September 5, 2017 – Rick Stevens (Tower of Power) was born Donald Stevenson on February 23, 1941 in Port Arthur, Texas, but didn’t stay there long, as a few years later his parents moved to Reno, Nevada. Rick first sang in public at the tender age of four, when his family set him up on a chair in front of the congregation at their church.
While growing up Rick was greatly influenced by his uncle, singer Ivory Joe Hunter, who was his mother’s younger brother. There was always a great deal of excitement when Uncle Ivory Joe came to visit on breaks from touring around the country with his band. Rick decided early on that he wanted to be a singer, just like his uncle. Ivory Joe was a not only a ground-breaking performer in what at the time was referred to by the record labels as “race music”, he was also a prolific songwriter with hundreds of songs to his credit.
Elvis Presley invited Ivory Joe to Graceland in 1957, and they spent the day singing together, including Ivory Joe’s hit “I Almost Lost My Mind”, among other songs. Hunter commented, “He is very spiritually minded … he showed me every courtesy, and I think he’s one of the greatest”. Elvis recorded five songs written by Ivory Joe: “My Wish Came True” (Top 20), “I Will be True”, “It’s Still Here”, “I Need You So”, and “Ain’t That Loving You Baby” (Top 20).
Like many musically talented teenagers in the late 1950’s Rick was interested in doo-wop, and he joined a singing group called the “Magnificent Marcels”. In the early 1960’s Rick performed in nightclubs around Reno, where he was known as “Mr. Twister”.
Having moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid-60’s Rick continued his singing career, fronting various bands that played in local nightclubs. Rick’s bands included “Rick and the Ravens”, and “The Rick Stevens Four” (or Five, depending on how many people were in the band).
Rick joined “Four of a Kind” in 1966, initially in San Francisco, later moving with the band to Seattle. After a short time, Rick moved back to the Bay Area and joined a band called “Stuff”, in which one of the other members was Willie James Fulton (guitar and vocals). Rick and Willie James left “Stuff” and joined Tower of Power at about the same time as drummer David Garibaldi in 1969 and later replaced Rufus Miller as lead vocalist after Rick sang the diamond hit, “Sparkling in the Sand” on Tower of Power’s first album, EAST BAY GREASE. (The only song on that album that made any impact). The next Tower of Power album to hit the charts was BUMP CITY in 1972, and that record features Rick’s signature song, “You’re Still a Young Man”. The album also includes other hits such as “Down to the Night Club” and “You Got to Funkafize”.
Although he is not credited on the third album, the self-titled record, TOWER OF POWER, Rick initially sang all the lead vocals. He also contributed background vocals, which were retained on the record when it was released. The album features several hits such as, “What is Hip”, “Soul Vaccination”, and “Get Your Feet Back on the Ground”, and of course, “So Very Hard to Go”. Rick’s increasing drug dependency lead to Lenny Williams taking over lead vocals, as Rick left the band in 1973 to pursue other avenues of his musical career. After leaving Tower of Power, Rick joined a Bay Area band called “Brass Horizon”, a popular band with a big horn section.
The Stanford Daily – February 25, 1975
Former Tower Singer Heads Brass Horizon By JOAN E. HINMAN
SAN FRANCISCO – Quick – name Tower of Power’s two biggest hits. Maybe you said “So Very Hard To Go”, the single off Tower’s third album. But if you’re a deranged purist, you named “Sparkling In The Sand”, from East Bay Grease, and “You’re Still A Young Man”, the monster hit off Bump City in 1971.
It was “You’re Still A Young Man” that established Tower as national stars, removing them from the realm of San Francisco funk forever. The song’s amazing success can be explained in two words — Rick Stevens. Stevens emerged as Tower’s lead singer after the success of “Sparkling In The Sand”, the only song on the band’s first album on which he sang lead…
… the excellent set performed by Stevens and his new band, Brass Horizon, Saturday at Yellow Brick Road marks the return of one of the finest vocalists ever to hit the City. The new band, Brass Horizon, is every bit as tight and biting as the famed Tower brass…
…Stevens proved that his voice can still get down and growl on dance tunes, as well as sweep up to carry the pure melody of “You’re Still A Young Man”. … the fine Rick Stevens stage presence that on past occasions made Winterland feel as homey as a living room was evident Saturday. Smiling and jiving with the “mamas” on the dance floor, Stevens was clearly back in the atmosphere he likes best—putting out get-down, good time music.
