Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul - Craig Werner (2004)
Chapter 2. “Keep On Pushing”
The Soul of the
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. wiped his brow and gazed out over the salt-and-pepper crowd sweating in front of Buckingham Fountain in Chicago’s Grant Park on a blistering day in late July 1965. “Let us pray,” King intoned, urging the Lord and tens of thousands of demonstrators to turn their thoughts to the “nonwhite citizens of this city, who have walked for years through the darkness of racial segregation, a nagging sense of nothingness.” As his lieutenants and bodyguards cleared a path through the jostling crowd, King descended from the fountain and assumed his place at the front of the march. As the marchers set off west down Balbo Drive, they raised their voices in song: “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round.” Bringing the point home in the stirring chorus that had rung out in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, they promised to “keep on walking, keep on talking, marching up to freedom land.”
Carrying signs that read “Segregation Hurts Children,” “Keep Your Eye on the Prize,” and “This Could Be the Start of Something New,” marchers adjusted the lyrics to local conditions, vowing “Ain’t gonna let Mayor Daley turn me round.” As the front ranks rounded the corner from State Street and turned onto Madison Avenue, traffic in the downtown Chicago Loop came to a halt. Passing through the shadows of the skyscrapers, a pocket of marchers sang, “People are you ready,” the opening line of the Impressions’ recent hit “Meeting Over Yonder.” “Don’t forget to be there,” they went on, using the lyrics that had been circulated on mimeographed sheets in the week before the march. “Dr. King’s gonna be there at the meeting over yonder.” By the time it reached City Hall, where King hoped to present Richard Daley with a list of demands centered on housing and education, the march had swelled to almost a hundred thousand. Disappointed to find that Daley had ducked the planned photo opportunity by leaving town to attend a convention in Detroit, King invited the throng to join him in another prayer. When he raised his head, his voice rang out with phrases he had used repeatedly in the days before the march: “Chicago is a great city. We want it to be a greater city. We must learn to live together as brothers, or we will all perish together as fools.”
King had come to Chicago to fulfill a promise that Southern Christian Leadership Conference staffer James Bevel had made that March in the wake of the movement’s stirring victory in Selma, Alabama. “Chicago is not that different from the South,” Bevel had observed. “Black Chicago is Mississippi moved a few hundred miles north. We are going to have a movement in Chicago.” As he prepared to do battle for the future of the city ruled by the machine politician whose biographers would call him “American Pharaoh,” King prayed for a new exodus. He hoped that the nation would see the Chicago movement as a continuation of the drama that had been unfolding in the South, a drama in which the disciplined interracial group of marchers raising their voices in song represented the fundamental values of Christian brotherhood and American democracy.
FEW OF THE MILLIONS WHO WATCHED images of the carefully orchestrated march that evening on the network news broadcasts were aware that a second march had taken place simultaneously along the same streets. The “shadow march” did not compete with King’s march, and the people who shuffled down the sidewalk carried the same vision of freedom as King’s marchers on the pavement. Nor did the shadow marchers reject King’s political goals altogether. But nonviolence was a hard sell in Chicago—maybe even harder than it had been in Birmingham. Onlookers who supported the march but had not accepted the disciplines of nonviolence followed at a short distance, cheering King and jeering the police. The second march was angrier and blacker than its official counterpart—and it was heavily armed. Winding their way down the sidewalks outside the police lines and beyond the awareness of the reporters covering the march, the shadow marchers responded to white supremacist hecklers in kind, refusing to turn the other cheek when pushed or taunted. No major incidents erupted that day in Chicago. But the bitter fellow travelers of nonviolence served as a stark reminder of the violence simmering just beneath the surface of racial relations, even when the public story was being defined by apostles of Gandhian nonviolence. By the time the throng arrived at City Hall, the two marches effectively merged into a single body representing the actual complexity of the movement rather than its official public image.
Many shadow marchers dismissed as dangerously naïve King’s belief that moral persuasion would change Richard Daley’s Chicago. Few were surprised by the reception that comedian-turned-activist Dick Gregory received less than a week later when he led a march into Mayor Daley’s home neighborhood of Bridgeport, an Irish enclave on the front lines of the city’s battles over public housing. Ordered by police to remain silent and walk two by two, the marchers encountered a mob of Bridgeport residents shouting, “Go back to the zoo,” and throwing rocks. Hand-lettered signs extolled the Ku Klux Klan and Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace. Recalling the still-fresh images of the violence that had greeted marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, a group of teenage girls adapted an Oscar Mayer advertising jingle, singing, “I wish I was an Alabama trooper. That is what I’d truly like to be. I wish I was an Alabama trooper, ’cause then I could kill niggers legally.”
The contrast between that song and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” reflects the shifting contours of the struggle as it moved from the South to the cities of the North and West in the mid-sixties. But what united the two theaters of the movement, as well as the official marchers and their shadow counterparts, was the soul music that provided the movement’s day-by-day soundtrack. And during the first half of the decade, no music garnered a deeper response than the redemptive anthems of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Both King’s interracialist followers and the street nationalists heard “Meeting Over Yonder” as a call to battle. When the struggle seemed too much to bear, followers of both Martin and Malcolm took heart from Mayfield’s gentle exhortation to “Keep On Pushing.” As they savored the bonds of love and friendship that bound their families and the movement itself together, they sank into the soothing harmonies of “I’m So Proud” and “Woman’s Got Soul.” “People Get Ready” tapped the deepest wellsprings of the gospel vision and gave many a weary soul a place to rest.
“It was warrior music,” affirmed Gordon Sellers, a Florida-born activist who had begun as an angry participant in the shadow marches before converting to a nonviolent philosophy in the mid-sixties. “It was music you listened to while you were preparing to go into battle. Curtis inspired us, but he also took us to task. He was writing at a time we were struggling. But he knew we were struggling for the right things.” Joanne Bland, who had been on the Edmund Pettis Bridge and now directs the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, reversed Sellers’s trajectory. “I started out with civil rights and moved to Black Power,” she reflected. “But wherever I was, Curtis’s music was there. ‘Keep On Pushing,’ ‘People Get Ready,’ ‘This Is My Country.’ ” As SNCC organizer Stanley Wise told music historian Brian Ward, “Curtis always seemed to be right on time. You could see his records on every movement turntable.” Wise’s SNCC colleague Jimmy Collier concurred, rattling off a list that included the less-known Impressions cuts “I’ve Been Trying,” “Never Too Much Love,” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Winter,” as well as “Keep On Pushing,” “Meeting Over Yonder,” and “People Get Ready.”
Like most soul singers, Mayfield inspired the movement with his music rather than by marching in its front lines. He performed benefits such as the “Freedom Show” that Philly DJ George Woods organized in support of the Selma crusade, but “the music is really what connected us,” Mayfield’s business partner Eddie Thomas observed. “Everything we were feeling and talking about was tied in with Martin Luther King and the movement and black rights.” Mayfield was aware that his music flowed from the wellsprings of black political aspiration. “As a young man I was writing songs like ‘Keep on Pushing’ and ‘This Is My Country’ and feeling all the love and all the things I observed politically. Of course with everything I saw on the streets as a young black kid, it wasn’t hard during the later fifties and early sixties for me to write [in] my own heartfelt way of how I visualized things, how I thought things ought to be.”
Stevie Wonder’s and Aretha Franklin’s contributions to the movement followed similar patterns. Because of her father’s friendship with King and Detroit’s black political establishment, Aretha had more direct contact with the movement. She idolized King and took pride in Detroit’s “Great March to Freedom,” a midwestern counterpart of the more famous 1963 March on Washington that her father had helped organize. Joining Mahalia Jackson and Dinah Washington at a Chicago benefit for the Birmingham movement, Aretha mesmerized the overflow audience at McCormack Place with a rendition of “Precious Lord (Take My Hand).” Hesitant to risk offending potential record buyers, Motown discouraged its stars from making political statements. But in 1963 the company broke from its common practice and allowed Stevie to perform at a benefit in support of the March on Washington. As Brian Ward speculates, the label’s primary motivation may well have been to expose him to the affluent audience that had come to see Carmen McRae, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and Tony Bennett. Unconcerned with show business maneuvering, movement warriors went right on mixing “I Was Made to Love Her” and the exuberant rhythms of “Fingertips” with politically resonant soul songs like “Keep On Pushing” or Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
Black DJs played a central role in encouraging listeners to hear soul music politically. Chicago DJ Herb Kent described the approach that his home station, WVON, had taken while supporting the Freedom Summer of 1964. “WVON played a big part in the civil rights era, both with the music being played—like homeboy Curtis Mayfield—and because we talked about it on the air. We did a sit-in in this trailer. People would come and look at us in there fasting. We were certainly right there in the middle of the civil rights movement and the music delivered the messages. We let people know and talked about what was going on.” Chuck Scruggs, of KSOL in San Francisco, specified the Impressions’ “sermon songs” as part of a political mix: “As a jock during that time I would take those message songs and add a line or two of editorial … something that would fit the title or the theme of the song… . I didn’t play a message song in isolation, and then go from that to something else that had no connection. I’d go from a message song like ‘Keep On Pushing’ to, say, ‘Stand by Me.’ You see what I mean? I’d make the transition with words of hope for my listeners. You know—‘Stand by me people ’cause we gotta keep on pushing for our freedom.’ ”
Mayfield’s ability to spark his people’s imagination grew directly out of his gospel roots, but his grounding in doo-wop helped him reach listeners who never entered a church. Throughout the fifties Chicago was home to a thriving doo-wop scene that developed groups such as the Flamingos, the Spaniels, and the Dells, whose sweet harmonies and gospel intensities paralleled those in Mayfield’s gospel soul. Like most big-city doo-wop scenes, Chicago’s South Side featured highly competitive street-corner singing. Paralleling the competition between gospel quartets and anticipating later forms such as hip-hop freestyling, doo-wop groups would battle for control of street corners, where they could attract an audience and establish a reputation. Reggie Smith, a member of the Five Chances, remembered Mayfield’s incursion on the group’s turf at Forty-fourth and Prairie: “Curtis Mayfield was living around there before his mother and him moved to Cabrini-Green. His mother had bought him a banjo, something of the sort. He used to come around beating on the banjo and we’d tell him to get away from us with all that noise, cause we’re trying to sing [but] he went on to beat us to death.”
Both the gospel and doo-wop scenes centered on the South Side black belt, but the Near North Side, where Mayfield moved when he was still a toddler, was by no means a musical wasteland. The Cabrini-Green doo-wop scene centered on the recreation center in Seward Park. Billy Butler, one of several North Siders who later recorded Mayfield compositions, described the scene: “We were all into trying to sing. That was the only thing to do really. The area didn’t have street gangs at the time. Everyone would form a group and go into Seward Park.” Jerry Butler added that Seward Park provided a place where young musicians could learn from elders, such as a somewhat disreputable wino named Doug. “He had this old beat-up guitar, but man could he play it,” Butler reminisced. “Me and Curtis would just sit and listen to him play all day, and I think it was from him that Curtis picked up a lot of his stuff.”
Herb Butler, a member of the Players, loved the competitive energy: “At that time everybody sang. You know that Major Lance lived right down the street. Everybody who was anybody would rehearse there. They had like seven rooms, and you could come in and tell which room which group was gonna be in, because people would be hanging around the doors, or rooms would be full and they would not be letting anybody in.” Undeterred, fans clustered around the practice rooms hoping to overhear the Serenades, the Capris, the Players, the Medallionaires, and the Van Gayles, who had a local hit with “The Twirl.” “Joe [Breckenridge] and the guys would never do their song until everybody in the other rooms had stopped singing,” Herb Butler recalled. “When there was a moment of silence, you could hear them start that song ‘ah hoo,’ and everybody would leave whatever they were doing and go up to the door and hear them guys do that song.”
Even when he was singing with the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, Mayfield began toying with secular music as part of the short-lived Alphatones, which included schoolmates Al Boyce, James Weems, and Dallas Dixon. But the real move toward popular music came when Jerry Butler, who had sung with the Northern Jubilees, invited his friend to join the Roosters, who specialized in a funky southern style of R&B. The original members of the Roosters—Sam Gooden, Emmanuel Thomas, Fred Cash, and brothers Richard and Arthur Brooks—had moved from Chattanooga to Chicago, where they recruited Butler. Aware of Mayfield’s ability to harmonize and play guitar, Butler convinced the other Roosters to give him a chance.
“Curtis was not easily convinced,” Butler recalled. “He had a group of his own, the Alphatones, and didn’t want to drop everything and come with us. I suggested a compromise. ‘Dig Curt,’ I said. ‘Let’s do it like this: You rehearse three nights a week with us and three with your group. Whoever improves first will be the group you go with.’ ” From Mayfield’s perspective, Butler’s persistence determined the decision. “We had a long debate for about two or three weeks, but Jerry would never give up. Eventually, he won me over, and I joined with these older guys. We woodshedded for a good year, and finally we came along with a few songs.”
Practicing at the Seward Center and in the apartments of family and friends, the Roosters tried out their songs at street carnivals, neighborhood centers, and the parties thrown by Cabrini residents in the basement of the high-rise Reds. They played, Butler recalled, “anywhere we were allowed to play.” As the group began to attract a following, Butler’s cousin, a drug addict and would-be music promoter, convinced them to rent the Washburne Auditorium to put on a kind of coming-out show. “He convinced me to take three hundred dollars—my entire savings—and invest it in a show at the Washburne Auditorium,” Butler groaned. “Come the day of the show, we couldn’t get in the building because he hadn’t paid the deposit and the insurance. People were lined up around the block to see us.” When the same cousin failed to pay the Roosters for their performance at a South Side show featuring jazzmen Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, the would-be impresario’s career crashed to a halt.
Still looking for their breakthrough, the Roosters entered a talent show at Washburne. As they entered the auditorium, another aspiring manager, Eddie Thomas, pulled up in his canary-yellow-and-white Cadillac. When Thomas heard the Roosters, he was impressed. “I thought they were fabulous,” Thomas recalled. “They’d heard of me because I was managing the Medallionaires, and they said, ‘Why don’t you come work with us too? You can handle two groups.’ ” Thomas accepted but insisted that the group change its name. “The Roosters just don’t ring a bell,” he announced, “they do not ring a bell at all.” Mayfield was already dubious about the down-home name. “Down South they had been the Roosters and a Chick because they had a lady singer with them. So they come to the big North with that Roosters name. We couldn’t get through a song after we told the audience the name. They’d be crowing and making all kinds of barnyard sounds.” After first proposing the “Victorians,” Thomas came up with the name that stuck. “I said to them, ‘I was so impressed when I met you guys, how about the Impressions?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ ” At first the original members resisted, worrying that the change would hurt their popularity back home, but when Thomas promised heavy Chattanooga publicity, they went along with the switch.
When Thomas assumed control of the Impressions’ business fortunes in 1957, both black music and the freedom movement had arrived at a dangerous crossroads. Following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown decision and the success of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, the movement had fallen into disarray. Recovering from its initial shock and disorientation, the white South mounted a campaign of “massive resistance” to desegregation. Relying on sympathetic judges, economic reprisals, and state “sovereignty commissions” that operated like a homegrown KGB, as well as fists, guns, and homemade bombs, white supremacists tried hard to hold a lid on black protest from the Montgomery bus boycott until the sit-in movement blew it off in 1960.
The situation “up south,” as the migrants called their new homes north of the Mason-Dixon Line, wasn’t much better. The economic bleeding in Detroit had become a hemorrhage. Novelist Nelson Algren described the Chicago of the mid-fifties as “a jukebox running down in a deserted bar.” Integration had been a complete flop. When Richard J. Daley ascended to Chicago’s mayoral throne in 1956, one of his first acts was to approve the building of a series of major housing projects: the Henry Horner Homes, the Clarence Darrow Homes, Stateway Gardens, the Robert Brooks Homes, and the Robert Taylor Homes. The projects did alleviate the housing shortage in black Chicago, but they did so in the worst conceivable manner for the African American children destined to live in them. By the time the last of the high-density high-rise buildings opened its doors, over forty thousand blacks, almost all of them desperately poor, were packed into the State Street Corridor, an area a quarter of a mile wide and four miles long between Cermak (Twenty-second Street) and Fifty-first Street. The only alternative for most blacks was the growing West Side ghetto, which lacked even the South Side’s established black institutions.
