Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Lasting Impressions: An Afternoon Spent Celebrating Curtis Mayfield and a New Biography by His Son Todd -- Event Recap

Musical / Book Release Event Recap
(not a book review as I just bought the book there)

Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield
by Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria
Book Release Party
with Musical Tribute
The Promontory, Chicago
October 1, 2016

In terms of artists born, raised and/or based in Chicago, the Windy City's musical legacy is rather estimable.

Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Benny Goodman, Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, Otis Clay, Jerry Butler, Sir Georg Solti, Chicago, Styx, The Smashing Pumpkins, Liz Phair, Wilco, Ministry, Frankie Knuckles, Kanye West, Common and many, many more.

Yet, while realizing the folly of comparison across eras and genres, I don't think the legacy of any Chicago musician stands larger than that of Curtis Mayfield--including in ways I am only beginning to explore, encounter and appreciate. 

Born in Chicago in 1942--he died in 1999 after being paralyzed in a tragic stage collapse in 1990--Mayfield formed what would become the Impressions with his pal Jerry Butler while they were still just teenagers.

Todd Mayfield
After a couple early hits the Iceman left the group, leaving Mayfield as the Impressions lead singer and chief composer throughout the 1960s. 

Along with being a driving force behind the rise of soul music, Curtis also merged social consciousness into his music--far before it was commonplace, particularly from African-American artists--and the Impressions' "People Get Ready' is said to have been one of the primary anthems of the Civil Rights movement.

After beginning his solo career in 1970 with the highly acclaimed Curtis album, Mayfield created the brilliant soundtrack to the 1972 Superfly movie, an album that hit #1.

I only really mined the strident, streetwise magnificence of Superbly fairly recently, and in then doing some Internet research on Mayfield was intrigued to learn that his Curtom recording studio--and headquarters of his label of the same name, as his partner was Eddie Thomas--was, at the height of his solo fame, housed in a building at 5915 N. Lincoln in Chicago, 

A building at 5915 N. Lincoln in Chicago that once housed
Curtis Mayfield's Curtom Studio
This is along a route I've often traversed, and just a week ago Sunday as I drove past, I made a point of stopping and taking a picture, even though the nondescript building now contains a medical supply business.

In doing some Googling about Curtom that night, I stumbled on a Google Books entry about a biography that didn't even seem to be published yet: Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield by Todd Mayfield, Curtis' son (with Travis Atria as co-author).

I found this somewhat odd, so much so that I didn't bother to tell my friend Dave--a big Curtis Mayfield fan and soul aficionado who I had texted my photo of the former studio building--about finding an intriguing biography that wasn't yet available.

Coincidentally, the next day, the Chicago Tribune had a prominent article by Rick Kogan about Traveling Soul, which noted that it would be released on Saturday, October 1, and celebrated that day at a book signing and tribute concert at the Promontory in Hyde Park. 

Which Dave and I attended.

On the upper level of the sizable restaurant/bar/club/concert venue, the festivities got started at 3:00pm Saturday, and lasted more than 2-1/2 hours.

I wasn't sure exactly what shape the event would take, but here's what unfolded.

Although he wasn't introduced nor ever gave his name--I had to ask him afterward--a local poet/activist/radio host named Mario Smith served as the emcee, beginning by telling the good-sized crowd (including several members of the Mayfield family and his Curtom partner, Eddie Thomas, but not Jerry Butler, who is now a Cook County Commissioner):

"Curtis Mayfield was the man."

Not only didn't anyone in attendance object to this statement, but the point was illustrated by a brief film (I didn't catch the names of its creators) called All Things Mayfield, that gave a quick overview of its' subject's life and amazing, multi-faceted career, from forming the Impressions to writing hit songs for them and also Gene Chander, Billy Butler, Major Lance and others, penning Civil Rights anthems, forming Curtom Records, recording Superfly, being tragically hurt, getting honored by the Grammy Awards, recording an album called New World Order in 1996 despite being a quadriplegic and passing away in 1994.

Sam Trump with guitarist Jeff Swanson
I don't believe it was specifically mentioned in the film or onstage, but Mayfield was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, is cited by Rolling Stone as being among the Top 50 singers and guitarists of all-time (and among the Top 100 artists), was regarded as an outstanding producer, and as a songwriter was responsible for many  hits, including "People Get Ready," which Rolling Stone listed as the 24th best song in rock history.