Then in 1976 it gets quiet around Rick Stevens for the next 36 years as he is sentenced to life in prison for a triple homicide in a drug deal gone wrong. Addicted to drugs he had shot and killed 3 men in a botched deal.
In 2012 Stevens was released on parole. He then formed Rick Stevens & Love Power, which regularly played in Northern California. He also occasionally sat in with Tower of Power, including an appearance at a January 2017 benefit concert for former band members that were hit by a train in Oakland’s Jack London Square.
Rick Stevens passed away on September 5, 2017 after a short battle with liver cancer.
“Rick Stevens went to heaven today to be with the Lord whom he loved with all his heart. Rick was an extremely soulful singer and entertainer who had an engaging personality and a strong faith which he shared with all he came in contact with,” Tower of Power founder Emilio Castillo wrote on the band’s Facebook page.“We loved him and we’ll miss him. I have faith that I’ll see him in heaven someday and together we’ll worship and glorify God together for eternity. Rick is there right now enjoying it!!!”
February 15, 2016 – Vanity was born Denise Katrina Matthews on January 4, 1959 in Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada, the daughter of Helga Senyk and Levia James Matthews. Her mother was of Polish, German, and Jewish descent and was born in Germany, while her father was of African-American descent and was born in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Growing up in Niagara Falls, God wasn’t her priority. She was more concerned with hiding bruises from her classmates at Princess Margaret elementary school. Routinely beaten by an alcoholic father, Matthews rarely discussed her home life with friends. “She didn’t really like to,” recalls Debbie Rossi, one of Matthews’ best friends at Princess Margaret and later Stamford Collegiate. “And I wasn’t one to force. I just wanted to listen.”
Matthews didn’t confide because she thought every household was like this. Her father, James Levia Matthews, died in 1974 when she was 15 years old. Instead of feeling free, she watched her mother sink deeper into depression and alcoholism.
January 27, 2013 – Sugarfoot Bonner was born Leroy on March 14th 1943 in Hamilton, Ohio, about 20 miles (32 km) north of Cincinnati, the oldest of 14 children. He ran away from home as a young teenager and played the harmonica on street corners for change.
He joined the The Ohio Untouchables when they regrouped in 1964. Leroy’s rip-it-up guitar work and taste for something funky the band went on to become The Ohio Players, with Leroy as their front man, lead singer and guitarist.
Their first big hit single “Funky Worm”, reached No.1 on the Billboard R&B chart and made the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the spring of 1973. Other hits followed, including “Who’d She Coo?” and their double No.1 hit songs “Love Rollercoaster” and “Fire” in January 1976.
August 6, 2010 – Catfish Collins was born Phelps Collins in 1944 in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Born into a musical family, Catfish began playing the guitar as a child. When his younger brother Bootsy showed a desire to learn the bass, Catfish stripped the strings from one of his old guitars and put bass strings on it, helping to define Bootsy’s signature funk sound. From then on, the brothers made music together. He received his nickname Catfish from Bootsy, who thought his brother resembled a fish. The nickname appeared to suit the happy-go-lucky guitarist, who always had a broad smile on his face.
By the mid-1960s Catfish began to get work as a session musician at King Records, the pioneering Cincinnati independent label that had a roster of rhythm and blues stars including James Brown. Catfish also introduced his brother to the music of Indiana blues guitarist Lonnie Mack.
The siblings first played together in the Pacemakers, a funk act, in 1968. They quickly acquired a reputation as the most dynamic r&b band in the midwest. In early 1970, when several members of Brown’s band quit in a dispute over money, he immediately hired the Pacemakers, flying them in to perform, without rehearsal, behind him on stage. The jewel in King Record’s crown, James Brown, had taken good note of Catfish’s skills on rhythm guitar. As it was, Catfish’s clean, funky strumming was integral to Brown classics like “Super Bad,” “Get Up,” “Soul Power,” and “Give It Up.”