It was easy to blame the decisions that created the ghetto nightmare on the white working-class homeowners who had been on the front lines of previous housing battles. Belligerent, openly racist, and sometimes violent, lower-class whites made excellent scapegoats. But in fact those discriminatory decisions had been made with the tacit, and sometimes active, complicity of both the black power structure and white liberals. William Dawson’s black submachine understood clearly that its prosperity depended on de facto segregation. Whatever their public statements on racial injustice, black elected officials never pressured the city to create integrated projects. “Dawson didn’t want black voters dispersed,” the chair of the Chicago Housing Authority concluded. “Many of the black aldermen didn’t want them dispersed.”
As Mayfield set out on his career in music, the prospects facing black musicians in the north mirrored those of the community as a whole. At the end of the fifties avenues that a few years earlier had seemed to be opening up suddenly were filled with roadblocks. Hypersensitive to the threat of international Communism, mainstream politicians painted any challenge to the American racial status quo as part of an all-encompassing Communist plot. Rock ’n’ roll, which ardent segregationists condemned as “mongrel music,” provided an inviting target. Pictures of Little Richard, eyes rolled back underneath a distinctly bizarre mountain of hair, confronted Cold War America with one of its worst nightmares. The hysterical tone of the attacks on rock ’n’ roll comes through clearly in a pamphlet distributed to white parents by an Alabama branch of the White Citizens Council: “Help save the youth of America! Don’t let your children buy or listen to these Negro records. The screaming idiotic words and savage music are undermining the morals of our white American youth!”
The authorities cracked down on the threatening interracial music scene. In city after city panicky promoters summoned police to restore order while horrified white parents condemned rock ’n’ roll as a Communist conspiracy to reduce America to an outpost of the rhythm-crazed African jungle. Chuck Berry went to jail on trumped-up charges of corrupting the morals of a minor; Little Richard was hounded into retirement. Pioneering DJ Alan Freed, who made no distinction between rock ’n’ roll and R&B, was exiled in a trumped-up “payola” scandal that somehow let clean-cut pop impresario Dick Clark escape unscathed. And in a series of events that would shape the future of rock ’n’ roll, Elvis Presley was drafted into the army, cleaned up, and transformed from the missionary of musical miscegenation into a safely sanitized matinee idol.
ALTHOUGH THE IMPRESSIONS were aware of rock ’n’ roll, they felt more closely connected to the gospel soul of Ray Charles, Clyde McPhatter, and Sam Cooke. Despite the similarity of their origins and sound, R&B and rock ’n’ roll had already begun moving apart. On many radio stations the new Elvis presided over Top Forty lists that excluded all but the least threatening black singers. While Cooke and Berry Gordy struggled gallantly to control that battle, many black listeners, among them Mayfield, preferred R&B’s grittier gospel stylings. Mayfield praised Charles for pioneering the approach he would later perfect in “Keep On Pushing” and “People Get Ready.” “At first it was strange listening to Ray Charles,” Mayfield confessed. “He’s been singing gospel all his life even though his music’s considered rhythm and blues. He changed the lyrics but never changed his way of singing, which you could hear was out of the church.” Mayfield felt an even deeper affinity with fellow Chicagoan Cooke, who had left gospel’s Soul Stirrers after his 1957 classic “You Send Me” reached the top of the charts. “When that came out, man, we thought it was a fantastic piece of music. I just loved it,” Mayfield enthused. At the beginning, however, Mayfield and Eddie Thomas hesitated to commit themselves to Cooke’s crossover strategy. “We knew the pop stations were very prejudiced, and it would take a certain kind of sound to get over,” Thomas reflected, referring to the bright harmonies and catchy melodies of Cooke’s pop records. “But if we would produce that, we would lose our support from our own people. So at least we know we’ll survive.” Thomas cited Jerry Butler’s 1961 rendition of “Moon River,” the theme song from Breakfast at Ti fany’s, as the worst-case scenario: “Vee-Jay spent a ton, that was a $35,000 recording session, they went gung ho. The blacks didn’t support it, they weren’t interested in ‘Moon River.’ The whites played at it, but they didn’t support Jerry Butler because he was black, so it went down the drain, all of that money.”
In the fifties such dilemmas must have seemed distant to Butler and Mayfield. First the Impressions needed a recording contract. Eddie Thomas arranged for a series of auditions and herded his charges to the offices of Chicago’s leading R&B labels. In Mayfield’s version of the story, it was virtually a fluke that the Impressions wound up signing with Vee-Jay. The day they were scheduled to audition for Chess, he recalled, a major snowstorm hammered the city: “The snow was about five feet to walk through when we went to Chess Records and knocked on the door. I guess there was a secretary in there, but no one would let us in. So we turned around, and what’s across the street: Vee-Jay Records. We just went right across through the snow, dragging our amplifier and guitar. Ewart Abner was upstairs with the A&R [Artists and Repertoire] man, Calvin Carter—they let us in. It must have been a weekend—no one was really working—and we sang ‘For Your Precious Love’ for Calvin right on the steps. He loved it. About a week later I was in the studio for the first time. And that’s really how we got off.”
Carter provided a slightly different version of the story. “They sang about five or six numbers and sounded pretty good,” he recalls, “but I was not hearing that thing that sounds like money in the bank. On a hunch, I told them, ‘Sing something you’re ashamed to sing! Sing something you don’t usually feel like singing in public.’ So one of them told the rest, ‘Hey, how about that spiritual thing we worked out?’ The rest of them argued about it, but they finally sang it.” Written by Jerry Butler with the help of the Brooks brothers, “For Your Precious Love” sold nearly a million copies when released as a single.
Less given to myth-making, Eddie Thomas attributed the way things played out to nuts-and-bolts commercial concerns. “We went down to King Records at Seventeenth and Wabash, where Ralph Bass was the A&R guy. He listened to us and said, ‘Well, no.’ They had the big boy, James Brown, so they had the whole world by the handle. We went to Chess Records next. They had the Dells, Billy Stewart, the Moonglows, they were doing okay, they didn’t feel like they needed another act.” Thomas confirmed that Calvin Carter made the decision to sign the Impressions after hearing “For Your Precious Love,” but he offered a different explanation of why they hadn’t planned to include it in the audition. “We were very hesitant about doing ‘For Your Precious Love’ because we’d heard about how much thievery was going on in the business,” Thomas observed. “They take your songs and somebody else would do ’em. We sang ‘Sweet Was the Wine’ and a couple of other tunes. He liked the group a little, said, ‘You’ve got a sound, but something …’ So I said we gotta go for broke now, we already struck out twice. So we sang ‘For Your Precious Love,’ and when we did that, pop! goes the weasel, bing!” Butler remembered Carter’s eyes lighting up as he called out to his sister and business partner Vi and Vee-Jay executive Ewart Abner, who would go on to become president of Motown: “That’s it! That’s it! That’s the one! Abner, get me some contracts. Vi, you, Eddie, and Abner better talk.”
The group crashed back to earth when the Spaniels, one of Chicago’s hottest doo-wop groups, showed up at the studio. Butler and Mayfield realized immediately that “For Your Precious Love” would be an ideal vehicle for the Spaniels’ Pookie Hudson, whose soulful lead vocals had lifted “Goodnight Sweetheart” and “Since I Fell for You” into the Top Ten. The situation deteriorated further when Carter asked the Impressions to sing the song again. “There was a long pause as paranoia set in,” Butler remembered. “Here comes the rip-off. He likes our song, and he wants them to record it. That’s why they called them and told them to come over right away. This ain’t no accident. I’ll bet that bastard’s got a tape recorder in his desk. Oh shit, what do we do now? Well, we’ll sing it fast, and then they can’t remember it. But what about the tape recorder in his desk? Well, we’ll think of something before we leave.” Not until they entered the studio two weeks later did the Impressions’ fears fully subside. When the group released “For Your Precious Love” in the summer of 1958, it introduced several elements of the gospel soul style Mayfield later brought to perfection. A powerful bass line and softly strumming guitar provide a deceptively peaceful setting for Butler’s solemn testifying. The call and response between the lead vocalist, whose baritone contrasts with Mayfield’s sweet tenor, and the background chorus emphasizes the cut’s gospel roots and points like a compass needle straight to the production techniques that would define Chicago soul.
Unlike Chess, which concentrated on marketing distinctly black music to black audiences, mostly tunes recorded by southern-born musicians, Vee-Jay actively pursued the crossover market. In the early sixties it would establish itself as an industry powerhouse with hits like Gene Chandler’s “Duke of Earl,” the Four Seasons’ “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man,” and, for a brief time, the Beatles’ first American LP. The label’s leadership team consisted of Abner, Vivian Carter Bracken, who remains one of the few black women to exert real power in the record industry, and her brother Calvin, the center of Vee-Jay’s talent department. Irritated when the McGuire Sisters’ cover of “Goodnight Sweetheart” out-sold the Spaniels’ original, he set about remedying the situation. Butler remembers hearing Carter explain, “Why did that happen? Because mine sounded black and theirs didn’t. So now I’ve got to try to figure out how to make mine sound not so black.” Although Carter was not himself a musician, Butler emphasizes that “he had a great ear, a great feel for songs, a great feel for artists, and a great feel for people. He’s got a track record that Phil Spector would be envious of, but his recognition is nonexistent.”
Ironically, or perhaps typically, the success of “For Your Precious Love” contributed to the breakup of the original Impressions. The problems began when the group got its first look at the record label. “They pressed up the records with the name Jerry Butler written across the sky, and they put the Impressions in magnifying glass,” Eddie Thomas recalled, grimacing. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Butler admitted. “Laugh because I had just made the featured name in the group, or cry because I knew that Curtis, Sam, Arthur, and Richard didn’t like it one bit. Each of their faces was twisted up into a half-smile that did nothing to hide their hurt and envy.” Butler tried to rectify the situation by telling Eddie Thomas and Abner they’d have to reprint the label. Abner resisted, pointing out the cost of reprinting fifty thousand labels and arguing that a featured vocalist would increase airplay, promotion, and publicity. “By the time he got through talking, we were feeling sorry for feeling sorry,” Butler said. “He was one of those guys who could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge and then buy it back five minutes later for half the price.” Still, Butler acknowledged, the damage was irreparable. “When the record came out that way, all the attention went to Jerry,” Mayfield observed. “And of course you can understand all these fellows having worked and sacrificed evenly in trying to become somebody, for anyone’s name to be put out front was a sort of a blow. When disc jockeys played the record, it was ‘Now here’s Jerry Butler and “For Your Precious Love.” ’ And of course the fan mail would come, which we got gobs of, to Jerry Butler.”
Butler’s soulful delivery and the gospel undertones of “For Your Precious Love” quickly caught the attention of influential black DJs, including George Woods of WHAT in Philadelphia and Stevie Wonder’s idol Larry Dixon, who introduced the Impressions to the economic realities of life on the road. Thomas booked a two-day trip to Detroit, which was to be followed by a quick return home for an appearance on Jim Lounsbury’s Bandstand Matinee,Chicago’s equivalent of American Bandstand. When they arrived in Detroit, Dixon informed them that he had talked to Vee-Jay and arranged for them to stay an extra day and appear on a free show he was promoting. The Detroit audience loved “For Your Precious Love.” “The place went up in screams,” Butler recalls with satisfaction. “It was strange, but I got the same feeling that night that I had experienced with the Northern Jubilee Singers when the church was with us. It’s a feeling of pushing up to your limit and then over, and your spirit lifts your body. It all becomes so real that it’s unreal.” Once church ended, however, reality set in. Dixon made three thousand dollars on the show but “didn’t even buy us a hamburger.” Nor, it turned out, had he mentioned the change of plans to the group’s management, who sat by in despair as the Impressions missed Bandstand Matinee. “Detroit was Larry’s town,” Butler observed, “and if we wanted to sell records there, we needed him. In other words, Larry could pee on us and tell us it was raining, and we had better believe it.”
A few weeks later—resplendent in uniforms consisting of gray silk jackets, black pants, white shirts, black ties, and pocket scarves they had purchased in the open-air market on Maxwell Street—the Impressions embarked on a promotional tour that would take them to Philadelphia, Miami, and Harlem’s Apollo Theater. At the Apollo they appeared on a bill with Huey Smith and the Clowns, the Coasters, and Frankie Lymon. Before they left, however, Curtis’s grandmother dispatched them to visit a spiritualist healer who would administer a blessing. When they arrived, the old woman blessed the water and sprinkled a few drops on Arthur, Richard, and Sam. But “when she got to Curtis and me,” Butler recalled, “she took the cup and flung the water in our faces, capping the whole thing off by letting the cup slip out of her hand and hitting me in the face with it.” Once they’d made their escape, Curtis looked at his partner, shook his head, and said, “She sure did bless the hell out of us, didn’t she, man?”
By the end of the tour, Butler was “wondering if the little old lady who had blessed us when we were leaving Chicago had instead put a curse on us.” The marquees blazoning Butler’s name in giant letters and relegating the Impressions to an afterthought, if that, aggravated the underlying tensions. “The guys knew I didn’t have anything to do with what was happening,” Butler observed, “but it was still a bit much for them to swallow. They became quiet and distant. I felt like a stranger among guys who were my friends.” To make matters worse, the group’s repertoire, with the exception of its big hit, failed to impress the hardened audiences out east. When they opened their set at the Apollo with versions of recent hits by Elvis Presley and Tony Bennett, Butler remembers a leather-lunged member of the audience shouting out, “Y’all take that white shit someplace else and sing what I came here to hear.” Sometimes simply singing the song wasn’t enough. “I used to get down on one knee and sing ‘For Your Precious Love,’ ” Butler said. “This guy came all the way from Baltimore and brought a whole bunch of his friends to see me get down on my knees. But that night I didn’t get down on my knees; I just finished the song and walked off the stage. The guy hollered out, ‘Naw, motherfucker, come back here. I brought all these people up here to see you get down on your knees. Get down on your knees!’ The audience rolled. He wouldn’t let the show go on until I got down on my knees.”
When the Impressions returned to Cabrini at the end of July, they had become, in Butler’s words, “lightweight celebrities.” “All of a sudden the smells we used to ignore—the pee in the elevators and on the stairs, wine bottles and junkies—suddenly became too much to bear,” he added. Setting out on a tour on a bill with the Coasters and Clyde McPhatter, the Impressions discovered the grinding tedium of life on the road. Long rides, run-down hotels, and a relentless schedule of thirty-one one-nighters stoked tensions to the boiling point. The end came before a performance at the Sam Houston Auditorium in San Antonio, when the group realized it would be stranded without enough money to fly to Philadelphia for a scheduled promotional appearance. Butler described the end of the original Impressions, beginning with the moment when Arthur Brooks turned to him and announced, “We ain’t going on, and you can do all the singing.” When Richard and Sam Gooden agreed, all eyes turned to Curtis. “ ‘I’m going on, man,’ said Curtis, ‘because I want to get paid.’ ‘Okay, Curtis,’ I said, ‘I guess it’s just me and you.’ ” Sam changed his mind, but Arthur and Richard made good on their promise to walk. “It occurred to me, as we went along that night, that Arthur and Richard weren’t missed at all,” Butler recalled. “No one in San Antonio knew they existed. It was then that I made my decision to leave the group.”
Eddie Thomas believed that Vee-Jay had consciously orchestrated the split. “After record sales took off, they took off like a rocket ship. It started in Gary and Chicago and spread. Vee-Jay realized they had a great voice in Jerry Butler, and to them he was the next Roy Hamilton. They gave him a new car, a 1957 white Mercury, and two thousand dollars. Here’s Jerry Butler living deep in the heart of Cabrini-Green. That was a big move to have that much in hand at one time in his life, ’cause he didn’t have anything. They decided to move him out into the forefront.” Calvin Carter, who believed he’d made a mistake by not advertising Pookie Hudson as a solo star when he was with the Spaniels, was unapologetic about Vee-Jay’s strategy. Mayfield acknowledged that it was common practice: “Back during those times most record companies, if they had a five-man group that was beginning to do well, they immediately wanted to pull the lead artist away, sensing they could sell more records and get into the crossover market, over into the white market. They did it with Dee Clark and the Kool Gents, they did it with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Clyde McPhatter and the Drifters—I mean you name it, they did it with all of them.”
