acknowledged an expert on Curtis Mayfield as he is on the Drifters. Here he puts such expertise to good use with this in depth look, not just at Mayfield the man, but at Mayfield the musician, the record company boss and the influence he had on the music of Chicago and those who crossed his path. So, we don’t get just a biography on Curtis Mayfield but a book that picks up every individual Mayfield recording, both with the Impressions and as a solo artist, and analyses these in depth. What’s more, the same is done with many other outings on Curtom - as both a publishing company and later a label – and associated affiliates.
If you are
wowed with that, there’s more! Pages 273-375 of this book contain
potted biographies on an A to Z of just about everyone who ever significantly
rubbed shoulders with Mayfield, plus, not just the fullest discography
you could ever wish for but a complete ‘sessionography’. At
the time of writing this, I confess I still have a few pages of the book
left to read but it is so absorbing, this is not a tome that one simply
reads down the middle of each page in order to meet a deadline.
Confronting inequality with some of the most eloquent music ever recorded, Curtis Mayfield is still rarely mentioned in the same breath as true peers like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. This provides the sad, unspoken subtext as Burns recalls the gifted Chicagoan’s journey through The Impressions to solo acclaim. A fan’s preoccupation with chart placings and recording minutiae sometimes renders this a little laborious, but Burns portrait of Mayfield – a genuinely decent man with Herculean levels of determination – is a convincing one.
Mayfield defined Chicago Soul as leader of The Impressions in the ‘60s and as a solo artist in the ‘70s he was in the vanguard of soul as it developed a questioning intelligence to match the music’s traditional passion and energy. He was set apart by the largely benign view he took on love and life and the positive, bridge-building spin he tried to put on the majority of his protest songs, all made the more poignant by that tender voice, by turns aching and sweet. Like many of the best ‘60s soul men, Mayfield was also a hard nosed business-man and took a strong interest in the fiscal side of his career, buying rights to Amen, the gospel rooted song that became so strongly associated with him, launching his own label Curtom, and music publishers, and making a smooth transition into
That this is the first time Curtis Mayfield’s story has been told is inexplicable. His music is a delightful mix of gospel-tinged ballads (the Impression’s ‘Soulful Love’), euphoric dancefloor classics (‘Move On Up’) and politically fired soul (he tackled racism with the Impressions’ cuts, ‘Mighty Mighty (Spade & Whitey)’, ‘Choice Of Colors’ and ‘This Is My Country’. He also wrote the anti-war anthem with his solo outing ‘We Got To Have Peace’ and warned against the dangers of pollution in ‘Underground’).
5 stars - An exhaustively researched musical biography,
This book should appeal to real fans of Curtis Mayfield. It is so throughly researched and guides you through every step of his astounding career. Everyone knows the big hits, but few realise how incredibly prolific this great musician was, and in 'People Never Give Up' we see that Curtis really did practice what he preached, by working really hard, being consistently creative, positive and loving even after his tragic accident, after which he recorded a wonderful album whilst paralysed from the neck down. The man is a true inspiration.
This book won't appeal to people looking to read a cheap, sensationalist biography, and casual readers may be intimidated by the weight of references, but for a collector of Mayfield’s music or any serious soul music fan, its a great addition to the bookshelf, providing a good read and an ongoing resource.
4 out of 5 stars - More discography than biography,
If you're looking for a comprehensive review of the music and work of Curtis Mayfield, this is the book for you. If, however, you want an insight into his personal life, family, relationships etc., then you will need to look elsewhere.
The writer is obviously a true fan and his detailed analysis of Curtis' music makes this a must-read for those of a similar persuasion. Although I could have done without the extensive reviews of the work of other lesser-known Curtom artists, many readers may regard this as a bonus.
As soon as I finished the book, I wanted to dig out all of my Impressions/Curtis Mayfield albums and listen to every track, which is probably as good a recommendation as I can give this book. If you're planning to read it, get your albums ready and listen while you read!
The Last Goodbye
Vandy ‘Smokey’ Hampton
It was a sad, sad day when I heard that recent high-tenor lead vocalist with the Impressions. Vandy Hampton had died in mid February ’05. I had the good fortune to meet Vandy when interviewing the Impressions in London, September 2001. He told me that he got his earliest break with Dean Williams in the Soul Majestics during the early 70’s when they cut some singles on small Chicago labels Music Bag and Al –Tog. Then he joined the Chi-Lites after Eugene Record had gone solo in the mid 70s. Vandy joined Marshall Thompson, Robert Lester and David Robertson when the group were making tracks for Inphasion Records.
After about eighteen months and no hits Hampton left to make way for Record’s return and gigged around Chicago until he was offered the lead spot with the Impressions in ’81, while they were still in Chicago and both groups were on ChiSound. Vandy toured internationally with the Impressions and was in the line up that celebrated their ‘Silver Anniversary US Tour’ in ’82-’83 with Jerry Butler, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Gooden, Fred Cash and Nate Evans. He was featured lead on their only MCA single ‘Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow’, which reached the lower end of the US R&B singles charts at #91 in February ’87. Two years later they cut 30 or more tracks with producer Jerry Michaels in Nashville and their only single ‘Somethin’ Said Love’ was issued by Ripete and later became a sought after collectable. Two albums ‘Tribute to Curtis Mayfield’ (Edel US ‘2K) and ‘Remembering Curtis’ (Pie UK ’01) were eventually issued on CD. But for me Smokey’s highlight vocal track with the Impressions was ‘Fool For You’ which they recut for the Curtis tribute album ‘All Men Are Brothers’ in ’94 with Branford Marsalis. It’s a great pity that this partnership did not persist with more records - they made great music together. In the mid 90s Sam & Fred relocated back to their original hometown of Chattanooga but Vandy kept with his roots in Chicago. Despite logistical problems Hampton toured with the Impressions for six months of the year and was present when they came to the UK to promote ‘Reptile’, the album they had recorded with Eric Clapton in 2000. By this time Willie Kitchens, who had his background in gospel music, had replaced Ralph Johnson. The ‘Reptile’ tour went to America and then the Impressions spent a season performing with Jerry Butler in Las Vegas. When they came off the road Sam, Fred and Willie started looking for a new record deal. They began gathering songs together for an album and booked local studio time but travelling proved problematic for Vandy. In an email Sam told me that they (the Impressions) had to let Smokey go in April ’03. So the Impressions went back to the trio – Sam, Fred and Willie. Vandy stayed in Chicago to run his own label Smokestack Records with his son Ekima.