Episode 124 of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at “People Get Ready”, the Impressions, and the early career of Curtis Mayfield. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a twenty-minute bonus episode available, on “I’m Henry VIII I Am” by Herman’s Hermits.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt’s irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
As usual, I’ve created a Mixcloud playlist, with full versions of all the songs excerpted in this episode.
A lot of resources were used for this episode.
Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs by Guy and Candie Carawan is a combination oral history of the Civil Rights movement and songbook.
Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power by Aaron Cohen is a history of Chicago soul music and the way it intersected with politics.
Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield by Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria is a biography of Mayfield by one of his sons, and rather better than one might expect given that.
Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul by Craig Werner looks at the parallels and divergences in the careers of its three titular soul stars.
This compilation has a decent selection of recordings Mayfield wrote and produced for other artists on OKeh in the early sixties.
This single-CD set of Jerry Butler recordings contains his Impressions recordings as well as several songs written or co-written by Mayfield.
This double-CD of Major Lance’s recordings contains all the hits Mayfield wrote for him.
And this double-CD collection has all the Impressions’ singles from 1961 through 1968.
This podcast is brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?
A couple of episodes ago we had a look at one of the first classic protest songs of the soul genre. Today we’re going to look at how Sam Cooke’s baton was passed on to another generation of soul singer/songwriters, and at one of the greatest songwriters of that generation. We’re going to look at the early career of Curtis Mayfield, and at “People Get Ready” by the Impressions:
[Excerpt: The Impressions, “People Get Ready”]
A quick note before I start this one — there is no way in this episode of avoiding dealing with the fact that the Impressions’ first hit with a Curtis Mayfield lead vocal has, in its title, a commonly used word for Romany people beginning with “g” that many of those people regard as a slur — while others embrace the term for themselves. I’ve thought long and hard about how to deal with this, and the compromise I’ve come up with is that I will use excerpts from the song, which will contain that word, but I won’t use the word myself. I’m not happy with that compromise, but it’s the best I can do. It’s unfortunate that that word turns up a *lot* in music in the period I’m covering — it’s basically impossible to avoid. Anyway, on with the show…
Curtis Mayfield is one of those musicians who this podcast will almost by definition underserve — my current plan is to do a second episode on him, but if this was a thousand-song podcast he would have a *lot* more than just two episodes. He was one of the great musical forces of the sixties and seventies, and listeners to the Patreon bonus episodes will already have come across him several times before, as he was one of those musicians who becomes the centre of a whole musical scene, writing and producing for most of the other soul musicians to come out of Chicago in the late fifties and early 1960s.
Mayfield grew up in Chicago, in the kind of poverty that is, I hope, unimaginable to most of my listeners. He had to become “the man of the house” from age five, looking after his younger siblings as his mother went out looking for work, as his father abandoned his family, moved away, and changed his name. His mother was on welfare for much of the time, and Mayfield’s siblings have talked about how their special Christmas meal often consisted of cornbread and syrup, and they lived off beans, rice, and maybe a scrap of chicken neck every two weeks. They were so hungry so often that they used to make a game of it — drinking water until they were full, and then making sloshing noises with their bellies, laughing at them making noises other than rumbling.
But while his mother was poor, Mayfield saw that there was a way to escape from poverty. Specifically, he saw it in his paternal grandmother, the Reverend A.B. Mayfield, a Spiritualist priest, who was the closest thing to a rich person in his life. For those who don’t know what Spiritualism is, it’s one of the many new religious movements that sprouted up in the Northeastern US in the mid to late nineteenth centuries, like the Holiness Movement (which became Pentecostalism), the New Thought, Christian Science, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Spiritualists believe, unlike mainstream Christianity, that it is possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead, and that those spirits can provide information about the afterlife, and about the nature of God and angels. If you’ve ever seen, either in real life or in a fictional depiction, a medium communicating with spirits through a seance, that’s spiritualism.
There are numbers of splinter spiritualist movements, and the one Reverend Mayfield, and most Black American Spiritualists at this time, belonged to was one that used a lot of elements of Pentecostalism and couched its teachings in the Bible — to an outside observer not conversant with the theology, it might seem no different from any other Black church of the period, other than having a woman in charge. But most other churches would not have been funded by their presiding minister’s winnings from illegal gambling, as she claimed to have the winning numbers in the local numbers racket come to her in dreams, and won often enough that people believed her.
Reverend Mayfield’s theology also incorporated elements from the Nation of Islam, which at that time was growing in popularity, and was based in Chicago.
Chicago was also the home of gospel music — it was where Sister Rosetta Tharpe had got her start and where Mahalia Jackson and Thomas Dorsey and the Soul Stirrers were all based — and so of course Reverend Mayfield’s church got its own gospel quartet, the Northern Jubilee Singers. They modelled themselves explicitly on the Soul Stirrers, who at the time were led by Sam Cooke:
[Excerpt: The Soul Stirrers, “Jesus Gave Me Water”]
Curtis desperately wanted to join the Northern Jubilee Singers, and particularly admired their lead singer, Jerry Butler, as well as being a huge fan of their inspiration Sam Cooke. But he was too young — he was eight years old, and the group members were twelve and thirteen, an incommensurable gap at that age.