“It was like playing a big school with James as the teacher, like psychotic bump school, only deeper,” Bootsy told Rolling Stone in 1978.
The youth, verve, wit and spontaneity of Bootsy and Catfish’s playing pushed Brown into recording some of the most remarkable music in his long career. Brown named his new band the JB’s, and they played on such Brown hits as Super Bad, Soul Power, Give It Up Or Turnit a Loose and the awe-inspiring Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine. The music’s driving rhythms, popping bass lines and crisp, choppy guitar became defined as “funk“. Funk proved to be a liberating tool for African American pop, rock, soul and jazz; provided a soundtrack for the Black Power political movement and Blaxploitation films; and created a sonic blueprint for disco and then rap.
By 1971, the freewheeling Collins brothers had tired of Brown’s autocratic leadership and both of them left his band. They formed the House Guests and then joined George Clinton’s psychedelic band(s) Parliament-Funkadelic, immediately contributing to the album “America Eats Its Young. Together, the Collins brothers helped direct Clinton’s visionary project towards a broad audience.
Bootsy would soon become a huge star in the US as leader of Bootsy’s Rubber Band, a side project that grew out of Parliament-Funkadelic. As ever, Catfish was at his side when he joined Bootsy’s Rubber Band four years later. They enjoyed huge popularity. The two brothers, along with Waddy, Joel “Razor Sharp” Johnson, Gary “Muddbone” Cooper and Robert “P-Nut” Johnson and The Horny Horns, played on such US r&b hits as Tear the Roof Off the Sucker, Bootzilla and Aqua Boogie, creating music filled with spontaneity, joy and pumping funk. Catfish would continue to play with his brother and with Parliament-Funkadelic until 1983.
In 1983, Catfish split from Funkadelic and maintained a low profile from then on. He would tour and record with Bootsy on occasion, but he found session work more lucrative, guesting on Deee-Lite’s 1990 hit Groove Is in The Heart, Freekbass, and H-Bomb and reuniting with old friends to contribute to the soundtrack of Judd Apatow’s 2007 comedy Superbad soundtrack.
Catfish lost his fight with cancer on August 6, 2010. He was 66.
“My world will never be the same without him,” said his brother Bootsy Collins in a statement. “Be happy for him, he certainly is now and always has been the happiest young fellow I ever met on this planet.”
Bernie Worrell – “He was a hell of a musician. He taught me a lot about rhythms. People seem to forget that the rhythm guitar behind James Brown was Catfish’s creative genius, and that was the rhythm besides Bootsy’s bass.”
June 20, 2006 – Claydes “Charles” Smith (Kool & the Gang) was born on September 6, 1948 in Jersey City, New Jersey. He was introduced to jazz guitar by his father at age 13, when in 1961, his father bought him a Kay Electric guitar at a pawnshop for $32.
Thomas Smith was so keen for his son to have a career in music that, in 1963, he financed the recording of the first single by Claydes & the Rhythms, the group the boy had formed with his schoolfriends George Brown (drums) and Richard Westfield (keyboards), although the end product – “I Can’t Go On Without You” – only served as a calling card for the embryonic band.
Claydes Smith left Lincoln High School in New Jersey in 1965 and, with Brown and Westfield, eventually joined forces with the Jazziacs, a group comprising the brothers Robert “Kool” Bell (bass) and Ronald Bell (saxophones, flute, keyboards), Robert ‘Spike’ Mickens (trumpet) and Dennis Thomas (alto sax), to become the Soul Town Revue.
July 5, 2005 – Ray Davis (P-Funk) was born March 29, 1940 in Sumter, South Carolina and lived in Brooklyn, N.Y., before moving to Plainfield in 1958, where he resided until 1968.
He was the original bass singer and one of the founding members of The Parliaments, and subsequently the bands Parliament, and Funkadelic, collectively known as P-Funk. His regular nickname while he was with those groups was “Sting Ray” Davis. Aside from George Clinton, he was the only original member of the Parliaments not to leave the Parliament-Funkadelic conglomerate in 1977. He is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 1997 with fifteen other members of Parliament-Funkadelic. Continue reading Ray Davis 7/2005
August 6, 2004 – Rick James was born James Ambrose Johnson, Jr on February 1st 1948 in Buffalo, New York. He was one of eight children. James’ father, an autoworker, left the family when James was ten. His mother was a dancer for Katherine Dunham, and later ran errands for the Mafia to earn a living. James’ mother would take him on her collecting route, and it was in bars where she worked that James got to see performers such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Etta James perform.