Going solo made perfectly good commercial sense. But from a broader perspective, it also tipped the call-and-response dynamic toward the individual I and away from the communal we. The African American tradition certainly didn’t suppress individuality or discourage strong voices. Archie Brownlee, Robert Johnson, and Billie Holiday remained unmistakably themselves. But as Albert Murray emphasizes in Stomping the Blues, even the most alienated “blues I” drew its power from the listeners’ recognition that they shared the brutal experiences behind the alienation. Like Muddy Waters or Bessie Smith, solo soul stars could tap into that power. But there was a real advantage to the group format, which drew directly from the collective energy of the “gospel we.” The Original Gospel Harmonettes and the Swan Silvertones didn’t really sing “backup” for Dorothy Love Coates or Reverend Claude Jeter; their hopes and burdens thicken the texture and deepen the meaning of the lead vocalists’ tales of how they got over. Groups like the Drifters, the Temptations, and the Impressions domesticated the energies of live gospel performance, providing a commercially viable version of call and response. But they still modeled communities where the individual needed the group. When industry pressures separated leader from community, it was part of the larger process that would shift the balance toward individual commercial success. It was, to be sure, part of the journey toward the American mainstream. But the ticket came at a price.
For the Impressions, the immediate cost of the split with Butler was high. The remaining Impressions released several unsuccessful follow-ups, including “Come Back My Love” and “Hey Senorita.” “We scuffled some,” Mayfield noted. “For a time we would do gigs as the Impressions, but nobody was really aware of the Impressions. So it was quite hard for us to get gigs.” Even after Butler left the group, the Impressions sometimes benefited from his name. “Sometimes we did gigs in little towns as Jerry Butler and the Impressions, and Sam would do ‘For Your Precious Love.’ This was in some of the lowlands, like down in Mississippi, just in little night spots like that.” At the end of 1959 Vee-Jay released the group from its contract because, as Calvin Carter admitted, “I was not excited about Curtis’s falsetto voice. A falsetto voice has never gotten over to me. At that time we also had the Dells, the Magnificents, the Spaniels, the Orioles—we had acts coming out of our ears. We just couldn’t launch the Impressions.”
Butler’s departure would prove to be a blessing in disguise. “When Jerry left, it allowed us to regroup and start getting into our own selves,” Mayfield said. “It allowed me to generate and pull out my own talents as a writer and a vocalist.” Still living in Cabrini-Green, Mayfield considered going on the road with Butler as a guitarist at a salary of three hundred dollars a week. Instead, he took a job selling cigars for Alfred Dunhill Co., where his route ran up and down the North Shore “Gold Coast.” But he always knew that his real passion lay in music. Soon he was writing songs and playing guitar on sessions for several labels. Billy Butler, himself an accomplished guitarist, described Mayfield’s playing as “not rigid. Very liquidy. Soft sound. Almost fluid.” Soon, as Gerald Simms, a staff member at the Chicago-based blues label Okeh, observed, “everyone in Chicago was imitating his guitar style.”
Mayfield developed that style backing up powerful blues singers including Jimmy Reed, whose unstructured approach to recording forced the young sideman to hone his skills. “Everybody had to circle him like he was the fire and we was circling around him to get warm,” Mayfield said. “We all watched his mouth and watched his guitar because he was one of those guys that bars meant nothing to. He may change right in the middle, he may get back to the one and then back to the bass. But you had to watch him and keep tempo and change when he changed.” Mayfield chuckled when he remembered Reed’s notorious inability to remember the words to his songs. “Of course he could never remember his lyrics, so his wife was always feeding him the words. If you listen to the old Jimmy Reed stuff, you can hear his wife singing right behind him.”
As good a guitarist as Mayfield was, he was a better songwriter. Eddie Thomas summed up the consensus within the Chicago soul community when he said, “Curtis is a genius. That says it all. The man was like a factory all by himself. He could wake up and write a song in the middle of the night.” As Mayfield entered adulthood, he turned to music to help him sift through his troubles. “Songwriting was an escape if I was hurt too bad or if something wasn’t going right,” he meditated. “I could always retire to writing my sentiments and my personal feelings. Anger, love, everything in my life would come out on paper. I wrote my songs for myself first. I was the one trying to learn the first lesson because I didn’t have actual arguments. My fights and arguments, even with God, went down on paper.”
Mayfield began devoting himself seriously to writing when he accepted Jerry Butler’s renewed invitation to return to the road as a backup guitarist. Eddie Thomas, who was working as Butler’s driver and valet, recalled that the opportunity arose when the previous guitarist, Phil Upchurch, accepted a better-paying job with Chicago soulman Dee Clark. Butler realized that he missed Curtis’s “sense of humor, his pragmatism, his instincts, his great musical sense.” The timing couldn’t have been better. “When Jerry called, I had nothing to do,” Mayfield admitted. “As a matter of fact the Internal Revenue Service was looking for me for four hundred bucks. 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 money. Anyway I got away from them by playing for Jerry. I did nothing but play for Jerry and sleep with my guitar and write songs.” The payoff of the renewed collaboration, Thomas reports, was instantaneous. “I told Jerry, ‘Let’s call Curtis,’ and the rest was ‘He Will Break Your Heart,’ ‘He Don’t Love You Like I Love You,’ ‘Find Yourself Another Girl,’ and ‘I’m A-Telling You,’ ” Thomas concluded, reeling off the list of hits Mayfield would pen for Butler over the next few years.
Along with early Impressions cuts like “Grow Closer Together,” “Never Let Me Go,” and “I’m the One Who Loves You,” those songs established the sound and sensibility that would define Chicago soul. Combining seductive hooks and angelic harmonies with a call-and-response style straight out of the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church, Mayfield aspired to write songs that were, in his words, “hard and soft but never harsh.” Sometimes he dealt directly with the problems he’d seen growing up in Cabrini-Green; music historian Brian Ward rightly labels “I’m A-Telling You” “a compelling account of working-class life on the breadline.” Like many soul anthems, “Grow Closer Together” works equally well as a love song or as a paean to the southern movement Curtis read about in the Chicago Defender and watched on the evening news.
More frequently, however, Mayfield’s lyrics simply gave voice to the realities of African American life without dwelling on the underlying social sources. “He Will Break Your Heart,” for example, sympathetically portrays what happens when different worlds intersect. Written during a late-night drive from Philadelphia to Atlantic City after a gig, the song began as a melody in Butler’s head and developed into a vignette of life on the road told from the perspective of the brokenhearted boyfriend of a woman hypnotized by the chance for a brief escape from her everyday problems. “It was something I’d lived,” Butler admitted. “You go into a town; you’re only gonna be there for one night; you want some company; you find a girl; you blow her mind. Now you know this girl hasn’t been sittin’ in that town waitin’ for you to come in. She probably has another fellow, and the other fellow’s probably in love with her; they’re probably planning to go through a whole thing, right? But you never take that into consideration on that particular night. You’re lonesome, you want company; she’s available or she’s there—you know. But looking at it from the standpoint of the guy that’s in town all the time and that’s been lovin’ this girl for years and years—that was basically the reason for that lyric. The lyric was an experience rather than a revelation.”
Imagining a distinctive variation of the sound pioneered by Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, Mayfield and Eddie Thomas laid the foundation for the Impressions’ success while both were working for Butler. “Being with Jerry Butler, we did two things,” Thomas recounted. “Number one, we saved our money, piled it away. We lived together, stayed together, roomed together. In the morning I’d get up early, before the rest of the group. I was at radio stations, introducing myself to the DJs, promoting Jerry but at the same time promoting Eddie Thomas. I did that everywhere we went, all throughout the South, Baltimore, Washington, Detroit, Cleveland.”
By 1961 Mayfield and Thomas had saved enough touring to stake the post-Butler Impressions to a second chance. Recently married to Helen Williams and awaiting the birth of his first son, Mayfield was determined to establish financial independence. “I had saved a thousand dollars and we went to New York to record,” said Mayfield, now clearly established as the front man of the group. “All the fellows came together again, and we checked into this hotel in Manhattan, and I guess we were there about a week when we recorded ‘Gypsy Woman.’ ” Meanwhile Thomas scrambled to get the group a record deal. “While Jerry’s playing the Apollo, I’m getting up early in the morning going to the record companies trying to find a deal. I went to RCA—Ray Ellis threw me out. He didn’t like Curtis’s picture, said he looked like a rabbit with that front tooth stickin’ out.” Thomas’s friend and Chicago soul historian Johnny Meadows agreed: “Ray Ellis passed on Curtis because of his appearance. I’m serious. They had Sam Cooke, they had Harry Belafonte, and this was the clean-cut image they were looking for.” Thomas finally succeeded in convincing Clarence Avent of ABC-Paramount, which had begun making inroads into the R&B market with the signing of Ray Charles, to take a chance. “Clarence said, ‘Give it a shot, what have we got to lose,’ ” Thomas recalled. “And I agreed, ‘Yeah, give us a shot,’ and I said, ‘I’ll tell you what. Being with Jerry Butler I know a lot of DJs across the country. I got their home phone numbers and everything. I think I can support this record. If you guys will distribute it, I can get the airplay to get it started.’ ”
Mayfield recognized Thomas’s dedication and business acumen as the key to the group’s success—Thomas would later receive the prestigious James Foster Peabody Award for lifetime contributions to the recording industry. “Eddie was such a hustler man,” Mayfield said with a smile. “Everywhere we went, anything even looked like an antenna, maybe five or ten miles away, we’d come on and Eddie would hustle ‘Gypsy Woman’ to whoever was there.” Thomas capitalized on a radio world that had not yet locked itself in to rigid formats and prefabricated playlists. “Country and western, gospel, any kind of station, didn’t matter what the format was,” Mayfield noted. “Eddie would pull over and take us into the station. People just appreciated you coming in and making the stop, so they’d give you a play. So that’s how we began to build up ‘Gypsy Woman.’ Finally it broke out and began to do very well in Philadelphia.”
For Thomas, this would prove to be the breakthrough moment for the Impressions and for his own career. “We had a gig at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia. The black jocks I knew got the record started, Philadelphia just took off, Baltimore and Washington picked up. Naturally, Chicago’s gonna be last. ABC called me in and asked me would I like to work for them, and they offered me a job as national promotions, they’d never had a black national promotions man. That was great, I’ve got a group on one hand and a national promotions job on the other hand. I can promote the Impressions to no end. So I quit my job with Jerry Butler and launched my whole career.”
A vignette inspired by Mayfield’s affection for Western movies, “Gypsy Woman” reestablished the reconstituted Impressions and allowed Mayfield to give up his position as Butler’s sideman. While he continued to spend much of his time on the road, he set up a home base in Chicago, moving from Cabrini-Green to the South Side, where his neighbors included the Staple Singers. Noting that their families had crossed paths briefly before Mayfield moved to Cabrini, Mavis Staples described their mutual affection: “We all lived in what we called the ‘dirty thirties’ in Chicago, us and Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls, all of us. But we didn’t really meet him until we moved down to Eighty-ninth Street when Curtis and the fellows lived in three houses in a row on Eighty-seventh Street. Then we’d see them all the time. We were like family, still are. When we got together, we’d have a good time because all of us were down-home folks.” Although Brian Hyland’s 1970 bubblegum cover version got more airplay on white stations and out-sold the Impressions’ original, “Gypsy Woman” climbed into the Top Twenty. During 1961 and 1962 the group released a series of appealing but commercially marginal records including “Grow Closer Together,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Little Young Lover,” and “Minstrel and Queen.” “They were great records, but they didn’t go pop,” Meadows commented. “They were hits strictly in the black community.”
Mayfield is a refreshing exception to a history littered with the tragic stories of gifted craftsmen falling victim to predatory record labels and failing to profit from their own genius. His control of the rights to his songs didn’t happen by accident. He described his experience as a young songwriter in the highly competitive New York scene he’d dipped into during the Impressions’ hiatus. “At one time all your big publishers were around the square at 1615 Broadway,” he recalled. “When you come down in the streets around that building, you’d run into young people, black, Italian, Hispanic, it didn’t matter. They were all peddling their songs. If they had a decent song, they could run up to the publisher and sell it for twenty dollars. Of course, the publisher would take it lock, stock, and barrel.” Even success didn’t guarantee security. “Maybe they’d go up to fifty or a hundred dollars if you got a little hot streak going for yourself, but nobody ever owned nothing except those big guys who had the money. Many of those songs became great, great hits.”
Having witnessed the publishing companies’ predatory treatment of songwriters up close, Mayfield investigated ways of establishing control over his economic fate. “It was important to me to own as much of myself as I could. So I found out where the Library of Congress was and how to register my own publishing company. Turned out it cost nothing.” Thomas concurred: “At that time we had become very aware of what was going down in music. We knew that you’d better start learning about publishing because that can go on and on. A song can be done again and again, and those royalties will be yours later on in life. We looked way down the line and saw what time it was.” Beginning with the Curtom publishing company, which was named after the partners, Mayfield would establish several publishing companies over the years, including Chi-Sound (established in 1965), Camad (1968), and Mayfield Music (1975).
Meanwhile the group was paying its dues on the road. “The country was our neighborhood,” Mayfield said. “We were putting on 150,000 miles a year.” “It was a grind,” Thomas added. “You had very few theater places where you were gonna be there a week. You had the Royal Theater in Baltimore, the Howard in Washington, the Regal in Chicago, the Fox in Detroit, the Uptown, the Apollo. Those were the only long engagements, and they gave you time to take a coffee break. But on the road you had one-nighters. You’re here one night, you had to pack up and get on the road and drive to the next gig and check into the hotel. One-nighters were tough.” Thomas remembered that the most enthusiastic reception came in the South. “Virginia, North Carolina, Charlotte, all those places we went through twice or more. The gospel thing was strong down there. The South was definitely our territory.”
The territory could be treacherous. In the civil rights era any car with Illinois plates and black occupants provided a potential target for lawmen on the lookout for “outside agitators.” Thomas described the Impressions’ reception in Jackson, Mississippi: “The speed limit there was 35 miles per hour. We were headed for the hotel, a black hotel, and we were cautious, doing about 25 or 30, below the speed limit. The police stopped us and said, ‘You’re driving too slow. Where are you going, where are you from, what are you doing here?’ They gave us a ticket for driving too slow. We went downtown to pay the ticket. Guess how much the ticket was? A dollar! I can’t forget that. Just things to interrupt you, all these little petty things they’d do.”
That type of harassment constantly reminded black travelers that Jim Crow remained alive and well. Federal court rulings aside, the Impressions knew better than to seek accommodations outside the black community. “During that time the white hotels had not recognized the green dollar yet,” Thomas said. “They got the message later on and went crazy, but at the time if you were black, you had to stay back. So if you were in Memphis, for example, they knew we were at the Lorraine Motel, that’s where Martin Luther King was assassinated. In Atlanta there were black hotels on Peachtree. Hard times, that’s just the way it was.” Looking back with mixed feelings on a system that withheld equality but frequently compensated by enforcing a strong sense of community, Thomas meditated on the movement’s ironic impact on the black economy. “All those motels died once the white folks realized that they were losing out on millions of those dollars. That mean green has changed the whole thing. They realized how dumb they were. We fought to make them give it to us, but then we destroyed the mamas and the papas in the course of it.”
Mayfield took advantage of his time on the road to hone his songwriting skills. Distancing himself from the transitory pleasures and fleeting romances available to singers who brought a touch of glamour into their audiences’ lives, he concentrated on the dramas playing out inside his head: “When the fellows would go out to have fun and maybe there’d be parties after the set, they would leave all their wallets with me, and I’d sit in my room and live through my own fantasies and write.” His productivity amazed his friends and attracted the attention of Chicago producers like Carl Davis, who signed him on as a staff songwriter and associate producer with Chicago’s Okeh label. “Curtis and I, we knew each other for a long time,” Davis recalled. “I used to go out to his house a lot of times and sit down, and Curtis would have a shopping bag full of tapes, and a lot of them were songs that he would only have 6 or 8 bars to. Because when Curtis used to get an idea he would go to a tape recorder and put the idea down. Then he would go off into something else, and he would come back to it later on. A lot of times you’d pick up a tape and play it, and you’d get off into it, and then it would stop! You’d have to go back and ask him to finish this tune or finish that tune or finish this one. So he would do it; he was very obliging about it and would go write you a complete tune.”
