Before he became famous for transforming a coke dealer's wet dream into a Super Fly soundtrack of redemption songs in 1972, Curtis Mayfield poured his soul into the Impressions. The Chicago-based doo-wop/soul trio, led by Mayfield from 1961-1970, pioneered message music in an era when Motown, the nation's premier manufacturer of soul, was still on a singular mission to churn out crossover hits. Before Marvin Gaye came to ponder "What's Going On" (1971), Mayfield and the Impressions distilled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream into a Civil Rights anthem with such songs as "People Get Ready" (1965).
A decade after his departure (1942-1999), we're still wrapping our heads around Mayfield's imperial soul. By mixing social commentary and delicate love-song compositions, Mayfield and the Impressions gave voice to the pathos and passions of black America.
With the National Black Arts Festival's tribute to Mayfield's songbook — To Curtis With Love feat. the Impressions, Eddie Levert, Van Hunt, Dionne Farris, Joi Gilliam and Frank McComb — hitting Atlanta Symphony Hall tonight, we talked to Fred Cash of the Impressions, from his current home in Chattanooga, Tenn., about the genius of Curtis Mayfield and got a song-by-song breakdown of some of their classics that came to define the era.
So the Impressions actually started in 1958 with Jerry Butler as the lead, but after the success of the first record ["For Your Precious Love"], Butler left the group and Mayfield became the lead. Once you all became a threesome [Fred Cash, Curtis Mayfield and Sam Gooden] and started putting out a lot of hits, what was that era like?
Cash: Oh man, it was great. We had a great working machine, man. At that time, our manager was working for ABC-Paramount, and he was the promotion man. We had Johnny Pate, who was a great arranger, and we had Curtis, who was a great writer and producer. Hey man, we had a click happening. We would just turn them out. We sold some 60 million records, that's what we've sold so far.
What was it like working with Curtis Mayfield in terms of his songwriting and composing?
Cash: He was a genius. I'm telling you, he was a genius. A lot of times, late at night, when the fellows would be out, he and I would be in our hotel rooms. At 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, I'd hear a knock on my door, "Hey Cash, come over here and listen to this tune I'm writing." He'd have on his robe, sitting on the side of the bed with an open-face guitar and he'd be playing. I'd tell him, "Curtis, man, you wrote us another hit." That could've been "Keep on Pushing," that could've been "This is My Country," that could've been "We're a Winner." Any of those tunes. He was just a great, great writer.
I read in the liner notes to Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: The Anthology (1961-1977) that a lot of the Impressions black pride songs from that time, especially "We're A Winner," weren't embraced initially by black radio?
Cash: Well, black radio embraced it. The white radio stations wouldn't play it. That was WLS in Chicago, one of the biggest stations at that particular time. They would not play that record. They thought this song was going to cause some kind of riot. They didn't listen to the song to see what it was talking about; they just heard some parts of it and said no. Even when we got ready to go to California, we did the Joey Bishop television show, and that was when "Choice of Colors" came out and that was a big record for the Impressions. Well, we went out to rehearse the song so we could record it for the television show, and the producer came out and said, "Well, no, y'all can't do that song on this show." So Joey Bishop came out and said, "What's going on?" Because we were getting ready to pack up and leave. We said that the producer here said that we couldn't do that song on this show, and he said, "Is that y'all's hit record?" And we said yeah. So he said, "Well, y'all are gonna do it." So that's how we got the chance to perform that song on that particular television show.
Were you pretty much relegated to performing on what's now known as the Chitlin' Circuit back then?
Cash: Yeah, well that's basically what it was. We hit all the theatres, the Apollo Theater, the Royal Theater in Baltimore, Md., the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. We hit all those in a row, then we'd go to the Regal Theater in Chicago. You would have Smokey Robinson and the Miracles on the show, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, all of us would be on one show, and that was the Chitlin' Circuit.
How did the Impressions fit into that mix? You all definitely had that legacy of that gospel/soul sound, but at the time you all were becoming known for message music.