When he found himself ordered to Vietnam in 1965, he fled for Toronto, where he made friendships with then-local musicians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. To avoid being caught by military authorities, James went under the assumed name, “Ricky James Matthews”. That same year, James formed the Mynah Birds, a band that produced a fusion of soul, folk and rock music. The band briefly recorded for the Canadian division of Columbia Records, releasing the single, “Mynah Bird Hop”/”Mynah Bird Song”.
December 26, 1999 – Curtis Mayfield was born on June 3rd 1942 in Chicago Illinois. Curtis began his music career in 1956 while still at Wells High School, when he joined The Roosters with Arthur and Richard Brooks and Jerry Butler. Two years later they became the Impressions.
From his website Biography:
In 1958, Curtis Mayfield has his first taste of a hit recording, “For Your Precious Love,” by The Impressions. He is 16, from Chicago’s wild side, the Cabrini Green Public Housing Projects, just developing his distinctive high tenor voice that blended into falsetto and become his (and the group’s) trademark. It will allow Mayfield the freedom to produce some of the most perceptive and significant popular music of his and any other generation. The Impressions go on to define the Chicago sound of the 1960s, a mix of soul/R & B/gospel that challenges Motown’s grip in the market. But Mayfield himself will take the music, his music, further… A lot further.
In 1996, Curtis Mayfield is making his last recordings.
He has transitioned in four decades from the eager, young, black kid into a seasoned singer/songwriter/producer, a motivating force in black music, black capitalism and a quiet voice for social change and civil rights. These final recordings will take every bit of courage and will that Mayfield possesses, as he probably realizes that this is, indeed, his last go-round. He is paralyzed from the neck down, the result of an onstage accident in 1990. He lies on his back in the recording studio, allowing gravity to assist his diaphragm and his breathing, recording one line of the lyric at a time, but still singing and still composing. He dies, aged 57, in December, 1999.
“Broke his back. But not his spirit,” says Altheida Mayfield, his widow and keeper of the Mayfield Flame, a flame that has never gone out. More than a half century after that first hit, a decade plus, after his death, Curtis Mayfield remains alive and well, through his music, his recordings and the recognition by his peers in the music and recording world. His music is the gift that keeps on giving…
Curtis Mayfield was, as one obituary writer put it, “a well respected man.”
Around the age of seven or eight, Curtis Lee Mayfield fell in love. The object of his affection was a guitar, found in a closet in the small overcrowded apartment where he lived with his mother and seven siblings. The music Mayfield had been exposed to at this point come via his grandmother, gospel songs from her Travelling Soul Spiritualists’ Church, the place where a seven year old Mayfield sang in public for the first time. He was also listening to the rich mother lode that was the Chicago electric blues scene which surrounded and informed him.
Mayfield played a little piano but the guitar was different, very personal. “My guitar was like another me,” he said later. Mayfield literally transferred his piano knowledge to his new instrument. Singer Jerry Butler, a childhood friend who formed The Impressions, recalled how: “He used to love playing boogie woogie on the piano and he learned to play that in F sharp which meant he was playing all the black keys. That’s how he came about his unique sound on the guitar because he tuned it that way.” (Standard guitar tuning is E-A-G-B-E.) Mayfield used his instantly recognizable and eccentric open F sharp tuning for the rest of his career. He would also become proficient on bass, drums and saxophones.
Mayfield’s individualism on the guitar later put him in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Top Guitarists of All Time and admiration from such guitar giants as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Recalled Hendrix’ drummer, Mitch Mitchell: “Jimi was the only man I knew who knew how to play that Curtis Mayfield style. He would occasionally break into Mayfield’s guitar style and falsetto onstage.”