Gerald Sims, a member of the Okeh production team, offered the definitive statement on Mayfield’s importance when he said, “The Chicago sound came from basically one source—Curtis Mayfield.” Johnny Meadows elaborated: “Curtis had the real versatility. He had the ability to compose, the ability to write, the ability to arrange, the backward strings on the guitar giving the unique sound, the left-handed backward strings. There was a lot going there that was unique. In addition to the creative burst of the material, it was the way he presented it and put it together, the voicing on the records. You knew the Curtis Mayfield sound when you heard it.” Eddie Thomas marveled at his friend’s productivity: “There was no way we could record all the stuff he wrote, so he set up with Major Lance, Gene Chandler, so many artists in Chicago had his support and help, and Curtis was the kind of person who wanted to help other people, and of course he wanted to get his songs done and recorded.” Mayfield’s luminous and voluminous body of work fully justifies Thomas’s assessment.
Aspiring singers clamored for a chance to record his songs. The sometimes-hard-to-find CDs Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago Soul, The Class of Mayfield High, and Impressed! (released only in the U.K.) document Mayfield’s creative contributions and far-reaching influence. In addition to Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Major Lance, and the family group the Five Stairsteps—all of whom built substantial careers singing Mayfield’s compositions—the list of artists who rode his music to minor stardom includes Walter Jackson, Otis Leavill, Billy Butler and the Enchanters, the Opals, the Artistics, Holly Maxwell, Marlina Mars, and Jan Bradley, whose version of “Mama Didn’t Lie” ranks with the best “girl group” records. Okeh’s Carl Davis remembers that Major Lance would hang around the studio, bringing him coffee and stating his case. “I must have had ten cups of coffee a day,” Davis laughed. “Major would just sit there and expound on the fact that if I gave him the chance, he would make us both some money. Curtis was going to write a tune for him.” When Davis gave in, Lance made good on his promise by taking the exuberant dance floor classic “The Monkey Time” and the catchy ghetto fable “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um” into the Top Ten. Lance amassed a greatest-hits album full of Mayfield’s songs including “Delilah,” “Mama Didn’t Know,” “Hey Little Girl,” “It Ain’t No Use,” “Ain’t It a Shame,” and the soaring meditation “Sometimes I Wonder.”
Mayfield’s most sensitive interpreter was Gene Chandler, best known for “Duke of Earl.” Chandler’s ability as a soul performer shines through more clearly on Mayfield compositions “What Now?” “Think Nothing About It,” “Man’s Temptation,” “Just Be True,” and the near-forgotten soul classic “Rainbow.” “Gene seemed to sing my songs in his own way, and he had such an enthusiasm for them. He was a seller of them,” Mayfield said. “Whatever it was, even if the song wasn’t the best, Gene just had a way of putting himself totally into a tune. He always was capable of putting his own influences, his own feeling, into a tune, but also being true to the original intention of the writer.”
Mayfield’s chief problem was deciding which songs to reserve for the Impressions. Whenever possible, he farmed the dilemma out to his friends. “You would have to be careful with Curtis,” Davis groaned. “Because if Curtis came up with six tunes and he’d play them, you’d say, ‘That’s the one I want!’ He’d say, ‘Oh, that’s the one I’m cutting on the Impressions.’ So what I would do is let him play all the tunes he had available, and then I’d ask him which songs were available to me. You had to learn to work around Curtis.” It was a lesson well worth learning.
Mayfield’s intimates sometimes wondered what would have happened if he’d had the creative and commercial support of a savvy company like Motown. “I loved Smokey Robinson, but Curtis was the greatest songwriter I’ve known,” Thomas said. “If Curtis had been in Detroit, it would have been unbelievable, because they had so much power over the DJs. They’d just say, ‘We’re gonna play this Marvin Gaye, we’re not gonna play the Curtis Mayfield.’ Motown really had a stranglehold on it.” Stressing that he didn’t intend his comments as criticism of Motown, Davis contrasted Motown’s methods with the Chicago-soul approach: “Motown used to put a picture frame together, paint in all the background, and then they would take the artist and put him in the picture. They would make a complete record, record it in a certain key that they thought would fit the song. Then the singer had to come in and sing the song. Our approach was to take each artist, paint the background in, and then put the frame around to fit the subject.” For his part, Mayfield insisted that his relationship with Motown “wasn’t really a rivalry. Those guys were just so much admired and they were so big there was no need. The best I could do was learn something from them. Berry Gordy, Smokey Robinson, they had fantastic writers over there, and all you could do was admire those folks for the contributions they made to America.”
Like Berry Gordy, Mayfield “wanted to keep as much of the pie as possible.” Thomas summed up their strategy, which resonated with the freedom movement’s goals of economic equality and uplift: “You always hear, ‘You gotta pay your dues.’ It’s true enough, but if you’re not careful, you pay your whole life out in dues.” Mayfield could see down the road in ways that many talented young artists could not. “Come the end or the middle of the road, you’re only left a shell, and the publisher owns part of you, the record company owns all your masters, and you are the owner of a faded dream of fame,” Mayfield reflected. “What does fame mean without a little fortune? I saw those things early in my life, and I have always advised people, whatever field, whatever business, the bottom line is to own as much of yourself as possible.”
ARETHA FRANKLIN’S QUEST FOR MUSICAL and economic independence bogged down almost as soon as it began. At first the outlook seemed promising. She arrived on the popular-music scene heralded as the spiritual and aesthetic daughter of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith. Moving to New York City in early 1960 with the express purpose of taking the music world by storm, she quickly attracted the attention of John Hammond, who over the course of a half century in the music business discovered a list of stars ranging from Holiday and Count Basie to Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. More important, as far as Aretha and her father were concerned, Hammond had played a central role in the history of black female vocalists. Over a four-day period in November 1933 he had supervised the final recording session of Bessie Smith and the first session of Billie Holiday. Before signing with Hammond, Aretha and her father had spurned overtures from Sam Cooke, who wanted Aretha to join him at RCA, and Motown, which they still thought of as an upstart local label. “Daddy and I had our sights set on something bigger,” Aretha recalled, explaining their choice of Hammond, which they believed would stake Aretha’s place in a great tradition that included Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington as well as Bessie and Billie. It was a heavy burden for an eighteen-year-old to bear.
While Hammond clearly recognized Aretha’s power and potential, his feel for the gospel world she had grown up in was limited. Overlooking the fact that Aretha’s mentors included some of the most accomplished musicians from the worlds of R&B and jazz, not to mention the finest gospel singers imaginable, Hammond referred to her as an “untutored genius.” It’s tempting to speculate on the musical history of the alternate universes in which Aretha signed with Motown or Sam Cooke. With the possible exception of the Four Tops’ Levi Stubbs, no Motown vocalist possessed Aretha’s raw power. Backed by the driving rhythm of Motown’s Funk Brothers rather than by the soft jazz combos Hammond preferred, Aretha might well have found her voice sooner than she did. In turn, she could have helped Motown bring its gospel roots a bit closer to the surface. And it’s impossible to imagine a better mentor than Cooke, who knew exactly what it took to move back and forth between the upscale Copacabana Club and the chitlin circuit.
Speculation aside, the deal with Columbia was precisely what C.L. Franklin envisioned when he assented to his daughter’s desire to move from gospel to pop. Believing that “one should make his own life and take care of his own business,” Reverend Franklin helped Aretha weather the initial disapproval of the more staid members of the New Bethel congregation over her move away from traditional gospel. As he told African American journalist Phyl Garland after the release of “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” and “Respect,” “At first there was a quiet and subdued resentment, but now they acclaim her in loud terms.” Aretha attributed her father’s unstinting support to his certainty that, while she might record secular material, “I’d never really leave the church.”
Aretha did leave Detroit, setting out for New York in search of secular stardom. Leaving baby Clarence in Detroit under the watchful eye of her grandmother, Big Mama, Aretha stayed first at the Thirty-eighth Street YWCA, followed by brief stints at the Bryant Hotel on Fifty-fourth and Broadway, the Chelsea Hotel, and a small hotel off Washington Square in Greenwich Village. In this haven for bohemians she took pleasure in the “artistic ambience” and savored the local diner’s fried perch, which reminded her of Mahalia’s down-home cooking. During the summer of 1960 she took dance lessons from Cholly Atkins, who also schooled Motown’s budding stars, and enlisted New York pro Leora Carter as a voice coach for the auditions that would introduce her to the world of entertainment.
Arriving in New York from his travels on the gospel highway, Reverend Franklin took Aretha to meet Phil Moore, a choreographer and arranger with a reputation for packaging artists for major labels. After the audition Moore told C.L., “Reverend, your daughter doesn’t need big choreography. She doesn’t need to be fluffed up or polished over with New York sophistication. I wouldn’t tamper with what she has naturally. Just let her do her thing, and she’ll be fine.” Jo King, a longtime record business insider who became Aretha’s first manager, agreed. When Aretha auditioned at her apartment, King remembered, “she did everything wrong, but it came out right. She had something, a concept of her own about music that needed no gimmickry.” Aretha’s sense of herself came through clearly when King took her to study movement with a high-fashion model, who told her, “When you walk you should feel like you’re floating.” “Fine,” Aretha responded, “but I’d rather walk than float.”
To King, her quiet teenage client seemed “a desperately unhappy child.” Gradually, however, she realized that Aretha’s childlike bearing masked a complicated inner life that would express itself in her music. “For the first three months I thought I had an eighteen-year-old girl who had never left home before. And then it burst like a bubble. I realized I had a real woman here, one who knew more than I did when it came to men, alcohol, and everything. She had tremendous depth.”
That depth began to express itself on the demo record Aretha made showcasing the songs of African American songwriter Curtis Lewis. King took Aretha’s demos of four songs, including “Today I Sing the Blues,” to Hammond in hopes of selling Lewis’s compositions. Hammond’s response has passed down into music-business lore: “I was distracted by the singer. Her name was Aretha Franklin, and even at first hearing, on a poorly made demo intended to sell songs rather than the singer, she was the most dynamic voice I’d encountered since Billie.” Unaware that Aretha had already released a gospel album, Songs of Faith, Hammond approached her as a new talent. He immediately contacted King, who invited him to hear Aretha rehearse. “I went to the studio,” Hammond recounted, “heard Aretha sing, and was convinced she would be a star. I knew exactly how I wanted to record her, keeping as much of the gospel feeling in her voice as possible, while using material which would attract jazz fans.”
In retrospect, knowing how she would rise to R&B stardom, many have assumed that Columbia forced Aretha into a mold that didn’t suit her talents. Reflecting on her repertory of torch songs, jazz standards, show tunes, and soft blues, music historian Anthony Heilbut dismisses her work with Columbia as a misguided attempt “to wed Barbra Streisand with Clara Ward.” Comparing Aretha’s renditions of “Over the Rainbow” or “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home” with “I Never Loved a Man” or “Spirit in the Dark” makes it easy to regard her early work as a dilution of “black” music with “white” aesthetics, an upscale equivalent of Pat Boone’s Boy Scout botching of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” The real story is a good deal more complicated.
In fact, Aretha’s early records were oriented toward a crossover strategy that echoed the civil rights movement’s commitment to desegregating American society. Aware that most American money flowed through white fingers and stayed in white hands, some black musicians of the fifties and early sixties tried to package themselves as sepia Sinatras or ebony Garlands. Setting out to garner their share of the riches waiting in Las Vegas and at upscale nightclubs like New York’s Copacabana, entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Nat King Cole envisioned a world where they could bask in the bright lights and cash the fat checks lining the Great White Way.
Aretha’s repertory can be seen as a calculated attempt to win mainstream approval. But it also reflected her own taste. “I suppose you could say my early style was a combination of blues, gospel-based jazz, and rhythm and blues,” she reflected. “I’ve always liked standards, so singing songs like ‘Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody’ and ‘How Deep Is the Ocean?’ came naturally to me.” When later asked to name her favorite secular singers, Aretha provided a list that ranged from Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Lena Horne through Nina Simone, Betty Carter, and Peggy Lee to pop crooners Rosemary Clooney and Doris Day. There’s no reason to suspect her of irony. Among her African American contemporaries, she singled out Broadway sensation Leslie Uggams and Nancy Wilson as singers who had opened “major doors” and left “the buyers and promoters with the unmistakable impression that the African American chanteuse was responsible, qualified, and fabulous.”
Given her eclectic embrace of American pop, it’s not surprising that Aretha accepted Hammond’s vision of her career without reservation. After signing Aretha to a five-year deal, Hammond’s first move was to hire Ray Bryant, a jazz pianist with gospel roots, to serve as her musical director. Bryant, who had had a surprise R&B hit with “The Madison Time,” recalled his first encounter with Aretha. “One night John called me,” Bryant recalled. “It was pretty late at night, maybe nine or ten o’clock, and he said, ‘Could you please come down to the Vanguard?’ I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Well, I signed this young girl singer from Detroit. We’d like for you to come down and meet her.’ There were lots of people there, like a big party. Everybody just got up and did something. I played a little bit, she sang, and it was just sort of a welcome-to-New York party for Aretha. She was a very nice young lady—sort of shy. But when I heard her sing, I said, ‘This girl can sing!’ ”
Entering Columbia’s New York studios on August 1, 1960, with Aretha, Bryant, and a combo including bassist Bill Lee, the father of director Spike Lee, Hammond recorded what he’d later describe as one of his three or four favorite sessions. Supplemented by material recorded at two later sessions, those tracks provided the material for Aretha’s first pop album, The Great Aretha Franklin, which was released in October. The record garnered critical praise and earned Aretha recognition from Downbeat magazine as the “New Female Star of the Year.” The reception from the leading jazz magazine was welcome but intimated the difficulty Hammond and Aretha would have in realizing their plan to make a mark in what she called the “jukebox market.” The first single, “Today I Sing the Blues,” reached the R&B Top Ten. She edged onto the lower reaches of the pop charts with the follow-up, “Won’t Be Long.” A minor gem that hints at what might have resulted if Columbia had allowed Hammond more time to pursue his vision, “Won’t Be Long” rings with the movement’s forward-moving pulse and foreshadows gospel rockers like “Think” and “Rock Steady.” Pushing the rhythm forward with a series of insistent piano runs, Aretha’s voice transforms a pop ditty about a woman waiting for her man at the railroad station into a demand for change. “Hurry hurry hurry,” she calls out, slipping out the back door of the studio and heading for the nearest church. She brings the song home with an urgent challenge that resonates with the energy of the sit-ins and the freedom rides. “I don’t know about you, but I know, when the whistle blows, that it won’t be long. It won’t be long.” Despite positive reviews and a strong response from the relatively small coterie of jazz aficionados, the album failed to crack the pop charts.
Hammond’s second album with Aretha, The Electrifying Aretha Franklin, failed to substantially increase her audience, although it did yield her biggest Columbia hit, “Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Only Aretha’s unsweetened vocals keep the song from crossing the line into minstrelsy. While sentimental white listeners might have initially responded to the familiar melody and stereotypical lyrics, Aretha’s bluesy tones undercut the nostalgia and, no doubt, limited its commercial appeal. Not surprisingly, black DJs and listeners preferred the flip side, “Operation Heartbreak,” a steamy cut worthy of Ruth Brown or LaVern Baker, which gave Aretha her third R&B Top Ten hit. R&B hits did not, however, much interest Columbia. In mid-1962 the label relieved Hammond of his production duties and assigned Aretha to Robert Mersey, who’d been working with Andy Williams and would later produce Barbra Streisand’s first number-one album, People.
The change reflected the growing antipathy between Hammond and Aretha’s new husband, Ted White. A handsome man who’d entered into Detroit’s music scene as the owner of a chain of jukeboxes, White met Aretha during one of her visits home during 1961. Sharing Aretha’s March 25 birthday but eleven years older, White had been introduced to his future wife by singer Della Reese at Detroit’s Twenty Grand Club, a two-story extravaganza subdivided into several plushly carpeted clubs and a twenty-two-lane bowling alley. Six months later the couple married in a ceremony conducted by Aretha’s father at New Bethel Baptist. Soon White took over as Aretha’s manager, a source of constant irritation to everyone at Columbia. “I came in and kind of upset the apple cart,” White recalled, “by not wanting John Hammond to produce another one of those Al Jolson-type albums.” Declining this invitation to a mud fight, Hammond offered a different explanation: “I think I made some very good records with Aretha at Columbia. I wanted to keep her to a degree as a jazz singer, but Columbia wanted to make a big pop star out of her, which I thought would ruin her integrity.”
