Any year would be good for a collection of Curtis Mayfield music. The year of Black Lives Matter feels especially good.
Curtis Mayfield has been gone for almost 21 years. He died on Boxing Day in 1999, nine years after he was paralyzed by a light tower that crashed down during a freak storm at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn.
Those nine years weren’t easy. “I can still hear music,” Mayfield said in a 1995 interview. “I still write music. But after you’ve played music all your life, this is hard.”
It’s a bittersweet irony, then, that Mayfield left the rest of us a musical legacy that tempered cold realities with the promise that a better future is out there if we have the will to fight for it.
Musicians know Mayfield’s music and legacy. It has faded over time for some of the rest of us, which makes a new collection titled Curtis Mayfield: People Never Give Up Hope an essential refresher course.
Curated by Mayfield’s surviving family in conjunction with Rhino Records, People Never Give Up Hope gathers 13 of Mayfield’s strongest message songs.
It would be essential if it only included “People Get Ready,” represented here in a live version. It also features other hits like “It’s Alright” and “We’re A Winner” and lesser known cuts like “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue” and “Hard Times.”
The collection showcases Mayfield’s civil rights songs, though it doesn’t include, say, “Keep on Pushing,” which became an anthem in The Movement.
Mayfield himself always said he never set out to become a voice for a cause. As a kid raised by his mother and grandmother in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green housing projects, he certainly understood what the civil right movement was about, but he approached his own work as music, not a call to action.
He was a prodigy who became a master. He was singing in gospel choirs at the age of 7 and got his first guitar at 10. He listened to everyone from Segovia to Muddy Waters and over his 40-year career employed what he learned from all of them.
In the mid-‘50s, when he was barely 14, he teamed up with his pal Jerry Butler, Richard and Arthur Brooks to form a singing group called the Roosters. A couple of years later they became the Impressions, who hit the charts in 1958 with the classic “For Your Precious Love.”
Vee-Jay Records then decided it would cash in by spinning Butler off as a solo, which seemed to kick the Impressions to the curb.
Mayfield stuck with Butler for a while, uncredited, playing the splendid guitar on Butler’s “He Will Break Your Heart.” Then Mayfield and the other Impressions decided what the heck, let’s try it without Butler and in 1961 they scored their own hit with “Gypsy Woman.”
There was no reason to think the other-worldly “Gypsy Woman,” an exotic Mayfield song that sounds like almost nothing else, would be a pop radio hit. But in those more free-wheeling radio days, when formula wasn’t quite as imperative as it would later become, radio stations and listeners seemed to like it.
That opened the door, and Mayfield led the Impressions through it. He soon steered he group into the kind of songs featured on People Never Give Up Hope: “Keep On Pushing,” “It’s Alright,” “People Get Ready.” They had a hit with “Amen,” a gospel chant with a hook that wouldn’t quit. It didn’t hurt that “Amen” was featured in the Sidney Poitier movie Lilies of the Field.
Unlike Sam Cooke, who wrote “A Change Is Gonna Come” because he felt popular black artists needed to become a voice in The Movement, Mayfield said he was just following his muse.
It’s also interesting that while his songs were resonating up to the level of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Mayfield never wrote to put himself out front. He didn’t go solo until 1970, instead sticking with songs that featured the choruses and harmonies of the Impressions.
Mayfield’s lead voice was flexible and took different tones over time. In those early years it was often an almost delicate falsetto, echoing the gospel roots from his childhood.
Mainly, like most of the enduring songs over centuries of civil rights struggles — from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to “We Shall Overcome” — Mayfield’s message songs marched into your head and stayed there.
Part of his genius was that they also sounded great on pop and R&B radio. He knew how to get to the point fast and keep it concise.
Mayfield knew what he had created with, say, “People Get Ready.” Asked about it in 1995, he answered by reciting the verse that begins, “There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner / Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own.”
He recited it slowly and deliberately, like a sculptor contemplating the clay in his hands. It was as if he were reliving its creation, his vision of the train to glory, picking up the righteous and leaving the rest on the platform to live with themselves.
Bruce Springsteen often incorporated “People Get Ready” into his own songs of hope, “The Promised Land” and “Land of Hope and Dreams,” when he performed them in concert.
U2 sang “People Get Ready.” So did Bob Dylan, Rod Stewart, Bob Marley, the Staple Singers, the Manhattans, Aaron Neville, Shirley Caesar, the Everly Brothers, Aretha Franklin and a few hundred others. It’s in the Grammy Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone called it one of the top 25 songs ever.
“People Get Ready” doesn’t need any hype. Neither do the other dozen tracks on People Never Give Up Hope, and neither does the artist who created them.
Like anyone who was prominent more than five minutes ago in popular culture, Curtis Mayfield just needs to be periodically invoked so a new crop of listeners has the chance to hear why his music mattered then and still matters now.