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Curtis Mayfield on his greatest hits

Updated: August 17, 2012 6:15AM

It was a spiritual pilgrimage for sure.

Since I began buying music, the songs of Curtis Mayfield had touched my soul.

In February 2003, I drove from Chicago to visit Mayfield in his home in Dunwoody, a suburb of Atlanta, Ga. Notoriously shy, Mayfield did not grant many interviews. We had spoken several times over the years on the phone, and on this sunny afternoon he granted me a couple of hours.

Paralyzed from a 1990 accident, he laid on a hospital bed in the den of his home. I sat on a chair and moved close to his face. He told me to check out the gold compact disc En Vogue gave him to commemorate their hit “Something He Can Feel,” which he wrote.

Then I asked him to riff on a few of his best known songs. These are my abridged notes:

“People Get Ready” (1965):

“That song just came to mind,” he said. “So many of my lyrics are so identifiable to most sermons you hear in church. I mean. ...”

Mayfield slowly began to recite:

“People get ready, there’s a train a coming.

You don’t need no ticket, you just get on board.

All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming

And there’s no hiding place . . .”

“How often do you hear in sermons that you can run but you cannot hide?” Mayfield asked as a tear welled up in his right eye.

“It’s All Right” (1963):

“I wrote that in Nashville,” Mayfield said. “Me and (fellow Impressions) Fred (Cash) and Sam (Gooden) were just sitting out in front of the club in between sets. I was running my mouth, talking about something inspirational and what was going to be in our future. Fred just said, ‘Well, all right, all right.’ It just hit me. By the time we got back into the club and re-dressed to do the second show, we were singing ‘It’s All Right.’ We could have gone on stage and done it. That’s how music comes to you through conversation.

“I brought it back to Chicago and as we were preparing to record it I asked (session arranger) Johnny Pate to give me some horn riffs from a Bobby Blue Bland song (‘Ain’t Nothin’ You Can Do’) I loved so much. The riffs were different, yet they were similar. And they locked in so beautifully. I was praying and thanking God all night because you knew in your heart you had a respectful song.”

“Keep on Pushing” (1964): “In pop and R&B, there definitely is a hook line,” he said. “You write around the hook line but eventually come back to it. That’s what I tried to do with that song. I wrote ‘Keep on Pushing’ in Washington, D.C., while we were working the Howard Theater. I wrote it as a gospel song during the civil rights struggles. This reflected on lifting oneself by the bootstraps. Instead of saying God gave me my strength, I said, ‘I’ve got my strength and it don’t make sense not to keep on pushing.’ I hope that is in many people’s minds, black and white.”

“I’m So Proud” (1964): “I wrote that for my love for women, period,” Mayfield said. “That could be expressed to any woman you care for or any woman who is pretty to you. I think it was a polite way in its own simplicity to speak nicely toward a lady. I think it was received the same way.”

— Dave Hoekstra

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