It was now evident that Mayfield’s future was music, his way out of the poverty that blighted Chicago’s North Side. At 16, over family objections, he dropped out of high school, joining The Roosters, a group led by his friend Jerry Butler. The name quickly became the more commercial – The Impressions. Butler has noted: “There’s something called the Chicago Soul sound that began in the late Fifties. The Impressions pioneered that… and Curtis was the heart of The Impressions.” Chicago’s take on soul music which evolved throughout the 1960s, had its roots firmly into gospel music, albeit laid back and melody focused (“soft soul” is another term for the style). It was refined by the addition of horns and strings as integral elements of the arrangements. The Impressions’ literal high flying harmonies, with Mayfield later as lead singer – were front and center here.
The first Impressions hit “For Your Precious Love” was co-written by Butler; Mayfield had no hand in it. The lead singer was Butler; Mayfield’s more idiosyncratic voice was relegated to the backfield. “For Your Precious Love” hit the R&B charts and, more importantly for a black group, the pop charts. In one two week period, the song sold 150,000 copies. Butler, getting most of the credit, immediately went solo.
This was a good thing. It gave Mayfield his first taste of control and responsibility, factors that would thread through his future life and career. He held the group together as lead singer, producer and writer. In 1961 the revamped restyled Impressions had its first Mayfield-era hit, “Gypsy Woman.” For the rest of the 1960s The Impressions remained hot with 14 Top 40 hits including an amazing run of five Top 20 songs in 1964 alone – the year that The Beatles arrived and gave a hard time to everyone else.
Mayfield perfected the group’s singular harmonies – the trademark upper register detonations. Throughout his recordings, Mayfield was devoted to the falsetto register rather than the more usual model range. Johnny Pate, a jazz musician and arranger/producer, one of the “professionals” often brought in to soften the rough edges of a label’s teenage talent, remembered the effect the Impressions had on him: “The group went into some high falsetto harmonic things that were really unheard of. Nobody had done it before. The amazing part was, it’s all in tune, in perfect harmony, in tune…”
Black popular music, soul, R & B and the like, had a tried and true business plan in the 1960s, governed by dance music and love songs. But Mayfield had some different ideas, concepts that were to place his music and his career on a new track. Things were happening outside the music and recording worlds. America, in particular Black America, was facing the Civil Rights Movement. There was inner city poverty, a rise in drug use and abuse, the move to Black Power and then on to Black Pride. Unprompted, Mayfield decided to address these matters the only way he knew how – his music. It was an unusual and provocative step but it would make him a groundbreaking music voice for change in the Black community at this time, alongside James Brown and Sly Stone. Singer Mavis Staples (of the Staples Singers who recorded for Mayfield) defined this transformation: “[He] had a long history of writing wonderful love songs that made you want to dance slow to in the basement. And then, all of a sudden, he went and wrote some of the best message songs that could be out there. Curtis was a poet; his lyrics came straight from the heart and make me shudder.”
Mayfield was angry over the social and political turmoil affecting his America and he reacted by writing material with a point and purpose. But they were delivered to the public in a singular way, subtle and intelligent but still layered with gospel, R & B and soul, served Chicago style. Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who called Mayfield “a giant of gentleness,” observed that his music “used love and encouragement, not anger, to say important things.” Mayfield’s (frankly) sexy tenor voice, with its appeal to the ladies, could moderate any hostility in the lyric without destroying its significance. And the new Mayfield songbook was still aimed squarely at a mainstream audience, social observation for the people not the radical. Politics apart, Mayfield still wanted his chart hits.
Mayfield himself explained: “These songs were an example of what has laid in my subconscious for years… the issues of what concerned me as a young black man…. The musical strands and themes of gospel singers and preachers I’d heard as a child. It wasn’t hard to take notice of segregation and the struggle for equality at this time.”
In the mid-1960s Mayfield wrote three songs that defined his songwriter vision in this era: “Keep on Pushing,” “People Get Ready” and “We’re A Winner.” All managed – along with several other Mayfield songs – to insinuate social commentary into the pop charts and bring awareness to the struggles going on. No wonder Martin Luther King Jr. loved Mayfield’s work. The civil rights icon embraced “Ready” and “Pushing” as unofficial anthems for the Movement. “Keep On Pushing” was the theme music, part of the experience on the Freedom Ride buses that took activists into an unfriendly American South in the fight against segregation. The album “Keep On Pushing” by The Impressions was released in 1964 and quickly became the group’s biggest album to date. It also secured a longevity outside of its initial success, such as, when then-State Senator Barack Obama gave the Keynote Speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention. The music that brought him onstage was “Keep On Pushing.”
