Sunday, January 07, 2007

Curtis Mayfield

Back in my barfly days, I would hang at the Hopleaf, in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood. The owner had an old-fashioned jukebox that would play actual vinyl 45's. If there were no records playing, the bartenders would put cd's on.

One of the bartenders back then was a six foot eight tall Detroit native named Bruno. Bruno was frequently surly, but underneath was a really nice guy who had great taste in music. One of the reasons he could be forgiven his surliness was his tendency during his shifts to shut off the jukebox and play the music of Curtis Mayfield. Over time, I developed a serious Curtis Mayfield jones. I'd long loved a handful of his tunes-- "Move On Up," "Pusherman," and "Freddie's Dead" were among them. Whenever Bruno would play Mayfield's records, I would hanker to have more Curtis Mayfield in my life.

I hanker no more. I can knock #37 off of my "life goals" list. My wife read my New Year's Day blog post and immediately ordered "People Get Ready", the Curtis Mayfield box set that Rhino Records released in 1996. It arrived Friday afternoon. I uploaded it to itunes that evening and am at this moment revelling in it.

Not only am I a fan of his music, I am an admirer of the man as a man. He grew up in Chicago's horrible Cabrini-Green housing projects. I witnessed the soul-crushing effects of this place first-hand, when I spent a year as a substitute teacher there in 1991-1992. How he managed to get out of there intact, let alone with his enormous talent and creativity amazes me. He formed the Impressions with Jerry "The Iceman" Butler (who went on to be a star in his own right, and is now a Cook Country Commissioner). He's probably best-known for composing and performing the soundtrack to the blaxploitation classic "Superfly." His powerful anti-drug message was muddled in the movie, but Mayfield spent his entire career weaving political commentary into his music. He was a nice guy and a good father-- one of his sons was a college buddy's roommate.

I was saddened when Mayfield was injured in a freak accident in 1990. He was performing in Brooklyn, when a gust of wind blew a stack of amplifiers over onto him, leaving him a quadrepelgic. Amazingly, he continued composing and performing until he died of diabetes in 1999.

As I listen to the box set, I'm enjoying hearing his old hits, but am especially enjoying hearing his lesser-known songs. I can't rave about the box set enough. Thanks darling!

If you can get your hands on "People Get Ready," do so. In the meantime, take a moment and enjoy him performing one of his classics, and one of my favorites, "Move On Up."


Danny Tagalog said...

Didn't know about his background, but that gust of wind had alot to answer for, eh? I'll be looking out for some CM in the short twerm...

vikkitikkitavi said...

I remember the Hopleaf. Great bar. And Mayfield was one of my favorite artists in the 70s. Why don't they play him more on the oldies stations, I wonder?

I'll have to check out a collection. Thanks, JY.

Johnny Yen said...

Yeah, it was a shitty thing to happen to a really good guy.

You'd barely recognize the place. Michael and Louise bought the building and expanded. There's a restaurant in the back now. The front bar is pretty much the same as it was, though no more jukebox.