Despite his criticism of Hammond for pandering to white tastes, little separated White’s agenda from the one Columbia was already pursuing. “Aretha was so multi-talented, we didn’t want to get her bottlenecked into one particular idiom at that time,” White mused. “We thought she was broad enough to attract people from all audiences. We wanted a little of the jazz, a little of the pop, and a little of the so-called rock and roll. And we just touched on all bases.” The problems with the three Mersey-produced albums—The Tender, the Moving, the Swinging Aretha Franklin; Laughing on the Outside; and Unforgettable—A Tribute to Dinah Washington—is precisely that they touch all the bases but never quite bring it home. The first features Aretha’s tender but rarely swinging renditions of “Try a Little Tenderness,” a big hit in 1933 for bandleader Ted Lewis that had already been covered by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra; Billie Holiday’s signature song, “God Bless the Child”; and a deeply moving version of the meditative blues standard “Trouble in Mind.” Laughing on the Outside consisted entirely of soft Streisand-esque ballads including Irving Berlin’s “Say It Isn’t So,” Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” and a version of “If Ever I Should Leave You” from the musical Camelot, which Jerry Wexler praised as “just superb, like the way Ella Fitzgerald would do Gershwin.”
The material seemed perfectly suited to White’s strategy of moving Aretha from the chitlin circuit to Caesar’s Palace. That was the theory. The reality glittered less brightly. Even before White took control, Aretha’s bookings reflected Columbia’s uncertainty over her direction. Long engagements with jazz pianists like Horace Silver and Les McCann punctuated R&B tours headlined by Jackie Wilson and old friend Sam Cooke. During the first half of the sixties Aretha would share bills with everyone from Miles Davis and Patti LaBelle to Cannonball Adderley and James Brown, who appeared with her at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on a show that also included salsa legend Tito Puente. Despite Aretha’s discomfort, “she could really sing from the first,” Brown remembered. “At that time she had hit with ‘Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.’ We became close after that show. What I liked about her right away was how smart she was: you could tell just by talking to her once.”
Musically, Aretha was happy to have a place in the jazz scene of the early sixties, which had moved away from bebop abstraction and was consciously reaching out to listeners more at home with gospel and the blues. “Jazz was going through a soul period, rediscovering its funky and churchy roots,” Franklin recalled. “I was part of that mix. I’m talking about monster musicians like Freddie Hubbard and Blue Mitchell and Junior Mance. I was privileged to play dates at such a young age with the immortal John Coltrane. I observed Charles Mingus slap one of his pianists on stage… . Audiences accepted me on bills with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.” But she still wasn’t really part of the new jazz movement, either in substance or in style.
Uprooted from audiences familiar with the intense vocal and emotional exchanges at the core of the gospel vision, Aretha “was afraid,” she admitted. “I sang to the floor a lot. I did what I had to do.” John Wilson, who played piano with the Ward Singers, described Aretha’s 1962 appearance at the Showboat Club in Philadelphia. “After checking in at the hotel over the club,” Wilson said, “she took a cab over to Mom Ward’s house to get connected to familiar souls.” When the Ward entourage arrived at the club to offer its support, “we heard that wonderful voice and saw that it was being wasted on an almost empty house. Aretha’s face lit up with gratefulness when she saw Clara. On her intermission, Aretha’s eyes welled up with tears as she said, ‘These people don’t want to hear me, I still sound like I’m in church.’ ” Clara replied encouragingly, “Well, Aretha, if you can’t sing before these few, you’ll never sing before thousands. You keep playing and singing like you’re doing, and one day this place won’t be able to hold the people. You just hang in there—you’ve got everything it takes to go to the top. You’ll have them hanging on to every word, every note.”
Sometimes Aretha must have felt like her blues would never end. Although she steadfastly refused to air her differences with her husband in public, Ted White found few defenders and no defense. Family friends reported repeated clashes between White and Aretha’s father; one longtime intimate was quoted as saying, “They don’t respect each other much.” Teddy Harris, a member of Aretha’s road band, told Vanity Fair that White was “kind of abusive,” a charge Clyde Otis, who replaced Mersey as her producer in mid-1964, amplified angrily: “Ted beat her down unmercifully. This is a woman who is so insecure. She knows that she can sing well, but she’s been so stepped upon and put upon by people who were close to her. She’s never been able to stand up and say, ‘This is what I will do, and this is why I want to do it.’ ”
Once Otis entered the picture, White’s differences with Columbia escalated into open warfare. Frustrated with Aretha’s lack of success on the charts, the label made the decision to release her when her contract expired. But it hedged its bets and charged Otis with the unenviable task of recording as much material as possible in the shortest possible time. “It was a catch-22 situation. Columbia didn’t want her to go, but they could not reverse themselves and help her become a star. So they said to me, ‘Well, look—cut as much stuff on her as you can,’ because they felt that they might lose her—and in fact they did lose her. The way they talked about it was, ‘Look, we’ve only got one more year left on her contract, and we’d like to have as much product on her in the can as possible.’ ” Otis cut five albums’ worth of material in less than a year, complaining all the while that White’s presence intimidated Aretha. “She refused to really blast,” Otis grumbled. “He’d come in, and if she wanted to have a little bit of fun by cutting loose, he’d look at her, and that was it.” Whatever his problems with White, Otis furnished no solutions for Aretha. Witness the inappropriately titled Soul Sister album, a hodgepodge of southern nostalgia (“Ol’ Man River,” “Swanee”) and contemporary soul (Ashford and Simpson’s “Cry Like a Baby,” Van McCoy’s “Sweet Bitter Love”). The disaster was topped off by Otis’s own composition “Take a Look,” a heavily orchestrated compendium of condescending clichés and sanctimonious moralizing. It was a long way from “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood.”
Predictably, none of the albums released during Aretha’s final years with Columbia—Runnin’ Out of Fools, Yeah!!, and Soul Sister— made much of a showing on the charts. “It seems like they won’t really let me be me,” a depressed Aretha told her old friend Smokey Robinson. “I’ve got so much music stored up inside me, Smoke, I can’t hardly stand it.” White blamed Aretha’s failure to cross over on the label’s penny-pinching approach. Columbia provided “very little money and very little outside support. In fact, I remember the first time we went to L.A. to work. I had to go down to Compton, in some very out-of-the-way record stores, to buy old Aretha albums and singles.” The public relations people at Columbia, White believed, “weren’t overly concerned. If you got a hit—great! If you didn’t, then, ‘We’ll see you later.’ ” As a result, he contended, it was impossible to develop the type of show that would land his wife in Vegas: “Her earnings wouldn’t have made it possible to take along the musicians who could back her up and show off her talents in the best way. Even in this country, you have to work for practically nothing if you don’t have a hit.”
Aretha’s best chance for a breakthrough, a booking to sing her 1963 single “Skylark” on The Ed Sullivan Show, turned into a debacle. She prepared for her spot by having Cholly Atkins choreograph a new routine and purchasing a special gown. Things began to go wrong, Aretha recalled, during rehearsal. As she prepared to sing, “a voice from up in the booth said, ‘We don’t like the cut of the gown—change it.’ ” On the night of the show, a juggling act ran over its allotted time, and Aretha’s slot was canceled. She was devastated.
Worse yet, in less than a year Aretha was confronted with the deaths of both Dinah Washington and Sam Cooke. Teddy Harris was playing piano with Aretha’s band at Pasqual’s Carousel in Atlanta when news broke of Cooke’s senseless shooting death at a tawdry motel in South Central Los Angeles. Cooke had gone to the motel with a woman who was later identified as a prostitute. When she absconded with his clothes, an angry Cooke, suspecting he’d been set up, stormed into the motel office. The motel clerk, who’d been told by the police after a string of robberies to shoot first and ask questions later, gunned Cooke down. “Aretha went berserk,” Harris recounted. “After all the customers and employees had gone home from the club, she made all of the musicians in her group stay with her there, and she played Sam Cooke’s music on the piano for hours. And she drank, too, with us.”
While Aretha was less involved personally with Dinah Washington than she was with Sam Cooke, she responded deeply to her childhood idol’s fatal overdose of pills and liquor. The heartfelt tribute album Unforgettable pays tribute to Washington’s many-faceted talent. Aretha’s performances of the tormented blues “Drinking Again” and “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning” support Clyde Otis’s observation that “Aretha ached in the same way Dinah did.” The ache reaches searing intensity on “This Bitter Earth.” Tapping the emotional depths where memories of her mother and the stony roads of the gospel highway merged with her frustrations over her floundering marriage and career, Aretha walks the razor edge of despair before voicing the hard-won hope that maybe the earth she walks “isn’t so bitter after all.” Unforgettable, the only one of Aretha’s Columbia albums since the debut to stand up as a whole, has attracted admirers including Bette Midler, who credits it with shaping her style: “It was like I had no idea what music was all about until I heard her sing. It opened up the whole world.”
By the time Unforgettable was released in March 1964, Aretha was simply, in White’s phrase, “waiting it out.” Thinking back on the end of her time with Columbia, Aretha remembered a poignant moment that occurred when Columbia flew her to Puerto Rico to perform at an industry convention. “There was another young artist they’d signed,” she recalled. “The guy had all these way-out lyrics, you know, like ‘A hard rain’s gonna fall’ and all of that. We both had to be there. Anyhow, I was feeling pretty scared and down. And I remember looking out my hotel window at midnight. And there was this other artist out on the beach, just walking up and down, up and down alone. It was Bob Dylan. And I thought, ‘My, he must be havin’ a ball, and here I am miserable.’ Believe me,” she concluded, recognizing the irony of her misreading of Dylan’s moment on the windy beach, “neither of us knew where we were headed then.”
To no one’s surprise or dismay, Columbia cut Aretha loose when her contract expired in 1966. Industry reports claimed that the label had lost $90,000 on her over six years. Songwriter Jerry Leiber articulated the general consensus when he sympathetically dismissed her Columbia work as a case of “upward mobility. We all do it.” But Jerry Wexler, who would soon help guide her in a new and more profitable direction, provided a fairer assessment: “A lot of people missed the great licks she did at Columbia. It’s become traditional to say, ‘Well, Atlantic is where she really broke out.’ But people are negating some of the beautiful things she did on Columbia— some of the ballads, some of the show tunes.” Aretha agreed. “On Columbia I cut a lot of good stuff, and I feel that I gained an audience there,” she said. “But I was having what is commonly known in the business, at Columbia, as ‘turntable hits.’ I was getting a lot of play, but not a lot of sales, and I think that was largely due to the kind of material I was doing. I was being classified as a jazz singer, and I never, ever felt I was a jazz singer. I can sing jazz, but that was not my format to begin with. I think the move from Columbia to Atlantic was about commercial success.” Soul aficionado David Nathan, the editor of England’s Blues & Soul magazine, defends Aretha’s achievements at Columbia, calling Aretha a masterpiece and citing Yeah!! and Runnin’ Out of Fools as “road maps for gospel-based vocalists singing secular material.” John Hammond’s judgment strikes nearer the truth: “I cherish the records we made together, but, finally, Columbia was a white company who misunderstood her genius.”
IF ARETHA HAD LAUNCHED HER CAREER at black-owned Motown, the classic Atlantic recordings might never have happened—she might have had no reason to leave. For thirteen-year-old Stevie Wonder, at least, life at Motown couldn’t have been much better. Since signing a contract in 1961 when he was eleven, he’d become the first artist to top the charts simultaneously with a single, “Fingertips, Part 2,” and the album from which it came. He’d found a dedicated and sympathetic tutor and been adopted by the best soul band in the world, Motown’s inimitable Funk Brothers. Best of all, he’d become Motown’s unofficial company mascot, the pampered darling of a bevy of solicitous big sisters, including most of Motown’s leading female stars.
The chorus of adoring voices included Velvelette Bertha Barbee McNeal, who beamed, “He was like our little sweetheart, being younger. He would run around the studio. Being the baby of all of us, he was just pampered. I mean, we loved him to death. He knew everybody, and he’d come up to you and feel your whole face. That’s how he knew, even before you said anything, who you were.” Supreme Mary Wilson smiled over his antics. “Everyone loved him, and that was a good thing because he was full of mischief. Stevie seemed to always know who was standing near him, and one of his favorite pastimes was to run up and pinch young ladies on their bottoms. He would also tell one of us exactly what we were wearing—what color it was, and how it was styled. Some of us would act amazed, or at least feign amazement; of course, he was in cahoots with somebody. We all loved him.”
Soul singer Mable John, the sister of ill-starred R&B great Little Willie John, observed that Stevie was not above taking advantage of his “disability”: “When Stevie Wonder came there, being a little boy running up and down the stairs, bumping into folks—he was doing it on purpose, I think, ’cause he loved to play blind, and he could really find his way around. But he just loved getting your goat.” By the time he’d been around Motown for a few years, Wonder’s herd included dozens of goats, among them Motown songwriter Janie Bradford, who believed that Wonder “got around better than I did. I remember he came in my office one day, and I had a jar of pennies. I would take all my pennies and save them for my son. Stevie came in, and he took my pennies and ran! Ran out of the building—he was outside in the yard before I could catch him. And then when I took the pennies, he said, ‘You gonna take a poor little blind boy’s pennies?’ He was always full of the devil.” No wonder he cherished warm memories of his teenage years at Motown.
It’s probably impossible to disentangle myth from reality concerning the chain of events that brought the talented ghetto boy under Motown’s wing. If everyone who claims to have been present at the audition, which took place on the stoop in front of the Motown building, had actually been there, they would have had to move the event to Tiger Stadium. Ronnie White of the Miracles credits his brother Gerald with setting things in motion. “I was just a victim of my family,” he laughed, saying that his brother kept pestering him to come listen to one of his friends. “I kept putting it off. For some reason I never found the time to go over there. Until one day I had nothing much to do and remembered the favor I had promised my brother to do for a long time. When I went over to this house, Stevie was there with a guy who played guitar.” Much to the amusement of Ronnie and fellow Miracle Pete Moore, who accompanied him to the impromptu audition, Stevie greeted them by announcing, “I can sing better than Smokey.”
Amused and impressed with Stevie’s rendition of “Lonely Boy,” White set up a meeting with Brian Holland, a third of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team that wrote most of the hits that lifted the Supremes and the Four Tops to superstardom, including “Where Did Our Love Go?” and “(Sugar Pie Honey Bunch) I Can’t Help Myself.” Versions of what happened next differ slightly. Mary Wilson recalled that the Supremes were about to leave the studio when Gordy told them to stick around: “I think his mother was with him, and a couple of brothers. He’s just a typical ten-year-old, comes running in.” After hearing him play conga, drums, and organ, Wilson wrote, Gordy announced regally, “You are signed.” Stevie’s own report on the audition probably merges details from other early visits: “People were just walking around relatively casually. There were some people working on songs in different rooms, and I was taken into the main studio, Studio A, and I started playing the piano and singing. Somebody started playing drums, and I said, ‘Oh, can I play those drums?’ So I started playing drums.”
Holland tells a more mundane version of what happened: “First of all let me tell you one thing: all the stuff that you hear about it is crazy. You know, like Stevie coming into Motown and everybody running for him and offering him milkshakes on golden trays. It was nothing like that. We sat on a curb on the sidewalk of Woodward Boulevard, and he was playing his harmonica and singing. And it was after that that Stevie met Berry Gordy, who then of course wanted to sign him at once.” Gordy remembered that it was Motown producer Mickey Stevenson who burst in on him, crying out, “You got to come hear this little kid now!” “His voice didn’t knock me out,” Gordy said, “but his harmonica playing did. Something about him was infectious.” While some credit Gordy himself with coming up with the “Little Stevie Wonder” nickname, others say that the suggestion came from Berry’s sister Esther.
Whatever the details, Motown did offer the young musician a contract. At first Lula refused to sign. She was afraid that having a child in show business would disrupt a family life that, for the first time, was beginning to settle into a comfortable routine. And she didn’t trust any record company to handle her son’s finances. When she told Stevie of her decision, he embarked on a resistance campaign that consisted of beating on his drum every moment of the waking day. The incessant pounding finally broke his mother’s resistance, and she agreed to sign. The result was a contract that provided an allowance for Stevie—it began at $2.50 a week—and payments to Lula for clothing and upkeep. The extra income was a blessing for the Hardaway family, who were struggling to make ends meet in the East Side ghetto. Other than stipulating that the underage performer could not appear in nightclubs, the contract was typical of the deals signed by other Motown performers.