The powerful gospel grooved “People Get Ready,” recorded by The Impressions in 1965 as a single (and later album) is one of Mayfield’s half dozen most important songs. Well over 100 artists worldwide have covered it bringing royalties to the composer, the kind of homage the businesslike Mayfield appreciated. As the years progressed “People Get Ready” amassed any number of accolades: No. 24 in the Greatest Songs of All Time (Rolling Stone Magazine) and in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll. One of Top 10 Best Songs of All Time (a British poll) and it made the Grammy Hall of Fame. Mayfield said the song “… came from my church… or a message from my church. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.”
For all his guitar prowess, “People Get Ready” marked the first time that Mayfield’s guitar work had actually been featured on record. It was enough for Rolling Stone Magazine to place it at No. 20 in the 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks of all time!
The 1967 recording “We’re A Winner,” another Mayfield song with a life outside the music business, was more direct and confrontational than the other “anthems” aimed directly at Mayfield’s African American audience. Mayfield, as producer, recorded it in front of a live audience, bringing an emotional commitment from them to underscore the song’s substance. “We’re A Winner” was so direct that during the rioting in 1967 several radio stations refused to air the recording, citing its provocative, forceful lyrics. Civil rights activist and associate of Martin Luther King Jr., Ambassador Andrew Young presented his assessment of this newly charged Mayfield music in the Mayfield documentary “Move On Up” – “You have to think of Curtis Mayfield as a prophetic, visionary teacher of our people and our time.”
Statements like this, and there were many, made Mayfield uncomfortable. He never truly accepted that position, remaining modest and clear eyed about it, specifically when people called him “The Preacher” or “The Reverend.” “I’m an entertainer first,” he often stated. “I don’t claim to be a preacher or anything else, even though maybe there are signs of these things in my lyrics. With all respect I’m sure that we have enough preachers in the world. Through my way of writing I was capable of being able to say these things and yet not make a person feel as though they’re being preached at.”
While focused on recording with, and writing for, The Impressions, Mayfield was also moonlighting as the staff producer for Okeh Records, a Chicago label that was recording black music and black musicians back in the Roaring 20s. Here he wrote and produced hits for such artists as Major Lance, Gene Chandler, Jan Bradley, Walter Jackson and other hot chart names at the time. Also to give himself a measure of economic stature, he launched a couple of minor labels, Windy C Records and Mayfield Records, with some success in 1966. Mayfield, despite being the high school dropout, knew how to take care of business. Or at least to surround himself with people who did. Unhappy with his royalty rewards at age 18, he turned around and formed his own music publishing company.
In 1968 he went further and created another label, Curtom Records (the Tom was manager Eddie Thomas). This time he was in control of his recording, his song publishing, his own recording studio, all under one roof. Control was important to Mayfield as his friend and sometime business partner, singer Jerry Butler, testifies: “Curtis came to me one day and said, ‘Jerry, I want to buy you out.’ My feelings were hurt a little bit and I said, ‘Why, what did I do?’ He said: ‘You didn’t do anything. I just want to own as much of me as possible.’”
With Curtom Records, Mayfield achieved this. Not the first African American to run his own label but it was still highly unusual for a black recording artist to do so and his move would be observed by those who followed him. The present day music industry is notable for the number of African American recording stars who are in charge of this part of their business world destinies. The line runs from Mayfield to Jay Z., Kanye West, Dr. Dre, P. Diddy, Russell Simmons, etc. Mayfield had showed that successful Black Capitalism was possible, perhaps necessary.
