Traveling Soul is the first comprehensive biography of soul icon Curtis Mayfield. It is available for pre-order on Amazon.com and will be released nationwide Oct. 1 from Chicago Review Press.
Curtis Mayfield began the year 1964 on a roll. He’d just written three smash singles—“It’s All Right,” “Talking About My Baby” and “I’m So Proud”—and the Impressions were on tour in Jamaica. At the Carib Theatre, three young Jamaican musicians watched their idols in awe. The trio—Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer—modeled many of their early songs off of Impressions songs. They even dressed like the Impressions.
At the time of the Impressions’ visit, Jamaica suffered under a racist system similar to the one in America, and the island’s own civil rights movement had just begun burgeoning. As my father watched his Caribbean brothers struggle, it ignited his passion to write songs that were more than just feel-good fare. He wanted to write songs that spoke to the times.
Back in America, Civil Rights movement activists died grisly deaths. But all was not lost. Martin Luther King Jr. was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize—he’d already been Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 1963—and Congress seemed tantalizingly close to passing the Civil Rights Act. Though great antagonism electrified the gap between militants like Malcolm X and moderates like King, my father revered King and believed his people couldn’t let these divisions stop their momentum.
With all that in mind, my father started scribbling lyrics and fitting them to a melody. He finished the song in a hotel room on tour. Near two in the morning, Fred Cash heard a gentle knock on his door. He cracked it open and squinted into the hallway light. He could just make out my father standing there in his pajamas. “Hey man, come and listen to this and see what you think of it,’” my father said. “I wrote something that maybe can help motivate the people.”
Cradling his guitar at the edge of his bed, Dad played “Keep On Pushing” for the first time. When he finished, Fred stood dumbstruck. “Where did you come up with all these words?” he finally asked. My father replied, “I’m living.”
Curtis had been training to write a song like “Keep On Pushing” his entire life. It used the same rhythms he learned in his grandmother’s church, only now the terms had changed. He said, “All I needed to do was change ‘God gave me strength, and it don’t make sense not to keep on pushing,’ to ‘I’ve got my strength, and it don’t make sense.’... Nothing else needed to be changed.”
“Keep On Pushing” explodes from the speaker with a crash cymbal, while Dad’s guitar flutters around the beat like a hummingbird. He sings the whole song in falsetto and hits an extra gear in the chorus, pushing himself near the limit of his range. Up there, he unleashes a gorgeous warble from a place few men can reach. During the verses, arranger Johnny Pate’s hypnotic horn line echoes the vocal melody, flirting with the waltz rhythm, and providing a contrapuntal call-and-response.
The song was a call to arms, a salve to the fractions within the movement, and a message of hope. “Move up a little higher, some way, somehow,” my father urged. He never wanted to be a preacher, but he’d just written his first sermon. Like the best sermons—King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, for example, which still rung in Dad’s head—it had a strong hook and made the impossible seem within reach.
Unlike a religious preacher, though, my father paired his sermons with melody and rhythm. DJs put them in heavy rotation on radio stations across the country. In such a way, he could preach to people who never set foot in a church, and do it without them knowing it. “Painless preaching,” he’d later call it. The single came out in July 1964 and rose to the top slot of the R&B chart—my father’s third number one.
Sadly, 1964 marked a high point for the movement. Some seven months later, Malcolm X was assassinated and an angry surge began coursing through once-peaceful protests. Watching the movement unravel around him, Dad found solace, as always, in his guitar. In what he called “a deep mood, a spiritual state of mind,” he put together the follow-up to “Keep On Pushing.” He showed the song—a breathtaking ballad called “People Get Ready”—to Pate in his normal way. “Curtis would usually bring me the material on a cassette tape,” Pate said. “When he brought me the songs, it was nothing but guitar and voice. Generally, with Curtis, he would have no idea what the arrangement was going to sound like until we got to the session. We never had the opportunity to sit down and work out an arrangement together. He would bring me the basic tape, and at that point, he’d get back with Fred and Sam, they would work out the harmonies, and then we would hit the studio.”
Fred and Sam learned the song, but before hitting the studio, they had a run of shows with the Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, and the Marvelettes. At the Uptown Theatre in Philadelphia, they gave the audience a tantalizing hint of what was to come.