In the early days, most of the singers who signed with Motown agree, the excitement and magic of what they were doing compensated for the fact that few of them were making much money. As the years have passed, several Motown veterans have grumbled that while they made Gordy rich, he didn’t really return the favor. Wonder’s first contract exemplifies the problem. When at age twenty-one he exercised his right to nullify the contracts signed for him when he was a minor, Wonder hired an auditing firm to examine Motown’s books. While the audit uncovered no irregularities in the bookkeeping, the settlement amounted to just one million dollars, underlining how much of an upper hand standard industry practices gave to the company.
For the time being, though, Wonder was happy just to spend time at the magical building Gordy had dubbed “Hitsville, U.S.A.” The young musician charmed Diana Ross and Martha Reeves, who was then working as a secretary. Describing Stevie as “hyper, bright, and brimming with talent,” Smokey Robinson remembered him “leaping around the studio like a frog, beating the drums, blowing the harmonica, eating up sounds like they were candy.” Although Clarence Paul laughingly referred to Wonder as a “pest” and Motown press kits reported that he had sometimes broken in on recording sessions because he couldn’t see the red light above the door, Brian Holland painted a more realistic picture. “His mother brought him into the studio. She always brought him. He’d never come by himself. She also was staying with him most of the time, and then someone else would come and pick them both up. When you saw Stevie, you saw his mother around. All the time. She would not take anything for granted and just leave him alone.”
Motown’s staff and stars gave Lula plenty of help. “I was very fortunate to meet a family like the Gordy family, like Motown,” Wonder later beamed. “Everyone over eleven was a parent. Clarence Paul loved me like his own son. He was like a father, like a brother and a friend. Esther Edwards, Berry Gordy’s sister, all the musicians and artists watched over me. Wanda Young of the Marvelettes would always tell me when she thought I was eating too much candy.” Martha Reeves made it clear that “I was not Little Stevie Wonder’s baby-sitter,” but she lavished special attention on him, and he eagerly returned her affection. Clarence Paul traced Stevie’s ability to move onstage to Reeves’s attentions: “The way she taught that kid to dance was just a smash. Martha would stand behind the little one, take his arms, and while explaining the moves in words, she would simultaneously do them with him. It was just like his body had become hers or the other way around. He just adored Martha, and she felt more like a sister toward him than a teacher.”
When Stevie needed a place to stay while waiting for a ride home, he’d frequently go to the house Reeves shared with her mother. “He knew and loved my family just like he’s a member, because we took him in,” Reeves said. “It’s not like he was a little blind kid. Stevie was active! Stevie would beat everybody up; he was taller than most of them. They’d tear my mama’s house up.” One of his favorite pastimes was concocting musical skits and recording them on Reeves’s tape recorder. She particularly enjoyed the monologues he delivered while doodling on the Hammond organ. “He’d play those silly chords and talk over them, make up dumb stories.”
For the first time in his life, he had access to as many musical instruments as he wanted. “It was like a music store with all kinds of toys,” he told an interviewer in the sixties, before adding another story to the legend of Stevie Wonder, mischief-maker. “Me and my friend, after a couple of days we kept going down there, and we went in the basement and stole some tapes. This is something Motown probably never knew I did, but it’s cool now. I stole— it must have been a two-track of ‘Shop Around’ by the Miracles. I kept it— I think we tore it up or something. But they were asking me, ‘Steve, have you seen it? Somebody stole a tape. Where’s the tape?’ And I just never did say anything about it. ’Cause I thought I’d lose my contract.”
Everyone who spent any time around Little Stevie testifies to his winning, if sometimes trying, sense of humor. One of his best-remembered stunts hinged on his finely honed ability as a mimic. He was particularly adept at imitating Gordy’s voice. “He’d call my secretary and say, ‘Send Stevie Wonder a check for half a million dollars right away. He needs the money right away,’ ” Gordy recounted. “So my secretary says, ‘Wait a minute, boss. Just like that?’ ‘Yes, just like that, and do it right away.’ She says, ‘Have you lost your mind?’ He says, ‘No, Stevie’s my friend, Stevie’s a fine young man, just give him a check. He’ll be in there shortly.’ I don’t think he got any checks, but who knows?” While he might not have gotten any six-figure checks, Stevie claimed that his mimicry resulted indirectly in his acquisition of a new tape recorder. “I’d call up and say, ‘This is Berry, and I want you to get Stevie that tape recorder right away. He’s a great new artist so it’s okay to spend the money and buy it for him. I’m sure he’ll get it back to us in a few days,’ ” Wonder reminisced. “After they fell for this stunt about three times and never got the tape recorder back, they gave me my first recorder as a belated birthday present.”
Long before he engaged in a hilariously unforgettable tennis game on his 1983 appearance as host of Saturday Night Live, he had developed a set of comic routines that hinged on his blindness. Gordy recalled Wonder’s delight in amazing attractive girls by praising their clothes or the color of their eyes (information that had been provided to him by his numerous partners in comedy). Aware of the routine, Gordy decided to strike back one day when Stevie greeted him by complimenting his attire: “I like that suit, Mr. Gordy. And that’s a great tie, isn’t it?” Deciding to take control, Gordy responded, “I’m not wearing a tie. I took it off just before I came into the studio.” When Stevie came back with “Well, if you are wearing a tie, can I have it?” Gordy sighed in exasperation, “Okay, Stevie, who told you?” Taking mock offense, Stevie carried point, set, and match with the rejoinder, “What, am I blind?” Nor was Wonder above exploiting such gambits in the service of his growing interest in the opposite sex. On several occasions Wonder asked to feel a young woman’s face, only to “accidentally” touch her breasts. After he apologized to the victim, Gordy remembered, Wonder would turn and smile “as if to say, ‘Eat your heart out, fellas.’ ”
Like other eleven-year-olds, the young prankster spent part of each day attending to the more mundane demands of his schoolwork. Before Stevie came to Motown, his educational experiences had been less than encouraging. “I remember a teacher telling me that I should go on and make sure I studied very hard, because the only thing that I could probably do was tune pianos—no, I’m serious—or make baskets or potholders or rugs,” he reported. “And this lady was being sincere. She didn’t mean no harm by what she was saying. Being black and blind, that was all that was supposed to happen. They must have had visions of me being a hawker, peddling with shoelace and pencils or haunting some street corner with a Seeing-Eye dog begging for money or at the best sitting in some busy place playing the harmonica and holding a hat for alms.”
Shortly after Wonder began appearing in public, the Detroit Board of Education raised a new set of concerns. Informing Lula and the company that the school system could not be expected to accommodate Stevie’s travel schedule, the board announced that he would no longer be allowed to perform. The young musician was devastated. “I cried and cried and prayed for a long time,” he admitted. Desperate, his mother placed a newspaper ad seeking suggestions on how Stevie could continue his education and still go on the road. The solution arrived via Helen Trauby, a teacher specializing in blind children, who introduced the family to Dr. Robert Thompson of the Michigan School for the Blind in Lansing. Together they worked out an acceptable response to the board’s concerns.
The cornerstone of the plan was Ted Hull, who assumed the role of Stevie’s tutor in September 1963. A kind, caring man devoted to nurturing his sole student’s mind and character, Hull oversaw Stevie’s day-to-day activities and managed his allowance. “The company, working through a booking agent, would consult with me and set up a tour,” Hull recalled. “Then it was my job to provide Stevie’s educational needs as coordinated through the School for the Blind. I established an allowance with Stevie, and I worked it out with his parents so he didn’t develop champagne tastes at too early an age. He seems to appreciate it now, but he didn’t appreciate it at the time.” Being on the road placed heavy demands on Hull. “I was exhausted most of the time,” he admitted. “Stevie held out extremely well, and I always recognized that he was holding down two full-time jobs, one as a student, one as an entertainer. I don’t think he realized it. We wouldn’t start school until about ten o’clock in the morning, but I would get up at six A.M. usually to prepare for school—to get a head start on the kid. Then we would have school for three and a half or four hours, and then it would be the entertainment business until maybe twelve or one o’clock in the evening. So I was absolutely exhausted.” Stevie wasn’t above taking advantage of the situation. Mary Wilson of the Supremes praised Hull as a “kind, studious young man” but added that “he could never bring himself to awaken the poor exhausted child. Stevie got away with murder.”
In the long run Hull’s efforts paid off. Stevie ultimately earned his diploma from the Michigan School for the Blind while developing the curiosity and knowledge he would later express in his songs. His favorite subject was history, and his favorite writers, Hull remembered, were Ernest Hemingway and James Baldwin, whose works he read in Braille. During the time he spent in residence in Lansing, Stevie participated in activities like choir and wrestling. Hull summed up his experience saying, “I think the nicest compliment I could pay Stevie, as a student, is that he was normal, a normal student.”
While Wonder dutifully fulfilled Hull’s requirements, he eagerly embraced the education he was receiving in the Motown studios. There he benefited from the attention of several members of Motown’s Funk Brothers, the nonpareil house band that laid down the music tracks for almost every hit by the Four Tops, Supremes, Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, and Mary Wells. Shortly after Wonder signed, Mickey Stevenson called pianist Earl Van Dyke, drummer Benny Benjamin, and James Jamerson—possibly the greatest electric-bass player who ever lived—into his office and told them management would appreciate it if they would work with Stevie. As Brian Holland remembered, Wonder’s winning personality made their task an easy one: “Stevie made friends with every musician he met in the studio, and they would take the time actually to show him the elementary techniques he had to know about the various instruments. Sometimes they would even teach him more difficult things to do.”
Stevie felt especially close to Benjamin, whom he called “Papa Zita.” In an interview with Rolling Stone in the early seventies, Wonder celebrated Benjamin as “one of the major forces in the Motown sound. He could play drums. You wouldn’t even need a bass, that’s how bad he was. Just listen to all the Motown hits, ‘My World Is Empty’ and ‘This Old Heart of Mine’ and ‘Don’t Mess with Bill.’ On ‘Girl’s Alright with Me,’ the drums would just pop!” At the same time Wonder acknowledged the personality quirks that sometimes drove the Motown staff to the verge of distraction. “Benny’d be late for sessions, Benny’d be drunk sometimes,” Stevie said. “I mean, he was a beautiful cat, but Benny would come up with these stories like ‘Man, you’d never believe it, but like a goddam elephant, man, in the middle of the road, stopped me from comin’ to the session, so that’s why I’m late, baby, so it’s cool.’ ”
Even if they were sometimes erratic, playing with geniuses helped the boy wonder grow. Remembering that Motown recorded “hundreds and hundreds” of sides with Little Stevie, most of which remain unreleased, Brian Holland emphasizes that the publicity heralding him as a young genius wasn’t entirely hype. “It was just amazing to watch him,” Holland said. “That little one singing and doing such a great job. Every instrument that he found lying around in the studio, he would pick up and start playing it. He was so easy to work with, he could catch on so quickly—very, very quickly. His ear was fantastic. One day I came into the studio, and he sat at the drums. Just practicing, playing them over and over again. And it didn’t take him long to get good at them either. The same with the piano. Whatever he did, Stevie always improved very fast.”
It was equally clear to Gordy and Clarence Paul, the former gospel singer who supervised Wonder’s career during its early stages, that their protégé possessed an unusual talent. As Smokey Robinson wrote in his autobiography, “It didn’t take long for people to dub Stevie ‘Baby Ray’ ’cause he was like a little Ray Charles.” By the early sixties Charles enjoyed universal acclaim as a musical wizard equally at ease with sanctified R&B, crossover pop, deep blues, and funky innovative jazz. Charles’s surprise hit album Modern Sounds in Country and Western had even made him a star in a world where few African Americans felt at home. Backed up by a purely fictional Motown public relations campaign hinting that Charles was blood father to the “young genius,” Wonder’s first two albums—Tribute to Uncle Ray and The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder—present him as a miniature version of Charles. While no singer deserved to be asked to go toe to toe with Ray Charles, Tribute to Uncle Ray includes creditable versions of “Hallelujah I Love Her So,” “The Masquerade,” and “Drown in My Own Tears.”
Supported by Benjamin, Jamerson, Van Dyke, and Beans Bowles, Wonder showcased his formidable instrumental talents on The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie Wonder. He was already a skilled percussionist and pianist, but his first love was the harmonica. His approach to the instrument provided an early indication of the love of jazz he would later celebrate on “Sir Duke.” “I think a harmonica for a long time was not really considered an instrument, but it’s really like a small sax,” he reflected later. “There’s so much you can do with it. I try to play it with a sax or a certain feeling. It’s another color of music. You can express the way you feel. You can get a vocal quality, it depends on how you play it.” For days before the release of his debut albums, Stevie practiced signing his name. After presenting Gordy with an autographed copy, Wonder announced proudly, “This is the very best signature I have ever seen.”
Wonder’s first two albums failed to chart, as did his first three singles, “I Call It Pretty Music (But the Old People Call It the Blues),” “Waterboy,” and “Contract on Love.” But even as the label struggled to find the right studio sound, Wonder was beginning to blossom as a live performer. What he lacked in polish, he made up for in enthusiasm and intensity. “The first time I began to feel I was exciting to people, I threw my glasses out into the audience,” Wonder recalled. “I used to have a bow tie on. I threw that out. It was so exciting that I wanted to get them to do it again, so the next night I tried it again, and it was still exciting.”
Performing alongside the Miracles, the Supremes, and Motown’s other top stars, Wonder participated in the landmark Motown Revue tours that began in 1962. The initial tour was a memorable marathon of ninety-four one-nighters at venues including the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C., the Franklin Theater in Boston, the Raleigh City Auditorium, and the Bamboo Club in Savannah, Georgia, capped by a week-long engagement at Harlem’s Apollo, where the troupe performed six shows a day beginning at noon and ending at one A.M. To make things worse, Otis Williams of the Temptations groaned, “Motown’s buses were in notoriously bad shape.” Several tour participants have singled out Little Stevie’s presence as a blessing of a particularly mixed variety. In his autobiography Williams wrote, “The one guy everybody loved was Stevie Wonder. Stevie liked to make people laugh and had an impish charm. Usually he sat at the back of the bus with the musicians and played his harmonica for hours. Everyone understood that he was wood-shedding, but only to a point. When it got to be about two or three in the morning, someone would yell, ‘Stevie, man, put that damn harmonica down and go to sleep.’ If that didn’t work, we tried, ‘Stevie, we’re going to beat your ass if you don’t take that harmonica …’ and he’d laugh, because he knew we’d never do that. Not that the thought didn’t cross our minds now and then.”
As the Motown Revue set off for the South, it was entering a rapidly changing and potentially explosive political situation. Following the lull of the late fifties, the freedom movement had again taken the offensive, inspired by the sit-ins that spread rapidly from Greenville to Nashville and then to cities throughout the South. While the new Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee took inspiration from the words of Martin Luther King, it based its campaigns more directly on a version of the gospel vision developed by Ella Baker, a brilliant organizer who had left the NAACP in despair over the “pulpit mentality” of the leaders. Declaring that “strong people don’t need strong leaders,” Baker set about organizing the young organizers.
Many on the front lines of the sit-in movement shared student organizer Diane Nash’s deeply Christian belief in the transformative power of love. One of the most stirring moral triumphs of the movement occurred when, taking the lessons she had learned in her philosophy classes seriously, Nash challenged Nashville mayor Ben West to live up to his professed beliefs. A moderate on racial issues, West initially responded to the sit-ins that were paralyzing downtown Nashville by decrying violence against the protesters but claiming he was powerless to tell businessmen how to conduct their affairs. When West attempted to placate a group of students, asking them to pray together as good Christians, a Fisk student shouted, “What about eating together?” When West issued a general statement on the immorality of discrimination, Nash confronted him point-blank: “Do you mean that to include lunch counters?” When Nash refused to accept an equivocal answer, West paused and responded quietly, “Yes.” Headlines trumpeted a victory for the movement, and within a month downtown shop owners agreed to the movement’s central demands.
Even as they applauded the triumph of agapic love, however, few movement organizers or foot soldiers deluded themselves about the realities of violence. Even the leaders committed to nonviolence, whether out of principle or simply as a useful strategy, knew that their opposition was heavily armed and largely unhindered by moral compunctions. The cornerstone of the movement lay not only in Gandhian nonviolence but in traditions of armed self-defense that stretched back to Reconstruction. Most leaders, including King, kept guns in their houses. Colonel Stone Johnson, the black labor organizer who served as bodyguard for Birmingham movement leader Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, provided the perfect summation of the grim blues humor embedded in the situation. When asked how, given his commitment to nonviolence, he managed to protect Reverend Shuttlesworth, Johnson reflected with a wry smile, “With my nonviolent .38 police special.”
