The Impressions provided a critical link between Fifties rhythm & blues and Sixties soul. They pioneered and epitomized the sound of Chicago soul, a marriage of gospel and pop influences with a timely conscience. From the beginning, leader Curtis Mayfield was an innovative songwriter and producer whose work with the Impressions was typified by sophisticated yet celebratory grooves, elaborately detailed vocal arrangements, and lyrics that addressed and advanced the black freedom movement of the Sixties. On the strength of such indelible songs of striving and transcendence as “People Get Ready,” “Keep On Pushing” and “We’re a Winner,” Mayfield has been credited with authoring “the soundtrack to the civil-rights movement.”
The Impressions came together as a union between Sam Gooden, and brothers Richard and Arthur Brooks (members of a vocal group called the Roosters) and songwriter/producers Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield (of the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers). Their debut single, “For Your Precious Love,” was a masterpiece of dramatic, resonant soul testifying that sold 900,000 copies and rose to Number 11 on the Top 40. Released in 1958, it was credited to “Jerry Butler and The Impressions,” and the spotlighting of the song’s lead vocalist resulted in jealousies leading to Butler’s departure that same year. For a few years thereafter the Impressions floundered, but they regained their footing and discovered their signature sound in the early Sixties with Mayfield in command. First, Mayfield co-wrote and performed on “He Will Break Your Heart,” a stately soul gem that became Jerry Butler’s first solo hit. In 1961, a re-formed Impressions, which found Butler replaced by Fred Cash, released “Gypsy Woman,” a marriage of Brazilian rhythms and sensuous soul distinguished by Mayfield’s sweet, supple falsetto.
Having been reduced to a trio by the departure of the Brooks brothers, the Impressions soared through the Sixties with a string of chart successes that established the group as the social conscience of soul music. Their biggest hit was “It’s All Right” (Number One R&B, Number Four Pop), a casual, easygoing soul shuffle that provided much-needed comfort and solace to a nation reeling from the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The Impressions songs that have had the greatest staying power are those, like “People Get Ready” and “Amen,” that provided inspiration to those caught up in the social struggles of the Sixties. All the while, Mayfield’s work outside the group as a songwriter and producer yielded a bumper crop of Chicago-soul hits for such artists as Major Lance ("The Monkey Time,” “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um") and Gene Chandler ("Just Be True,” “Nothing Can Stop Me").
After leaving the Impressions in 1970, Mayfield addressed issues of black identity and self-assertiveness with an even greater sense of urgency as a solo artist. He founded his own Curtom label and connected with such topical fare as “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go.” His solo career found him giving freer reign to his guitar playing, a choppy, rhythm-based funk style that owed much to his Chicago blues heritage. (Among other things, Mayfield had played guitar on a few Jimmy Reed sessions.) Mayfield hit his creative and commercial peak in the Seventies with the soundtrack to Superfly, a blend of smoldering rock-disco grooves and pointed social commentary that yielded the Top 10 hits “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly.”
Throughout his career, Mayfield’s willingness to give voice to the truth – and the simultaneously dignified and funky ways in which he’s musically cast forthright sentiments – have made him one of the great soul icons of the age. Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down in a 1990 accident when a lighting tower fell on him prior to a show in New York. However, this tragic setback did not diminished his spirit or his career. In 1996, he released his 25th solo album, New World Order. In his own words: “How many 54-year-old quadriplegics are putting albums out? You just have to deal with what you got, try to sustain yourself as best you can, and look to the things that you can do.” He died in 1999.