Cash: Well, we were the first to start doing the message song. Before James Brown and Marvin Gaye, we were the first. Curtis started to write those tunes and we started to hook up with the [Civil Rights] movement and what was going on. Then some of the other artists followed after that. We didn't know that the music was going to have that kind of effect. We were all young guys at that particular time. For Curtis to be writing those kinds of songs then was amazing, because he was younger than all of us. When it comes down to writing songs, we called him a poet, cause that's what he was.
I'm going to throw out some song titles for you. If you have any memories or stories, just throw them out there. Let's start with "Gypsy Woman."
Cash: Curtis was very young, I think he was 12 or 13, when he wrote "Gypsy Woman." That was the song that brought us to life after Jerry Butler had left the group. That was one of the songs at ABC-Paramount. We had cut it in New York. Our manager at the time was Eddie Thomas, and he took it to ABC-Paramount. They loved it and they put it out, and it did well. It sold something like 350,000 copies at that time. But then there was a white guy who came along, his name was Brian Hyland, and he cut the song in 1970 and it did a million. But that's what opened the doors for us after that. It was "Gypsy Woman."
"Sad, Sad Girl and Boy"
Cash: "Sad, Sad Girl and Boy" was really the first record. Before "Gypsy Woman," "Sad, Sad Girl and Boy" made enough noise for the record company to believe in us and give us another chance. Back then, they called it a turntable hit. The company gave us a chance to go back in, and that's when we recorded "Gypsy Woman." Then after that, "It's Alright" and "Keep On Pushing." We had about eight or nine hits in a row.
Cash: Never will forget that song. After "Gypsy Woman," that was the next big tune. We cut that song in Chicago at Universal Records. We had Gene Chandler, "the Duke of Earl," in the studio with us. We had a lot of people in the studio with us at that particular time. When we finished recording that song, we knew we had a hit. We didn't record anything else that day. We just kept on playing that song over and over again, and we were just wondering if this was a hit. Then Gene Chandler said, "Lemme tell you something, if y'all don't want that song, give it to me! This is a hit." Curtis had the only copy at that point, and he lived in Markham, Ill., and we'd drive out to Markham to hear that song. And then we'd come back to Chicago. That song bought Sam's home, Curtis' home, and my home at that point. We all bought homes off that song. I never will forget that song.
"I'm So Proud"
Cash: We were in Atlanta. They had a hotel called the Forest Arms Hotel, and that's where all of the entertainers would stay. We had a couple of days off, and the record company called and said, "We're gonna release 'I'm So Proud.'" Listen, we had a fit. We were still writing it, and we wanted to release an up-tempo tune. They bet us any amount of money that this song, "I'm So Proud" was going to be a big hit for the Impressions. We still had a fit. Man, that killed our groove for the whole day. We were sitting around the pool and had a day off, and we just knew we were going to enjoy the day. But when they called and said they were going to release "I'm So Proud," that just killed our day. We were young, not knowing that the record company had the money; they could make it a hit record if they wanted to. And they did. That was one of our biggest records. After they got through with it, they said, "Alright, what do y'all think now?" We had to eat our words. They made it a hit record.
"Keep On Pushing"
Cash: There's a good story about that one. We were in Cleveland, Ohio. We had played at a club, but there was a disc jockey who had interviewed us a whole bunch of times. "Keep on Pushing" hadn't come out, but our manager had a demo copy, and he played it for him. This guy said, "Man, let me tell you something, this is a hit!" But we had wanted the other side to come out, "I'm the One That Loves You." That's the tune that we wanted to come out, because that was up-tempo. He bet us a hundred dollars and said, "Let me tell you all something, if you put out 'Keep on Pushin,' you're going to have a hit." So we went back in and thought about it, and that changed our mind. We came out with "Keep On Pushin," and he was definitely right, 'cause he bet every one of us a hundred dollars, and we had to pay him, too.
"People Get Ready"
Cash: We first performed that song in Philadephia, Penn., at the Uptown Theater. Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were at that show. The Temptations and the Marvelettes were on the show, and there was another act on the show. Well, 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. We got down to when we didn't have any more songs to sing, and Curtis was like "Let's do 'People Get Ready.'" It had never been sung before, and it just tore the house down. We went back to Chicago after that show, went into the studio, and recorded "People Get Ready." It would prove to be a big, big hit for the Impressions. That's where it started from.