During the show, they got into a singing battle with the Temptations. Fred recalled, “The Temptations went out and did one of our songs, ‘Gypsy Woman.’ So when it was time for us to go on, we went out and did one of their songs, ‘The Girl’s Alright with Me.’ And then, it was on. We would do a song; they would do a song. The host of the show was Georgie Woods, and he just let us go at it.”
After the third or fourth encore, the Impressions stood backstage caught in a bind. They’d run out of songs, but the audience screamed for more. My father said, “Well, we got ‘People Get Ready.’” Sam nervously spoke up: “Are you sure we can do this song? We just learned it.” My father replied in his customary seat-of-the-pants way, “Sure, let’s give it a try.” They returned onstage to a chorus of cheers, and Dad plucked the opening chords. “You could almost hear a pin drop in there,” Sam said. “It was so soulful, man, it just knocked these people out.”
It knocked Pate out, too. “The song touched me quite a bit,” he said. “I listened to the lyrics, I listened to the melody, and I thought, ‘This could be a big, big song,’ because of the message that was involved, for one thing, and because of the way Curtis was delivering it. You could tell he was bringing something really that he felt.” They cut it immediately after the tour ended, and ABC released the single just after Malcolm’s assassination.
“People Get Ready” plays like a meditation, a hymn, a love letter to the fathomless strength and endless struggle of black people in America. It opens with a haunting, hummed melody that sends chills up the spine. Pate’s arrangement is masterful—pizzicato strings and lilting violin lines weaving around plinking chimes. Once Curtis begins singing, it is clear he’d found a way to merge the movement’s vast hope with the fierce sadness and pain his people had experienced trying to make that hope a reality.
My father intended “People Get Ready” to reach far back in history, even as it kept an eye on the future. His lyrics brought the coded messages of old Negro spirituals into the turbulent 1960s. When he sang about a train to Jordan, everyone fighting for their rights in Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, and Georgia knew what he meant. Everyone who had migrated to Chicago, New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and California knew it too.
It was the same train that formed the Underground Railroad during slavery; it was the train that brought Curtis’s grandmother and millions like her to northern cities during the Great Migration; it was the movement train my father’s generation boarded, determined to get to a better place or die trying.
Like “Keep On Pushing,” the song had heavy gospel roots. “Lyrically you could tell it’s from parts of the Bible,” Dad said.
“There’s no room for the hopeless sinner who would hurt all mankind just to save his own / Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner, for there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne.” It’s an ideal. There’s a message there. I couldn’t help myself for it. And it was also my own teachings, me talking to myself about my own moral standards. As a kid, sometimes you have nobody to turn to. I could always go back to some of the sermons and talk to myself in a righteous way. I had heard preachers speak of how there is “no hiding place.” If you’ve been around enough preachers, you’ll see how their words are in the song in one form or another. I wanted to bring a little gospel into the drive for reality with the song, and it also lent a pride to those who were oppressed and trying to define themselves on another level.
The single shot to number three R&B and number fourteen pop, and the album hit the top spot on the R&B album chart. It was the only Impressions album to do so, and the song remains one of their most famous and recognizable works.
After “People Get Ready,” my father became the foremost social commentator in pop music. He now understood that the songs of his that contained conviction—dripped with it, actually—tended to be ones that were about something. It gave him license to keep telling the truth, to keep singing for his people, to keep pushing for freedom.
Curtis the messenger had arrived. He’d spend the next decade making the most uncompromising message music of any artist in the world. And yet, just like the civil rights movement, his social mission remains incomplete. The problems he sang about persist.
Poverty rates for most minorities in America remain more than double that of whites, the US Supreme Court has continued dismantling the legislative gains of the movement, and racial violence remains an ever-present danger for those who are darker than blue. From the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teenager, in 2012, to an instance of police brutality that ignited riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, to the recent slayings of Terrence Crutcher and Keith L. Scott—and far too many others—America’s problem with race continues to rear its ugly head. A new generation must now deal with the same old issues, ask the same old questions, and fight to find new answers.
My father’s music is the soundtrack to that fight.
Todd Mayfield is Curtis Mayfield’s second-oldest son. Travis Atria is a music writer, Paste contributor, and musician, whose album Boa Noite comes out Oct. 14 from Gold Robot Records.