Now, as the 1970s began, Mayfield released his first solo album, “Curtis” very successfully and made another transformative move, his most successful and certainly his most audacious – taking his music to the movies… He commented later: “We showed that you didn’t need a room the size of a football field to lay music in. You didn’t have to be a Henry Mancini.” (Mayfield was now doing all his recording in a tiny demo. producing studio he had bought from RCA Records in Chicago.) African American names on movie music soundtrack credits were not exactly thick on the ground in 1970 – Quincy Jones being the most prominent – and there was a not-exactly-unspoken question in Hollywood, “Can African Americans write film music? “ The 1970s was the time when the “Blaxploitation” movie was in vogue, films that would never make any all-time Best Film listings but were lively, energetic, quickly produced, low budget, starred black actors and beamed to a target audience that lived in the inner cities.
“Super Fly” was a zero budget production, shot in New York’s mean streets and coming across a little ambiguous in the drug/pimp/violence/badass culture department. By now, Mayfield was busy producing, for himself and others, all manner of music and knew how to lay some pretty harsh lyrics against really forceful funk grooves. Ideal, someone had thought, for a “Super Fly” soundtrack. That someone was not Mayfield. He was no fan of the movie’s characters or plot… until he saw a way to subvert it. Altheida Mayfield remembers her husband’s early reaction: “Curtis thought ‘Super Fly’ was a commercial to sell cocaine and he wanted to turn that around. That was his main purpose there, to say ‘This is nothing pretty.’ This man was raised poor and that’s what he saw on the streets every day and could express in song.” Express it he did – songs for “Super Fly” came pouring out, a running counterpoint to onscreen action, each track showing a different view of the problems – “Freddie’s Dead,” “Super Fly” (both became million selling singles), “Pusherman,” “Little Child Runnin’ Wild” – hits when the album was released and able to take on a new life decades later as the rap and hip hop generation discovered the art of sampling.
Mayfield’s “Super Fly” album became an instant classic of 1970s soul and funk and is a rare example of a soundtrack outselling the movie from which it was taken. The album spent four weeks at No. 1 on the album chart while singles, “Freddie’s Dead” and the title track were both million sellers. Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums list ranked it No. 69. VH1 placed it at No. 63 in the same category. “Super Fly,” which few thought initially had any hope of commercial success, “ignited a whole genre of music and influenced everybody from soul singers to TV music composers for decades to come. “ (AllMusic). Along with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield had introduced soul funk music with “Super Fly” that also said something; a groove that was socially aware.
Movie work now took up much of Mayfield’s time – with Gladys Knight and the Pips (the film “Claudine”), Aretha Franklin (“Sparkle”), Staple Singers (“Let’s Do It Again”), Mavis Staples (“A Piece of the Action”). A funk and now disco alliance ”Do Do Wap Is Strong In Here” for the movie “Short Eyes” was a 1977 hit for Mayfield, who also made a cameo appearance in the film (as he did in “Super Fly”).
By 1980 Mayfield had moved, with his family of six children, from Chicago to Atlanta, effectively bringing the Chicago Soul era to a close. He continued working as a solo artist, releasing (as he had in the previous two decades) a series of well received albums, and as a writer and producer. He rejoined his original colleagues for The Impressions Reunion Tour of 1983 – 25 years after that very first hit record. He started another record label, revived Curtom Records and had a full concert datebook, both in the U.S. Japan and Europe, especially Britain. Mayfield revisited “Super Fly” in 1990 – sort of. A remake, “Return of Super Fly” was produced with a Mayfield soundtrack. The film went nowhere but the soundtrack was important. Released as the album “Super Fly 1990” it marked a collaboration between Mayfield and Ice T. , one of the first signs that the emerging rap and hip hop constituency regarded Mayfield as an important influence.
Mayfield now had what he always wanted – control of a successful career that allowed him entry into every facet of the music and recording business. Then came August 13, 1990 and tragedy onstage at an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, New York. Mayfield arrived for the sound check on a rain swept afternoon and high winds blew down the lighting rig. Mayfield was trapped underneath, his spine crushed in three places, paralyzing him from the neck down. He would be wheelchair bound for the rest of his life.