The potential violence that surrounded the movement at every moment exploded into sobering reality during the Freedom Rides. Setting out from Washington, D.C., on May 4, 1961, a group of seven blacks and six whites sponsored by the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) headed south determined to desegregate interstate bus travel. When their bus entered the Deep South, the Freedom Riders refused to follow the rules relegating blacks to the back of the bus. Taunts, threats, and blows met them at the bus stations in small towns where, as historian Taylor Branch observes, “the Supreme Court and Gandhi were rarely discussed.” Outside Anniston, Alabama, fifty carloads of Ku Klux Klansmen overtook one bus, forcing it off the highway. As the Freedom Riders scrambled for their lives, the assailants set the bus ablaze. Reboarding a replacement bus, the Riders rolled on to Birmingham, where a howling mob swarmed around them with iron bars, lead pipes, and brass knuckles. Most of the original Freedom Riders were unable to continue. Loath to back down in the face of violence, Diane Nash intervened, organizing a new round of Freedom Rides that helped overturn Jim Crow in interstate travel.
The images of flaming buses and raging mobs imprinted themselves in the minds of the Motown stars as they embarked on their marathon journey the following year. As a group of northern blacks traveling by bus, they ran real risks; Martha Reeves worried that they would be mistaken for Freedom Riders. Her fears were not unfounded. Early on during the southern leg of the tour the Revue bus pulled up to a roadside gas station so riders could use the restroom. The group was greeted by a man holding a double-barreled shotgun, who growled, “Don’t you niggers step one foot off that bus, or I’ll blow your asses to kingdom come.” Shortly thereafter, Wonder recalled, “down in Alabama somebody shot a gun at the bus and just missed the gas tank.” Wonder also remembered another stop where Motown management team member Gene Shelby confronted a promoter about a Confederate flag hanging above the stage. “ ‘Our big star Marvin Gaye ain’t gonna like that flag,’ Shelby said, to which the promoter responded, ‘Hey, boy, see the way that flag’s blowin’ in the breeze? If you don’t get your tail out of here, your tail’s gonna be up in a tree blowin’ just like that flag.’ ”
Ted Hull, who was usually the only white aboard the bus, received a crash course in the Jim Crow blues. Hull described his feelings about what they encountered in Memphis: “Holy smoke, that was really humiliating. We would have to go in the back entrance of restaurants and eat in the kitchen and go to hotels that had booked us, and you know, when they find they’ve got black people coming in, suddenly they can’t find your reservations. I was generally the only white man on the bus, so I had to do what I could to make it work, but I didn’t have a lot of experience. If you didn’t laugh at it, you couldn’t endure it.”
A wonderfully symbolic moment occurred when the Revue reached Louisville. As the bus pulled into the parking lot at the motel, it was greeted by a young boxer still known by the name of Cassius Clay. Fresh from his victory over Archie Moore, Clay entertained the entertainers with his quick wit and winning personality. “He and Little Stevie Wonder remained alone and talking on the bus, long after we had gone in,” Martha Reeves recalled. “We finally had to go and get Stevie so that he might dress and make his show time.” For Wonder, Muhammad Ali would become a symbol of the encompassing demand for respect and dignity. “So many of us have to demand respect,” Wonder told an interviewer when Ali was allowed to return to the ring after being exiled for his stand against the war in Vietnam. “Do you know how much noise he had to make before he was respected? It’s ridiculous, it’s absurd. At his age—and he is old in the fighting world—he had to prove himself. Those are the things which hurt—me, you. And that is where freedom begins. You have to seize that for yourself and then demand that kind of freedom for others.”
For the most part, however, Wonder remembered the Motown Revue tours as times of self-discovery and adventure. The normal seating arrangements on the bus had tour musicians sitting in the back in a section informally dubbed “Harlem” while Gordy and the stars rode up front in “Broadway.” Stevie started out “sitting unhappily in the middle,” noted a Revue veteran, but inevitably drifted back to Harlem. Especially on the second and third tours, Stevie eagerly soaked in the aura of sexual adventure that accompanied the Revue. Despite the presence of company-hired chaperones, the attractive young men and women found ways of circumventing the strict rules against hanky-panky. Dismissing legends that present Motown singers as “young, bright-eyed people—waiting for Berry Gordy to come along and discover us and make us famous,” Betty LaVette countered: “It really was not like that at all. None of these people were young or bright-eyed. They were never young almost. All these people were grown by the time Motown started. They weren’t virgins, and they had all been drunk at one point. I don’t know anybody that came over there with a smidgin of innocence but Stevie Wonder. And we soon corrupted him.”
Not that Wonder resisted. Junior Walker, whose gutbucket saxophone on “Shotgun” represented the “blackest” pole of the Motown spectrum, smiled at his young friend’s frustration over curfews: “I was on a lot of the Motown tours with Stevie. We used to joke around all the time… . I would always joke with Stevie when I’d be going out at night. I’d come by his room and knock on the door, and he’d open the door, and I’d say, ‘I seen a little chick out there dug you.’ He said, ‘You get her and bring her back to the room.’ I said, ‘Yeah, okay, Stevie.’ ” Although Wonder never confirmed the story, there’s a certain believability in a Revue band member’s report that one night the denizens of “Harlem” decided to initiate the young star into the mysteries of sex. “Stevie comes by and says, ‘You’re having a party, ain’t you? Sounds like a lot of pretty girls in here … Man, I need one.’ ” The band got Hull out of the way and paid the fee. “They were gone about an hour, and she came back and said, ‘Wow.’ About a half hour later Stevie’s knocking on my door again. ‘You going to do that for me again?’ Band member answered, ‘I ain’t paying for your pussy. You’re making more money than I am. You pay for it.’ ” It was probably just as well that Hull still had “Little” Stevie on an allowance of less than ten dollars a week.
Wonder’s most important moment on the tour came at Chicago’s Regal Theater, where he recorded the song that established his reputation— “Fingertips, Part 2.” The feelings of exuberance and uncontrolled energy that make the record something special are real. By the time the Revue rolled into the Windy City, “Fingertips” had emerged as the highlight of Stevie’s set. “When Stevie got to ‘Fingertips,’ the closing tune, people jumped up and down, clapped their hands, and stomped their feet,” Brian Holland reported. “They just went wild. The atmosphere was pure electricity, that’s how great Stevie was… . At the end, it seemed, they were more exhausted by all the hand-clapping stuff they did than Stevie was.”
The Regal performance surprised even those familiar with Stevie’s ability to electrify the crowd. That night Stevie had just finished his set when he felt the spirit and ran back out onstage. The band had already begun to change personnel for the next act. “It was never planned,” Wonder recalled. “Mary Wells was next on the bill, and it was time for her to go on, so what happened is that her bass player Larry Moses was getting situated and he came out, and we were going into another encore thing. Larry didn’t know what to do. He was standing with his bass in his hand, and he said, ‘What key? What key?’ He said a few other things, but I guess they didn’t get it on tape ’cause he said a few bad words, too.”
“Fingertips, Part 2” represented a breakthrough not only for Wonder but also for Motown as a whole. It was the label’s second number-one song (the first was the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman”), and Little Stevie Wonder/The12 Year Old Genius was Motown’s first chart-topping LP. Loosely based on Jackie Wilson’s “Baby Workout,” the follow-up single, a call-and-response rave-up that crackled with an incoherent gospel energy, “Workout, Stevie, Workout,” peaked at number thirty-three. Motown took advantage of “Fingertips” to book Little Stevie onto most of the important pop music television shows, including American Bandstand, Where the Action Is, and the variety shows hosted by Mike Douglas and Tom Jones. During his 1963 tour of England, he performed on the British TV showcases Ready! Steady! Go! and Thank Your Lucky Stars.
Stardom was not an unmixed blessing, especially for Stevie’s family members, who continued to live in the East Side ghetto. The problem stemmed from the fact that, as Wonder observed, “whenever an artist had a record in the Top Ten, people automatically assume that he’s got plenty of cash. That isn’t necessarily so.” Stevie’s friend Lee Garrett elaborated: “It was neither easy for Stevie nor for his parents or sisters that he was a star. Like, some people in the neighborhood got really nasty. They envied Stevie and his family so much that they would try anything to make them unhappy. Especially the young ones, Larry, Timothy, and Renee, who were then twelve, ten, and four years old, had to suffer from neighbors’ hate. They did not have a chance to grow up like other kids. They either found themselves surrounded by children who wanted to get to Stevie through them, or they would have vicious neighbors or even their kids say really terrible things to them. And believe me,” Garrett continued, “it did get to him. He wished so much that he could do something about it. But he knew that for the time being his hands were tied and the only thing he could do was to set his aims high, so that one day he would really have enough money to get his family out of all this hassle and away from those people who hurt their feelings.” In 1964 Gordy arranged to have the entire family move into a comfortable home in a newly integrated neighborhood on Detroit’s Northwest Side.
On the road Wonder enjoyed a more relaxed relationship with the black community. During a visit to Los Angeles, Wonder, Ted Hull, and Stevie’s hostess Elaine Jesmer wandered into the heart of Watts. “We pulled up at 103rd Street and we just let him out,” Jesmer recollected. “He just stood there and people started coming over. Stevie was like a magnet. People would go up to him and they would touch him and he would touch them back. They didn’t talk a lot, it was more like ‘Oh my God, this is really Stevie Wonder.’ The feeling from them to him and the other way round was just like magic. I remember one little boy who was walking around the street corner and when he saw Stevie he stopped dead. He just looked at Stevie and his mouth fell open and his eyes got really big and then he looked at me and he wanted to say something but he couldn’t. And I just nodded my head. That very second the boy turned around and took off. But then, about five minutes later he came back and he must have brought about twenty-five other kids with him—all between twelve and fourteen years old. And they were all over Stevie. It was an incredible scene. Everybody wanted to touch Stevie or take his hand.”
Stevie’s adoring fans, many of them his own age, deluged him with fan mail and recorded messages. “You would not believe how much love the kids put into their tapes.” Clarence Paul smiled. “Black or white—it didn’t make no difference at all. They just loved Stevie and they also admired him for the courage that he had.” Lee Garrett said Wonder took special pleasure in messages from disabled children who were inspired by his example. “It wasn’t necessarily anything that had to do with music but all sorts of stuff. Like a guy who had spent years and years in a wheelchair after an accident and through Stevie had found the will power to want to learn to walk again. Or a young girl who was born with crippled arms but had begun now to learn to write and even paint with her feet.”
While Wonder’s charisma was obvious, Motown failed to follow up on “Fingertips.” Although Motown executives staunchly deny that the label ever considered releasing Wonder, his career quickly reached a clear impasse. Berry Gordy was upset at the failure to follow up on the breakthrough hit. “We hadn’t taken advantage of it,” Gordy recalled. “That was a no-no for our company. As far as I was concerned, that was a sin. As hard as it is to establish an act, once you do, once you open that door, you just have to march right through. With Stevie we hadn’t, and now it seemed we couldn’t.”
Casting about for the right way to develop their young star, Motown released two more albums—With a Song in My Heart and Stevie at the Beach. The first resembled something Clyde Otis might have cooked up for Aretha. Wonder’s biographer John Swenson rightly dismissed the amalgamation of supper-club chestnuts and middle-of-the-road standards as “Stevie at the dentist’s office.” Compared with the concept behind Stevie at the Beach, however, having him record “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Put On a Happy Face,” and “The Sunny Side of the Street” might not have been such a bad idea. Motown’s doomed attempt to reach out to the teenybopper crowd by arranging cameo appearances in Bikini Beach and Muscle Beach Party deserves a special exhibit in the Museum of Bad Ideas. To be fair, some of the music on Stevie at the Beach, notably his soulful harmonica playing on “Beyond the Sea,” “Ebb Tide,” and “Red Sails in the Sunset,” isn’t bad. But the tepid commercial reception of the singles “Castles in the Sand,” “Hey Harmonica Man” (a gospel-goes-to-the-beach disaster), and “High Heel Sneakers” (a live cut recorded in Paris with French musicians) did nothing to soothe Gordy’s fears.
Those fears were exacerbated by worries that, as Stevie moved from childhood to adolescence, his voice would change for the worse. Fortunately, Gordy observed, “that young, undeveloped high-pitched sound that I hadn’t loved when I first met him turned into a controlled, powerful, versatile instrument.” And despite the absence of a hit single, live audiences never stopped responding enthusiastically to his stage show. On New Year’s Eve 1964 Stevie, who had jettisoned the “Little” back in July, received an overwhelming reception when he replaced the Supremes, who were taping an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, at Motown’s annual Detroit gala. Aware that “he had become wildly popular with the audience,” Gordy decided to see whether a new support team would be able to translate the fire into record sales.
After considering several alternatives, Motown assigned him to the songwriter/producers Henry Cosby and Sylvia Moy, who would collaborate on the hits that reignited his career, “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” and “I Was Made to Love Her.” According to Moy, Mickey Robinson, the head of Motown’s A&R department, held regular meetings at which “they would go through the list of artists and give assignments to the various producers. In 1965 no one wanted Stevie.” Clarence Paul confirmed Moy’s memory: “I had exclusive production on Stevie, but we were cold. I didn’t have no hits. I couldn’t think of nothing, and he couldn’t think of nothing.” Stevie embraced the new arrangement eagerly. He’d been writing songs for as long as he could remember, but as he entered his midteens, he was “becoming more and more myself. I would get ideas for tunes and spend a lot of time just making my music, messing around with a tape recorder and experimenting. There were a lot of things that I wanted to do musically that I wasn’t doing.”
Moy and Cosby had no problem letting Stevie set the creative course. As Cosby said, “We kind of clicked. Sometimes we’d come up with the idea. And then sometimes we’d come up with the music first, ’cause Stevie’s full of tunes. Oh man, he’s got tunes. The stuff he would throw away, another producer would go crazy to get.” Wonder was delighted to be in a situation that encouraged him to explore his overflowing imagination. “What would happen,” Wonder explained, “is Henry Cosby would do some writing with us, he would come up with a chord pattern for my melody, then maybe he’d help Sylvia Moy with the lyrics to the tune. Sylvia did a lot of writing on the early things. I would come up with the basic idea, maybe a punch line, and she would write the story. I would give her a tape of it. I write so many tunes in bits that I really don’t get the time to finish them all up, so I just give ’em to somebody to do.” Still serving as Wonder’s musical director on the road, Paul savored his young friend’s revitalization: “That music wanted out. He’d be making up those tunes all the time. He just sang whatever came straight from his head. And boy, did we dig it. It was like kind of a parlor game. We’d fall about laughing like we were crazy. But then that was a kind of brainstorming, if you know what I mean. Something always came out of the ‘sessions’ we did.”
Like “Fingertips, Part 2,” the song that resurrected Wonder’s career came about almost accidentally. Moy recalled sitting down with Wonder to consider the future: “I had a bag of songs at the time, but I told Stevie, ‘I want you to play everything, all of the little ditties you have, play them for me.’ He went through everything. He said, ‘That’s all I have,’ and I thought I was going to have to start working from my bag. I asked him, ‘Are you sure you don’t have anything else?’ He said, ‘No, not really, although I have got this one thing.’ He started singing and playing ‘Everything is alright, uptight,’ and that was as much as he had. I said, ‘That’s it. Let’s work with that.’ ”
When they finished working and released the record in December 1965, “Uptight” exploded with a funky, exuberant expression of the gospel vision. Paying Stevie’s debt to Ray Charles in full, the song’s celebration of redemptive love rang out in a stirring call and response with the chorus of voices that was transforming the American soundscape. The Beatles, whose early albums included covers of Motown hits “Money,” “You Really Got a Hold on Me,” and “Please Mister Postman,” had demonstrated they were much more than a passing pop fad with “Ticket to Ride,” “Help!”, and “Yesterday.” But in 1965 the Supremes were matching the Fab Four hit for hit, and the Temptations had finally broken out of the R&B ghetto with “My Girl” and “Get Ready”; Sam Cooke’s haunting response to Bob Dylan, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” mournfully testified to what might have been, while Dylan himself threw down the gauntlet to the folk-revival poets and his own past by plugging in his guitar and ripping out the “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” On “Satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones combined their roots in Chicago blues and Memphis R&B with a fierce existential anger.