After the film, Smith brought Todd Mayfield onstage, and later in the program conducted a brief impromptu interview, including with co-author Atria. I was anticipating more of a prepared speech by Todd about his father, but calling himself a man of few words--despite just writing a book--he seemed happiest to cede the spotlight to the musicians performing his dad's music. (Todd is one of several Mayfield children; I believe he is now in his late 40s and, despite looking much like his dad, not to my awareness a musician.)

Paul Richman with the Mayfield All-Stars
Before running through some of the songs performed by various singers and musicians, I should note that the afternoon also served to pay tribute to Reginald Torian, Sr., who passed away suddenly in May.

Torian took over as the lead singer of the Impressions in 1972 after Mayfield went solo--the group
has long remained active, with Fred Cash and Sam Gooden rounding out the trio; I don't believe either was at the event on Saturday--and embodied Curtis in the 2013 musical, It's Alright to Have a Good Time at Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater. (I didn't see it.)

A brief film about Reggie Torian's life and career was also presented.

As for the music, there were essentially two sets, the first featuring a young Chicago singer and trumpeter named Sam Trump. (I had to admire Mario Smith for not giving him grief about his surname; I don't know if I could have abstained.)

Katrina Richardson (I think)
Trump began his enjoyable set with The Impressions' "We're a Winner"--the song that begat The Jeffersons TV theme song with its "moving on up" refrain--but in referencing himself as the opening act, hewed primarily to songs extending beyond greatest hits (in terms my familiarity, not quality).

These included "We Got to Have Peace," "Sweet Exorcist" and a disco song whose title I don't know but which made me remark to Dave that Mayfield must have influenced Prince to some degree.

Though clearly too young to have much appreciated Mayfield in real-time--unlike some of the afternoon's subsequent performers--Trump cited Curtis as the one artist, alive or dead, he would most want to collaborate with.

I very much enjoyed his performance with a trio of backing musician, of whom I can only name guitarist Jeff Swanson, who delivered some excellent guitar leads that I presume well-referenced Mayfield's fretboard talents.

The second set of music featured the Mayfield All-Stars, which seemed to be led by guitarist Syd Brown. I don't know if he or any of the musicians actually played with Curtis, or perform together regularly beyond this tribute (though I believe many were part of the Black Ensemble Theater Mayfield musical).

But clearly there was much musical talent onstage, with a singer named Paul Richman initially handling vocal duties on "Give Me Your Love," "Superfly," "People Get Ready" and "I'm So Proud."

Richman then ceded the spotlight to a pretty young singer I believe is named Katrina Richardson, who had played Mayfield's wife in It's Alright to Have a Good Time at Black Ensemble Theater, which also featured David Simmons, who would duet with Richardson and take a wonderful solo turn.

Richardson delivered "Let's Do It Again" and "The Making of You," while Simmons sang "It's All Right," "Gypsy Woman" and "For Your Precious Love."

Holly D. Maxwell
Next up was a distinctive Chicago blues singer named Holly D. Maxwell, who openly celebrated soon turning 71 years old and recalled having collaborated with Curtis in 1969 on a song titled, "No One Else," which she then sang with delightful flair.

Paul Richman returned to the stage and strong takes on a trio of terrific tunes--"Keep On Pushing," "Choice of Colors" and "Move On Up," a great Curtis song long ago covered by one of my favorite British bands, The Jam--rounded out the program.

Afterward there was a book signing, and I showed Todd my iPhone photo of the old Curtom studio, had a picture taken with him and enjoyed chatting with Atria, for whom Traveling Soul is his first published book but is working on a second about a pioneering record executive.

It was a rather delightful afternoon learning more about a Chicago musical legend that deserves to have his great legacy continue to transcend and expand.

I haven't yet started the book, as I have the Bruce Springsteen biography, Born to Run and a bio of
another late, great Chicago musician, guitarist Mike Bloomfield, ahead of it--and I'm a slow reader--so I can't provide a review, and probably won't for quite awhile

But my Impressions are already rather favorable.

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1 comment:

Sydney Brown said...

Hey Seith: The Mayfield All Star Band's Musical Director was Syd Brown the Guitarist. It was composed of 13 pieces(the Promontory that day only featured 4 pieces)+ back up singers. The band was Reginald Torian, Sr.'s backup crew who was the original lead singer for the Impressions after Curtis. It was composed of some of Chicago's top musician some who actually played on Curtis Mayfield's recordings. The Mayfield All Stars closed the Taste of Chicago on the Budweiser Lite Stage along with Reginald Torian, Sr. in July 0f 2015 as well as to a sold out crowd at the Promontory in January of the same year.