But he continued. Perhaps he had no control over his body now, but he would still control his career. Slowly at first, his strength returned – his will was always there – and then there was a moment in 1994 that convinced him he could get back into the recording studio. The occasion was an all star, all Mayfield concert that Warner Bros. Records organized. Everybody sang Mayfield – Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, B. B. King, Elton John, Aretha Franklin and more. It was for a Mayfield Tribute album, “All Men Are Brothers.” The climax, the emotional core of the evening, was Curtis Mayfield, back at the microphone singing for the first time since the accident four years ago. This experience provided the motivation to return to his second home, the recording studio for what would be his last album, “New World Order,” a collection of original material. And Mayfield, the lion in winter, produced his last great song, “Here But I’m Gone” with an unsettling anti-drug lyric delivered with typical Mayfield flair, the light touch carrying the heavy message. While “New World Order” was Mayfield’s last hurrah, it does not signify the end of Mayfield’s recordings. He had always been at home in the recording studio and had probably written around 1400 songs in his four professional decades. Author Peter Burns estimated that 140 recordings lay in the Mayfield vaults in various stages of completion but all capable of being released. They included live performances from all over the world, collaborations, many with both Jerry Butler and the original Impressions, and more.
Mayfield’s physical condition now began to really deteriorate; diabetes forced the amputation of his right leg and he died in Roswell, Ga. on December 26, 1999 at age 57. That year he had been inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame as a solo performer – he was already there as a member of The Impressions – and before he died he learned that he was to be inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. He was already in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture has plans to honor Mayfield’s career. Following his death the music industry mounted any number of special tribute concerts and events to honor his memory and his talent.
But the real tribute to Curtis Lee Mayfield lies with his music and its lasting influence on public and peers alike. The fact that Mayfield music is still being played, still being picked up by new generations of musicians in almost every genre, paying respect to the gentle genius of song. “Here, But I’m Gone,” indeed. His last appearance on record was with the group Bran Van 3000 on the song “Astounded” for their 2001 album Discosis.
May 17, 1996 – Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson was born on February 3rd 1935 in Houston Texas. His father John Sr. was a pianist, and taught his son the instrument. But young Watson was immediately attracted to the sound of the guitar, in particular the electric guitar as played by T-Bone Walker and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
His grandfather, a preacher, was also musical. “My grandfather used to sing while he’d play guitar in church, man,” Watson reflected many years later. When Johnny was 11, his grandfather offered to give him a guitar if, and only if, the boy didn’t play any of the “devil’s music”. Watson agreed, but later said “that was the first thing I did, play the devil’s music”. A musical prodigy, he played with Texas bluesmen Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland.
Dec 23, 1992 – Eddie Hazel was born in Brooklyn, New York on April 10, 1950 but grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey because his mother, Grace Cook, wanted her son to grow up in an environment without the pressures of drugs and crime that she felt pervaded New York City. Hazel occupied himself from a young age by playing a guitar, given to him as a Christmas present by his older brother. Hazel also sang in church. At age 12 he participated in backyard jams, which resulted in Nelson McGee and Hazel forming the Wonders who played around Plainfield in the mid sixties. By early 1967 Hazel’s reputation on guitar had taken him to work with producer George Blackwell in Newark.
In 1967 The Parliaments, a Plainfield-based doo wop band headed by George Clinton, had a hit record with “(I Wanna) Testify“. Clinton recruited a backing band for a tour, hiring Nelson as bassist, who in turn recommended Hazel as guitarist.
July 29, 1978 – Glenn Lamont Goins was born on January 2nd 1954 and raised in Plainfield, New Jersey.
Featuring a powerful and haunting gospel voice, he first recorded with the group “The Bags”, releasing a single in 1972 “It’s Heavy” / “Don’t Mess With My Baby”.
But Glenn is better known as singer and guitarist for Parliament Funkadelic in the mid-1970s. He was particularly prominent on the Parliament albums Mothership Connection in 1975, The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein in 1976, and 1977’s Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome.
With his souful and powerful voice, Goins was by far one of the best vocalist who ever worked with the P.Funk mob. In 1978, he left the Clinton posse with drummer Jerome Brailey and formed his own funk band Quazar featuring his younger brother Kevin Goins and drummer Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey.
They recorded a self-titled album which Glen also produced and arranged, but sadly he died before the album’s release from Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the very early age of 24 on July 29, 1978.
Glenn is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inducted in 1997 with fifteen other members of Parliament-Funkadelic.