Setting out on His Own
The Impressions may have been lagging post-People Get Ready, but Mayfield was going full steam ahead. He started his own independent label, Windy C, in the spring of 1966. He also ran Mayfield Records to showcase a girl group called the Fascinations. A historically interesting act on Mayfield Records was the Mayfield Singers, a group of Howard University students including a then-unknown Donny Hathaway. Their version of the label owner’s “I’ve Been Trying” is notable for its up-front mix of Curtis Mayfield’s classic playing.
The doors at Mayfield Records and Windy C were closed with the advent of the singer’s Curtom label, but these two independent labels gave Mayfield a chance to build his executive chops while waiting for the Impressions’ contract with ABC to be finished so he could sign them to Curtom Records. The Impressions left ABC on a positive note by returning to their winning brand of soulful message music on the aptly titled “We’re a Winner”—a track that found Mayfield’s joyous sliding sixths featured prominently in the mix.
In 1968, Curtom was officially launched at a Buddah Records convention by Buddah vice president and general manager Neil Bogart (who would later go on to work with Kiss, Donna Summer, and the Village People on his own Casablanca label). Mayfield produced the Impressions on his new label, in addition to adding young Donny Hathaway as an artist, cowriter, and arranger. More soul history was created at Curtom when Moses Dillard and Tex Town Display released two singles featuring the recording debut of Peabo Bryson.
In ’69, the Impressions released “Choice of Colors,” a Mayfield tune that was to continue his string of classics confronting the racial issues of the day, but it was their wah-wah-powered recording of “Mighty, Mighty (Spade and Whitey)” that presaged the more pointed political attitude Mayfield would take in his solo career.
In 1970, Mayfield’s first solo record, Curtis, continued his social commentary with the psychedelic soul of “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go” and “Move on Up.” These songs defined what was to become Mayfield’s signature sound: open-strummed funk rhythms, wah-pedal action, and driving congas. It’s unclear whether Mayfield played guitar on the record or left it to the guitarist he replaced with Jerry Butler, Phil Upchurch, but the style of playing is pure Curtis.
There is no doubt about who is playing on his next album, Curtis/Live! Released less than a year later, this performance at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village stripped away all the strings, woodwinds, and backing vocals, leaving a quintet consisting of Mayfield (vocals, guitar), Craig McMullen (guitar), Tyrone McCullen (drums), “Master” Henry Gibson (percussion), and Joseph “Lucky” Scott (bass). Mayfield’s and McMullen’s playing can be clearly discerned as their guitars intertwine in a soul version of Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir. McMullen’s Gibson takes over rhythm when Mayfield stops playing his Fender to sing a particular passage or talk to the audience.
“Get Down,” which opens Mayfield’s other 1971 record, Roots, maintains the energy of the live record and—with distorted bass, rhythmic vocal breathing, and fuzzed-out guitar—sounds surprisingly contemporary. “Keep on Keeping On” and “We Got to Have Peace” continued Mayfield’s inspirational messaging, though they also sounded a bit like retreads, a fact reflected by sales numbers. The songwriter would regain some creative energy with his next solo project, Back to the World, which dealt with returning Vietnam vets and the general deterioration of the modern world. But first came the phenomenon that was Super Fly.