"Woman's Got Soul"
Cash: Now, "Woman's Got Soul" was another great song that Curtis wrote. Our arranger, Johnny Pate, fell in love with that particular song. He was like "Aw, man, I can put an arrangement around this." He just loved "Woman's Got Soul" for whatever reason, I don't know. To me, there were a whole lot of better songs that we recorded. But the arrangement and stuff that he put around it made it very cool.
"I Loved and I Lost"
Cash: Oh boy, that's my favorite. That was a great song Curtis wrote as well. There never was a single, but I had always loved that song. I loved singing it. Reggie, he does a good job doing lead on that [now]. Curtis did lead on it, but Reggie loves it, too, and he did a great job performing that song.
"Fool for You"
Cash: That was a tune that we loved as well. But that wasn't as big a hit as those others were. But hey, I love singing "Fool for You" now because it's such a great song with a great arrangement on it.
"This is My Country"
Cash: It was during the time [of] a lot of the tunes Curtis wrote. We weren't able to get out and do the marching with the movement at that particular time, but one way we could contribute was through the songs. That was one of the tunes, "This Is My Country." But in some of the places in the Deep South, we couldn't sing it down there. But whenever we could sing it, we would sing it, 'cause back then, we'd play all kinds of places way back up in the hills. And this was for white people as well. So some tunes we sang, and some tunes we didn't sing.
"Check Out Your Mind"
Cash: That was another tune that I didn't really care about: "Here's something that you never had/it slid in on an oily rag." I don't know what Curtis was talking about there. "Why don't you check out you mind?" It was just one of the tunes he wrote. I don't know what he was thinking where writing that song was concerned. But it never killed me.
What do you think of his solo work?
Cash: It was great. Curtis went into a whole different direction. Of course, you know, he still worked with Jonny Pate, who was our arranger when Curtis was with the group. And they started to popping them out: "If There's a Hell Below" — you'd hear the horns and stuff hitting. Hey man, he went into a whole different bag. That just shows you what kind of genius this cat was. If he was living today, I sure would love to know what kind of bag he would be into today.
When you think about the legacy of the Impressions and Curtis Mayfield, do you think that it gets the credit that it should by the younger audiences today?
Cash: Yeah, well a lot of the young artists are sampling that music, and there are a lot of young artists who have recorded those songs over. Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart did "People Get Ready." And there are a lot of young artists sampling that music, and it makes me feel good for the reason that we helped open the doors for a whole lot of artists like ourselves, the Temptations, and the O'Jays. So a lot of these guys are standing on the shoulders of what we've done. And I feel good about that for the simple reason that this music that we recorded with Curtis has lived and lived and lived and is still living.
Did you talk to Curtis much after the accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down [after stage lighting fell on him during a live performance in Brooklyn in 1990]?
Cash: Yeah, every time we came through Atlanta. As a matter of fact, we came through Atlanta, I called Curtis, and he said, "Well, y'all have got to come out to the house." We went out to the house and I told Sam, "We'll go out to the house and spend an hour with him, and we'll keep it up." Man we just sat there and talked for two or three hours. He pulled out pictures, and played music. Man, we just had a great time. We kept in contact. He'd call me, and I'd call him. Before he died, his wife Athea called me and said, "Fred, he won't make it through the night." And the next day, he was gone.
Tell me about the new material the Impressions have been working on?
Cash: I had a chance to do my first producing. There are two other partners who are in business with me, and we formed a company called Rebirth Music. One of the fellows owns a recording studio, and the other fellow was a promotion man for Capitol Records. So we went in and mixed it and put everything together, and I think it's a good piece of product. It's a live tribute to Curtis for our 50th anniversary.
And there's a Christmas album?
Cash: It's called I'll Be Home for Christmas. It's recorded, and should be coming out for Christmas as well. And don't forget to mention the documentary on Curtis, [Movin' On Up: The Music & Message of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions]. I think a lot of people will be really happy and surprised to pick that up.
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