Singer/songwriter and producer Curtis Mayfield, who would’ve been 73 years old last week (he died in 1999 at the age of 57), was as savvy in the boardroom as he was behind the mixing board. Beginning his storied career in Chicago, he was raised in the church, musically trained in choir and began strumming the guitar when he was a teenager. Dropping out of high school when he was 14, Mayfield formed the vocal group The Impressions with his buddy and future “ice man” Jerry Butler. In addition, Mayfield began writing and producing the group’s material as well as songs for other local artists including Major Lance and Gene Chandler.
Everything was everything until it was time to get the money. Although Mayfield did the bulk of the work, he was receiving the fewest dollars. Tired of seeing song profits lining the pockets of the music executives who had nothing to do with their creation, he started his own music publishing company. “Back then, few artists owned any parts of themselves,” Mayfield told me in 1996 from his home in Atlanta. “At an early age, I knew about the importance of publishing, but labels couldn’t believe I wanted to own at least 50% of my own stuff. I got a lot of doors slammed in my face.”
Paralyzed in 1990 in a freak accident in Brooklyn, he was confined to a hospital bed and wheelchair for the remainder of his life, but still recorded new music including New World Order (1997), and did interviews. “The labels were so used to paying folks ‘Black money,’ which was a Cadillac and $2,500 in fives, tens and twenties. I wanted more.” While Mayfield was a sweet voiced singer whose soaring falsetto inspired numerous artists including Phillip Bailey, Prince and Jeff Buckley, he was tough when he needed to be.
In Mayfield’s quest to “own as much of myself as possible,” he established Curtom Records in 1968 with business partner Eddie Thomas. Working out of a space formerly occupied by RCA Records located at One North Wacker Drive in Chicago, the talented music man secured distribution from Buddah Records and set-out to compete with Motown, Chess and Stax. Leaving the Impressions, with whom he had recorded the influential civil-rights era singles “People Get Ready” (1964) and “We’re a Winner” (1967), Mayfield signed a slew of talented artists including Leroy Hutson (who replaced him in the Impressions before going solo), The Five Stairsteps, Baby Huey and the Babysitters, Natural Four, Linda Clifford and Donny Hathaway, who also briefly served as one of the in-house arrangers and A&R director.
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