Written by Phin Upham
Curtis Mayfield was born in Chicago in 1942. Curtis’ father left the family when he was five years old, and his mother had to move to the projects to afford life with her son. She moved through several apartments, before finally settling on Cabrini-Green when Mayfield was a teen.
He attended Wells Community High School and learned the piano from his mother. She encouraged her son to play gospel music, and he joined a quartet. He formed “The Alphatones,” his first band, when he was just 14.
His musical career truly began in 1956, when he joined a band called “The Roosters.” The band had two singles that became hits, and Mayfield rose to become the lead singer of the group. The height of their popularity came in the mid-1960s, when Mayfield’s “We’re a Winner” became a top hit on the soul charts. It was also embraced as an anthem for civil rights.
Mayfield wrote and performed the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Super Fly, which is still regarded as one of the all-time greats of the era. The music of The Impressions became songs of protest, sung by students as they marched on jails or universities.
He remained an active part of the movement well into the 70s, finally slowing his output in the early 80s. An accident in 1990 left him paralyzed from the neck down, leaving him unable to perform. Still, he wrote and sang. He received a Grammy for life time achievement in 1995, but died from complications arising from diabetes in 1999.