Wonder loved it all and said he’d based “Uptight” in part on “Satisfaction.” As Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had done, Wonder placed an insistent rhythmic figure at the center of his summertime classic. But the contrast between the Stones’ declaration of disaffection and Wonder’s hosanna to the power of love speaks to the central importance of the gospel vision in African American culture. Most white rockers set themselves up in defiant opposition to the stifling worlds where they’d grown up. Wonder never gave a thought to rejecting his elders and ancestors. Backed by James Jamerson’s pulsing bass and Benny Benjamin’s thunderous drums, Wonder joyously declares himself a poor man’s son from the wrong side of the tracks. The tattered shirt on his back may be the only one he owns, but none of that matters as long as his love stays true. In a single line Wonder crystallizes the philosophy of the movement at its best: “No one is better than I, I know I’m just an average guy.” That’s “average” in a sense that Walt Whitman, bard of democracy and singer of his common extraordinary self, would have understood perfectly. Everything’s gonna be all right, Wonder assures his people. The affirming chorus of woos as the song fades out bears witness to the undying determination of the people who were shifting the center of the movement from the dusty backroads of the Delta to the concrete jungles of Newark, Watts, and the Motor City.
IN THE MID-SIXTIES, as the civil rights movement mantra “Freedom Now!” began to give way to uncompromising demands for “Black Power,” Curtis Mayfield reminded anyone within range of his gentle voice that calls for black autonomy and militant action were nothing new. If you’re looking for a three-word summation of what the gospel vision had to say, it’s hard to do better than “Keep On Pushing.” That’s why more than one veteran of the struggle has called the Impressions’ music “the soundtrack of the movement,” a title Mayfield appreciated but declined. “Somehow I’ve been getting a lot of credit for being the one who more or less laid the soundtrack for civil rights,” he said two years before his death. “I don’t know who even gave me that title. It’s not totally true, but I’m honored that some of my music could lock in with what was happening.” A central part of Mayfield’s ongoing soul sermon, “Keep On Pushing” infused the movement with the sounds Mayfield remembered from his grandmother’s Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church. “Gospel was your foundation,” he reflected, “and there’s been many a song coming from the black church. All you had to do was just change some few lyrics. With ‘Keep On Pushing,’ all I needed to do was change ‘God gave me strength, and it don’t make sense not to keep on pushing’ to ‘I’ve got my strength, and it don’t make sense.’ I’ve got my strength. Nothing else needed to be changed.”
No one fighting the good fight in Mississippi or Alabama or Chicago had any doubt what Mayfield was talking about in “Keep On Pushing” or “People Get Ready.” When he urged his people to “get ready for the train to Jordan,” he tapped in to the same energy that had powered the Underground Railroad’s sweet chariot. “I’ve Been Trying” and “You Must Believe Me” were vivid reminders of what tied the different strands of the movement together: love, the determination not to give in, a profound sense of connection, and the belief that somehow things would work out. That was why stalwart civil rights organizers Guy and Candie Carawan ended their songbook, Sing for Freedom,with the Chicago movement’s versions of Mayfield’s “Meeting Over Yonder,” “Keep On Pushing,” “Never Too Much Love,” and “People Get Ready.” Mayfield spoke equally clearly to proponents of Black Power. Overflowing with the joy of self-acceptance, “I’m So Proud” quietly affirmed the Black Power movement’s slogan “Black Is Beautiful.” In an essay demanding that black artists commit themselves to an explicitly revolutionary agenda, Black Power guru Amiri Baraka acknowledged that Mayfield’s songs “provided a core of legitimate social feeling though mainly metaphorical and allegorical.”
Mayfield hadn’t set out to compose musical manifestos. In the early sixties, he was primarily concerned with stabilizing his career. Attempting to follow up on the success of “Gypsy Woman,” the Impressions released a series of singles, all of them recorded in New York, all of which failed to chart: “Minstrel and Queen,” “Never Let Me Go,” “Sad, Sad Girl and Boy,” “I’m the One Who Loves You,” and “Grow Closer Together.” Providing a taste of the sweet soul of Mayfield’s mature work, the last two deserved a better commercial fate. Frustrated with the lack of popular success, founding members Richard and Arthur Brooks left the group in 1962, leaving a trio consisting of Mayfield, Sam Gooden, and Fred Cash. The new format fit Mayfield’s needs perfectly. Returning to their original recording base in Chicago, the Impressions recorded the first of their movement classics, “It’s All Right.” Mayfield’s friend and music historian Johnny Meadows provided a perfect description of the group’s classic sound. “You’ve got this background with Sam and Fred, high voices and happy trumpets, every instrument used elaborately in addition to Curtis’s left-handed guitar,” Meadows said. “It was the happy horns over the rhythms on ‘Amen’ and ‘It’s All Right.’ It was a very bright happy sound.” Okeh’s Carl Davis pinned down the appeal that guaranteed the Impressions’ R&B success even when the crossover audience stayed away: “I always felt we were a little bit of the South and a little bit of the North combined.” Eddie Thomas hit the next point hard: “And lots of gospel.”
The gospel elements shone through in part because of arranger Johnny Pate, one of the unsung heroes of Chicago soul. Mayfield fully appreciated Pate’s contributions: “He was a musician’s musician. He wrote great blues from way back, was an upright bass player, and an arranger. That was my first introduction to arranging; everything prior to that, we’d just try to nail the rhythm and get it through. But Johnny gave me my first encounter with real arranging, and along with Riley Hampton, who I used on the first Curtis album, he was the love of my life as far as real arrangers go.” After Mayfield provided the melody and chord changes, Carl Davis recalled, Pate would take over: “I would sit there and would say I wanted such and such beat. Basically I was following Curtis’s lead on his guitar. I wouldn’t write it; I would play back the song as written and then we would take the guitar parts and turn them into various instruments—this might be horns, that might be something else. You gave Pate the basics and let him do it.” No song showcases Pate’s arranging brilliance better than “Amen,” which had originally been sung by Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field. Featuring a majestic horn introduction, Pate organizes the song around a series of call-and-response patterns, between individual voices and harmonizing group, between horn section and vocal lines. When Mayfield calls out “Keep On Pushing” as the song begins to fade, Pate’s arrangement offers a clear “Amen.”
Complementing the call-and-response arrangements, the Impressions’ vocal style set Chicago soul apart from the sounds coming out of Motown or Memphis. Describing the switch-off singing that made the new three-man Impressions’ sound so distinctive, Mayfield reflected on the style’s origins. “There was nothing original about it if you ever sang gospel,” he said. “In gospel, you knew how to sing lead and also how to incorporate yourself into the group, how to blend in. Sometimes everyone would come out and sing harmony with a portion of the lead. It made us [as] a three-man group stronger than we were as a five-man group. It locks everybody in; you really know where the voices are. When you have four or five men, if one moves up, the other doesn’t know where to go.”
The elements of the style first assumed their classic form on “It’s All Right.” Built on a deep gospel foundation, “It’s All Right” radiates with the love and reassurance that held the movement together even when it seemed like nothing was working out right. Mayfield credited Fred Cash with the inspiration for the song. “We were in Nashville, Tennessee, at a gig; we’d already done the first set, and we had about an hour before the second,” Mayfield recounted. “It was a nice warm night, and we went out front of the club and were sitting in our station wagon—myself, Fred, and Samuel Gooden. I got to talking and running off at the mouth and just dreaming about ideas and things that might happen to us in the future. Fred kept answering back to me, ‘Well, all right, well, that’s all right,’ you know. Before I knew it, it rang in my head. We had a real hook line, ‘It’s All Right,’ so I said, ‘Say it’s all right.’ Before we knew it, we had actually written two-thirds of that tune right there in the car! We could have gone onstage for the next show and sung it.” “It’s All Right” demonstrated both the group’s crossover appeal and its special connection with black audiences, reaching number four on the pop charts and giving them their first R&B number one. The follow-ups, “Talking About My Baby” and “I’m So Proud,” reached the Top Fifteen on both charts. The romantic glow of the Impressions’ breakthrough hits reflected the change in Mayfield’s personal life. Following his breakup with his first wife, he began a long-term relationship with his future wife Altheida Sims, the mother of six of his ten children. He was proud, happy, and looking ahead.
If the singles mapped a clear path, the group’s first albums reflect an uncertainty about creative direction and marketing strategy that would continue throughout their years with ABC-Paramount. Released in 1963 to capitalize on the success of “It’s All Right,” their self-titled debut album collects their singles from “Gypsy Woman” up to “I’m So Proud.” The Never-Ending Impressions, released in early 1964, suggests that the Impressions, like the Sam Cooke who could release the uninspired Live at the Copa at the same time he was writing soul classics like “Bring It On Home to Me,” aspired to the Las Vegas lounge circuit. “I’m So Proud” strikes a discordant note in a set that includes Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” and a cover of the Trini Lopez hit “Lemon Tree.”
The next two albums, Keep On Pushing (August 1964) and People Get Ready (March 1965), became Chicago-soul classics. Like Motown, Mayfield was primarily concerned with hit singles at the time, but he was delighted with the records’ success on the album chart, where they reached numbers eight and twenty-three respectively. Inexplicably, ABC-Paramount followed up in September 1965 by releasing One by One, another doomed lunge for the Vegas market. Introduced by a trumpet fanfare worthy of an Academy Awards gala, the album opens with a remake of the Platters’ “Twilight Time” and lurches through a set of Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin, and Nat King Cole covers that would have bored Dean Martin’s dullest fans. As long as the Impressions stayed with ABC-Paramount, the problem with mediocre material would remain. The Fabulous Impressions (1967) and We’re a Winner (1968) serve up a confusing combination of current singles, songs from Mayfield’s back catalog, many of which had been recorded by other Chicago artists, and supper-club fare like “Up, Up and Away.” An uncharitable, if insightful, observer might well have wondered whether Mayfield was merely playing out the string waiting for the ABC contract to expire.
Keep On Pushing and People Get Ready had established that Mayfield was capable of making albums that were more than showcases for hit singles. Together those two albums sum up the state of Chicago soul at the fateful moment when the movement was plotting its campaign in the city Martin Luther King called “the Birmingham of the North.” Setting up a chorus of responses to the calls of the title cuts, both albums explore the emotions that ebbed and flowed with the movement’s breakthroughs and setbacks. Each album side opens with a popular hit—“Keep On Pushing” and “Amen” on the first, “Woman’s Got Soul” and “People Get Ready” on the second. But what makes them memorable albums is the way the songs echo and comment on one another in ways that erased the line between personal and political concerns. Listeners were free to respond to the romantic lyrics in their own terms, but they could also hear them as masked commentaries on the relationship between black and white America. Mayfield’s plea for “some kind of answer” in “Sometimes I Wonder” and his weary vow to “keep on trying” in “I’ve Been Trying” echoed the feelings of black integrationists frustrated by their untrustworthy white allies. Similarly, “Woman’s Got Soul” made sense as a message from the ghetto to the black elite. Casting himself as a regular fellow who “don’t need much,” Mayfield issued a gentle corrective to his compatriots who had trouble distinguishing between superficial “class” and real soul.
It wasn’t necessary to hear the songs as political allegories to feel their political impact. Aware that the meaning of songs came as much from the audience’s response as from the artist’s call, Mayfield addressed the feelings that flowed through the souls of the movement’s foot soldiers as they went about the mundane details of everyday life between marches and rallies. Echoing “It’s All Right,” “Get Up and Move,” “We’re in Love,” and “Talking About My Baby” affirmed that as long as you kept faith with the gospel vision, it was all right to let the good times roll. But he also spoke to the doubt and despair that could destroy the movement as surely as they could rip apart a romance. “I Made a Mistake” acknowledges that it’s not enough to point your finger at someone else when things go wrong. Comes a time, Mayfield sings sadly, when all you can do is come correct and do your best not to keep on making the same mistake. Looking at a similar situation from a different angle, “You Must Believe Me” warns against the doubters and liars and urges those who have fallen away to come back to the fold. It was as if Mayfield had found a way to bring the feel of his grandmother’s church into a pop format. Like the members of the congregation, each song tells a personal story and commands interest on its own. But just as the individual voices combined into something more powerful at Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church, the strength of the albums comes from the way the songs coalesce into a portrait of a community that is both determined to move ahead and aware that the journey will not be easy.
Mayfield’s reminder that it was a shared story resonated deeply in his hometown, where the intractable resistance to the movement was bearing out the wisdom of Bayard Rustin’s warning to King. When King first told Rustin of his plans, the movement elder responded sharply: “You don’t know what Chicago is like. You’re going to get wiped out.” Although King declared a face-saving victory in August 1966, the words of Hosea Williams, who had been rebuffed in efforts to establish neighborhood voter registration centers, provided a grimly fitting epitaph for the Chicago movement: “They wouldn’t even give us what we got in Birmingham.”
King’s difficulties began almost immediately. Mayor Richard Daley met the movement with soft words and Machiavellian maneuvers. Welcoming King to Chicago, he solemnly intoned, “All of us are trying to eliminate slums.” But as Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor report in their magnificent American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley, His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, the movement severely underestimated Daley’s ability to divide and conquer. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had not anticipated “the opposition it would face from significant parts of the black community,” Cohen and Taylor write. “Chicago was the first city that we ever went to as members of the SCLC staff where the black ministers and black politicians told us to go back where we came from,” recalled SCLC staff member Dorothy Tillman. “Dr. King would frequently say to me, ‘You ain’t never seen no Negroes like this, have you, Dorothy?’ I would reply, ‘No, Reverend.’ He said, ‘Boy if we could crack these Chicago Negroes we can crack anything.’ ”
They couldn’t. Supported by the black political submachine, Daley simply employed the machine’s standard tactics. If a minister offered anything more than rhetorical support to the Chicago movement, the city would dispatch inspectors with the power to condemn church property. If a businessman backed King, city permits or garbage collection would become a problem for him. Faced with a choice between supporting King and accepting grants to continue their programs, most neighborhood activists took the money. When the Chicago movement announced plans for mass marches targeting open housing, Daley got a court order restricting it to one march a day with no more than five hundred participants. At the height of tension in Selma, the Alabama courts had denied Governor George Wallace’s request for a similar injunction. As Cohen and Taylor observe, “The streets of Alabama, it turned out, were freer for civil rights demonstrations than the streets of Chicago.” When King joined Andrew Young and Mahalia Jackson on a march into the Marquette Park neighborhood, he was met by a crowd waving Confederate flags and “Wallace for President” signs. George Lincoln Rockwell’s American Nazi Party never found itself so close to the mainstream. When a fist-sized rock dropped King to the pavement, many black Chicagoans took it as conclusive evidence that civil rights had failed. Some shifted their allegiance to the Chicago-based Nation of Islam or charismatic militant leaders like Stokely Carmichael. Others, in Chicago and elsewhere, took to the streets. The summer of 1966 was long and hot in America’s cities. Nineteen sixty-seven would be longer, hotter, and even more violent. Redemption seemed a long way off.
Through it all Curtis Mayfield kept faith with the gospel vision. No song bore witness to the movement’s trials with greater depth than “People Get Ready,” which Mayfield said he wrote “in a deep mood, a spiritual state of mind.” As close to pure gospel as anything that ever made the pop charts, “People Get Ready” brought the call-and-response voice of the movement to the Top Twenty in 1965. From the opening bars—a gospel hum carried along by bells, Pate’s beautiful horn chart, and Mayfield’s delicately syncopated guitar chording—the song pours a healing vision over a nation poised on the brink of chaos. Even as it singles out “the hopeless sinner who would hurt all mankind just to save his own,” the song welcomes anyone willing to do the right thing onto the “train to Jordan.” Casting his lot with “those whose chances grow thinner,” Mayfield warns that “there’s no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne.” Within months of the song’s release, the Chicago movement was including a reworked version in the songbooks it distributed at churches and neighborhood centers throughout the city. Proclaiming “there’s no hiding place when the movement comes,” the new version dismissed the “Toms or any sorry Negroes, comin’ to me saying they won’t go.” The Impressions ended the song with the soothing promise, “You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.” The movement rephrased it, “Everybody wants freedom, this I know.” Either way, when the final strains of “People Get Ready” faded to silence, you could almost believe that, despite what was happening on the streets of Chicago and Detroit, the promise of the movement would be fulfilled.