Authors: Todd Mayfield
was one of the seminal vocalists and most talented guitarists of his era. But perhaps more important is his role as a social critic, and the vital influence his music had on the civil rights movement. “People Get Ready” is the black anthem of the 1960s, and on his soundtrack to the 1972 movie
, rather than glorifying the blaxploitation imagery of the film, Mayfield wrote and sang one of the most incisive audio portraits of black America on record.
, Todd Mayfield tells his famously private father's story in riveting detail. Born into dire poverty, raised in the slums of Chicago, Curtis became a musical prodigy, not only singing like a dream but also growing into a brilliant songwriter. In the 1960s he became a pioneer, opening his own label and production company and working with many other top artists, including the Staple Singers. Curtis's life was famously cut short by an accident that left him paralyzed, but in his declining health he received the long-awaited recognition of the music industry.
Passionate, illuminating, vivid, and absorbing,
will doubtlessly take its place among the classics of music biography.
Copyright Â© 2017 by Todd Mayfield
All rights reserved
Published by Chicago Review Press Incorporated
814 North Franklin Street
Chicago, Illinois 60610
This biography has not been authorized by the estate of Curtis Mayfield.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Mayfield, Todd, author. | Atria, Travis, author.
Title: Traveling soul : the life of Curtis Mayfield / Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria.
Description: Chicago, IL : Chicago Review Press, 2016. | Includes bibliographical references and index.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016027301 (print) | LCCN 2016028753 (ebook) | ISBN 9781613736791 (hardback) | ISBN 9781613736807 (PDF edition) | ISBN 9781613736821 (EPUB edition) | ISBN 9781613736814 (Kindle edition)
Subjects: LCSH: Mayfield, Curtis. | SingersâUnited StatesâBiography. | Soul musiciansâUnited StatesâBiography.
Classification: LCC ML420.M3369 M39 2016 (print) | LCC ML420.M3369 (ebook) | DDC 782.421644092 [B]âdc23
LC record available at
A list of credits and copyright notices for the Curtis Mayfield songs quoted in this book can be found on
Interior design: Jonathan Hahn
Printed in the United States of America
5 4 3 2 1
To my parents, Curtis and Diane, and to my daughter and greatest inspiration, Corinne Lee Mayfield
“Try and understand I'm an unusual man.”
IGHT IN THE
tlantic City, 1969
âMy father stalks around his dressing room. The Impressions are ready to hit the stage for their second set, but first he wants his money. He's hip to this game; he takes no mess. He turned sixteen onstage at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and since then he's seen every type of crook run every type of con. He knows getting paid after the show often means not getting paid. These days, he demands a percentage up front and the rest between sets, sliding the money into his vest pocket, where you'd have to go through him to get it.
The promoter in Atlantic City is a wiseguy, though. He slithers into the dressing room clutching cash in one hand, steel in the other. He levels the gun at my father's head. “How bad do you want this money?” he demands.
“I want it bad enough to let you pull that trigger.”
He says it coolly, his voice barely rising above the soft, measured sigh that has graced countless hit records.
The promoter lowers the gun. My father gets his money.
He strides on stage, the music kicks in, the crowd shouts in ecstasy, the Impressions finish with a flourish and walk straight out the front door of the auditorium to their cars, leaving the band playing inside. They gun their engines into the night toward the next show and the next promoter foolish enough to pull another stunt like that.
Curtis Mayfield has seen scarier things than a gun in his face. His father deserted him when he was five years old. He witnessed his mother abused and abandoned, powerless to help her. He spent long, hunger-wracked nights battling starvation in a squalid single-room apartment. He knows as much about pimps and prostitutes as he does about the Bible and Jesus. The first he learned from the rotten slums where he grew up a nothing child, destined to become another boyish, shiftless jigger. The second he learned from his grandmother's church, where she practiced a cultish mixture of Christianity and the black arts called Spiritualism.
These experiences gave him the courage to stare down the barrel of a gun in Atlantic City without flinching. They made him who he isâa contradictory, unpredictable, brilliant man who dropped out of high school and built a musical empire. A man who spends much of his public life on stage and much of his private one locked in his bedroom. A man capable of legendary cool and flashes of temperamental violence. A man revered around the world but tormented by insecurity. A man gifted with tremendous powers of imagination but little ability to master the mundane day-to-day mechanics of life. A man who somehow manages to be both present and absent as a father. A man who sings of endless love but can't remain faithful to any woman. A man hell-bent on control who sometimes relinquishes that control to the wrong people.
In becoming that man, he's plucked the sweet fruits of the American Dreamâmoney, fame, womenâand choked down the despair of the American nightmareâdegradation, deprivation, and humiliation because his skin was the wrong color. And the hardest part of his journey hasn't even begun. Like everyone, he can't see the future. As he speeds away from Atlantic City, he doesn't know the greatest tragedy awaits him
in the place he least expects it. He can't foresee this tragedy will lead to his greatest triumph of spirit and a slow, agonizing death. He can scarcely imagine life will soon teach him the ultimate impossibility of control.
A few would-be biographers have tried to tell my father's story; none have done it well. They failed because they had no access to his inner life, to what drove him. They had no knowledge of his deep insecurity over his dark skin, big teeth, and small stature; of the humiliation he suffered at the hands of schoolmates because of his family's desperate poverty; of his profound need for control over music, money, and relationships; of his deeply divided nature as a Gemini. Even astrology agnostics would have to agree, if such a thing as a true Gemini exists, my father was one. Everyone who knew him affirms that he changed his mind so often and with such ease, they never knew exactly what he felt, what he wanted, or what he'd do. Only with music was he constant.
These writers also failed because they didn't know where he came from. They didn't spend time with the people who raised him, but those people are integral to his story. You most likely didn't pick up this book to read about Curtis's grandmother, but without her, he might never have become a musician, and he couldn't have written songs such as “Keep On Pushing” and “People Get Ready.” In interviews throughout his life, he always mentioned her as a main influence and inspiration. To understand him, then, you must understand her.
You most likely didn't pick up this book to get a history lesson, either. But my father's music was integral to the civil rights movement, which he lived through and helped mold even as it molded him. To understand him, you must understand his times. We'll follow the movement as it flowers and flutters. Part of that movement concerns racial terminology and what it signified, so we'll use the correct nomenclature of the timesâfrom “Negro” in his childhood, to “black” by the late '60s, to “African American” in the last two decades of his life.
Another issue of terminology arose while writing this book. Growing up with a famous father, I saw many sides of him. I called him different
names depending on the situationâhe was “Dad” at home; he was “my father” in public, around people who might have wanted something from us; he was “Curtis” later in life when I helped him run the Curtom label. Since I knew him as all three during his life, I will use all three throughout the book.
During his life, my father guarded his privacy jealously. After his death, we have done the same with his legacy. But the world deserves to know the real Curtis Mayfield. A wise man once said, “To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.” Perhaps we don't have to choose. Maybe it's possible to show my father his due respect by the very act of telling the truth, just like he did in his songs. He told more truth than any musician of his era, capturing the hope, fury, despair, strength, and love of his people in a way no one else could. As
said of him, “More than Marvin Gaye, more than Stevie Wonder, maybe even more than James Brown, Curtis Mayfield captured the total black experience in America during the '60s.” Of course, his music wasn't just for black peopleâscores of fans from every race and ethnicity can attest to thatâbut it was from our perspective. As he said in his legendary concert at the Bitter End, he was always “believing very strongly in equality for all, but basically telling it like it is.”