R.I.P. Curtis Mayfield: How The IRS Created A Legendary Career

Curtis MayfieldR&B icon Curtis Mayfield died today (December 26, 1999) in Roswell, Georgia.

Mayfield had been in poor health for almost 10 years, after he was paralyzed from the neck down in 1990, when a lighting rig fell on him in New York City during a show.

Mayfield was just 48-years-old when he was struck by a falling light tower at the Martin Luther King music festival in Brooklyn.

“A small twister of some sort tornado-like, just came out of nowhere and swept the light trusses and sound equipment off, pieces weighing 600 pounds,” said festival organizer Marty Markowitz. ”The truss came down and hit him. It would have hit me a few seconds before. I had just introduced him. ‘Ladies here’s Curtis Mayfield!’ And then it struck.”

Raised in the notorious Cabrini-Green projects, Mayfield was one of the architects of R&B music and the Chicago soul sound in particular, in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s.

He started his career in a group known as The Roosters, which eventually morphed into The Impressions.

The Impressions split after their big hit “For Your Precious Love” in 1958, and Mayfield, just 18, continued to work as a cigar sales man in the wealthy Gold Coast lakefront area of Chicago.

Had it not been for a $400 debt to the IRS, Curtis Mayfield may have never written another song.

“The Internal Revenue Service was looking for me for four-hundred bucks,” Mayfield revealed in the book Chicago Soul. “They found me in Cabrini-Green and wanted payment. I had a Webcor tape recorder and they wanted me to sell it to get them the money. Anyway, I got away from them by playing with Jerry. That’s how I did nothing but play for Jerry and sleep with my guitar and write songs.”

Mayfield continued to write and tour with Butler, in addition to rechristening the sound of The Impressions with producer Johnny Pate on ABC-Paramount with their first hit, 1961’s “Gypsy Woman.”

The hits followed with songs like “Grow Closer Together,” “Little Young Lover” and “I’m the One Who Loves You” and “It’s All Right.”

As a staff producer for Constellation and Okeh, Mayfield wrote hit singles for Gene Chandler (“Just Be True,” “Bless Our Love,” “What Now”) and Major Lance (“Um, Um, Um, Um, Um,” “Monkey Time”) in addition to Jan Bradley’s Mayfield penned hit “Mama Didn’t Lie.”

As for The Impressions, their first three albums, The Impressions, The Never Ending Impressions and People Get Ready are considered American classics.

Throughout the 1960’s, The Impressions and Mayfield’s output were considerable. Singles like “Meeting Over Yonder, “Can’t Satisfy,” “I’m So Proud” and “Keep on Pushing” kept The Impressions high on the charts.

In 1966 Mayfield’s launched his first labels, Windy C and Mayfield, and two years later, the legendary Curtom imprint.

The labels housed a number of influential artists like The Five Stairsteps (known as “The First Family of Soul“), The Fascinations and others, including The Impressions.

Mayfield left The Impressions in 1970 for a solo career with his album Curtis, although the group continued recording for his successful independent label.

There he continued to develop his political voice with songs like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.”

In 1973 he released his landmark album Superfly, the soundtrack to the 1972 black exploitation flick of the same name.

Following the success of Superfly, Mayfield became sought after for movie soundtracks. He produced the soundtracks for Claudine, A Piece of the Action, and Sparkle.

Mayfield continued to innovate despite his injury, having recorded his 1996 album New World Order, suspended by a harness in order to give him extra breathing power for his voice.

Mayfield’s contributions to the music industry and society cannot be measured.

His music is still featured in movies and commercials worldwide and rappers from each decade of the genres existence have incorporated his music into their own.

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