So Curtis couldn’t join the Jubilee singers, but he kept trying to perform, and not just with gospel — as well as gospel, Chicago was also the home of electric blues, being where Chess Records was based, and young Curtis Mayfield was surrounded by the music of people like Muddy Waters:
[Excerpt: Muddy Waters, “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”]
And so as well as singing gospel songs, he started singing and playing the blues, inspired by Waters, Little Walter, and other Chess acts.
His first instrument was the piano, and young Curtis found that he naturally gravitated to the black keys — he liked the sound of those best, and didn’t really like playing the white keys. I won’t get into the music theory too much here, but the black keys on a piano make what is called a pentatonic scale — a five-note scale that is actually the basis for most folk music forms, whether Celtic folk, Indian traditional music, the blues, bluegrass, Chinese traditional music… pentatonic scales have been independently invented by almost every culture, and you might think of them as the “natural” music, what people default to. The black notes on the piano make that scale in the key of F#:
[Excerpt: pentatonic scale in F#]
The notes in that are F#, G#, A#, C#, and D#.
When young Curtis found a guitar in his grandmother’s closet, he didn’t like the way it sounded — if you strum the open strings of a guitar they don’t make a chord (well, every combination of notes is a chord, but they don’t make one most people think of as pleasant) — the standard guitar tuning is E, A, D, G, B, E. Little Curtis didn’t like this sound, so he retuned the guitar to F#, A#, C#, F#, A#, F# — notes from the chord of F#, and all of them black keys on the piano.
Now, tuning a guitar to open chords is a fairly standard thing to do — guitarists as varied as Keith Richards, Steve Cropper, and Dolly Parton tune their guitars to open chords — but doing it to F# is something that pretty much only Mayfield ever did, and it meant his note choices were odd ones. He would later say with pride that he used to love it when other guitarists picked up his guitar, because no matter how good they were they couldn’t play on his instrument.
He quickly became extremely proficient as a blues guitarist, and his guitar playing soon led the Northern Jubilee Singers to reconsider having him in the band. By the time he was eleven he was a member of the group and travelling with them to gospel conventions all over the US.
But he had his fingers in multiple musical pies — he formed a blues group, who would busk outside the pool-hall where his uncle was playing, and he also formed a doo-wop group, the Alphatones, who became locally popular.
Jerry Butler, the Jubilee Singers’ lead vocalist, had also joined a doo-wop group — a group called the Roosters, who had moved up to Chicago from Chattanooga. Butler was convinced that to make the Roosters stand out, they needed a guitarist like Mayfield, but Mayfield at first remained uninterested — he already had his own group, the Alphatones. Butler suggested that Mayfield should rehearse with both groups, three days a week each, and then stick with the group that was better. Soon Mayfield found himself a full-time member of the Roosters.
In 1957, when Curtis was fifteen, the group entered a talent contest at a local school, headlined by the Medallionaires, a locally-popular group who had released a single on Mercury, “Magic Moonlight”:
[Excerpt: The Medallionaires, “Magic Moonlight”]
The Medallionaires’ manager, Eddie Thomas, had been around the music industry since he was a child – his stepfather had been the great blues pianist Big Maceo Merriweather, who had made records like “Worried Life Blues”:
[Excerpt: Big Maceo Merriweather, “Worried Life Blues”]
Thomas hadn’t had any success in the industry yet, but at this talent contest, the Roosters did a close-harmony version of Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me”, and Thomas decided that they had potential, especially Mayfield and Butler. He signed them to a management contract, but insisted they changed their name. They cast around for a long time to find something more suitable, and eventually decided on The Impressions, because they’d made such an impression on Thomas.
The group were immediately taken by Thomas on a tour of the large indie labels, and at each one they sang a song that members of the group had written, which was inspired by a song called “Open Our Eyes” by the Gospel Clefs:
[Excerpt: The Gospel Clefs, “Open Our Eyes”]
Herman Lubinsky at Savoy liked the song, and suggested that Jerry speak-sing it, which was a suggestion the group took up, but he passed on them. So did Ralph Bass at King. Mercury Records gave them some session work, but weren’t able to sign the group themselves — the session was with the big band singer Eddie Howard, singing backing vocals on a remake of “My Last Goodbye”, a song he’d recorded multiple times before. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to track down a copy of that recording, the Impressions’ first, only Howard’s other recordings of the song.
Eventually, the group got the interest of a tiny label called Bandera, whose owner Vi Muszynski was interested — but she had to get the approval of Vee-Jay Records, the larger label that distributed Bandera’s records.
Vee-Jay was a very odd label. It was one of a tiny number of Black-owned record labels in America at the time, and possibly the biggest of them, and it’s interesting to compare them to Chess Records, which was based literally across the road. Both put out R&B records, but Chess was white-owned and specialised in hardcore Chicago electric blues — Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter and so on.
Vee-Jay, on the other hand, certainly put out its fair share of that kind of music, but they also put out a lot of much smoother doo-wop and early soul, and they would have their biggest hits a few years after this, not with blues artists, but with the Four Seasons, and with their licensing of British records by Frank Ifield and the Beatles. Both Vee-Jay and Chess were aiming at a largely Black market, but Black-owned Vee-Jay was much more comfortable with white pop acts than white-owned Chess.
Muszynski set up an audition with Calvin Carter, the head of A&R at Vee-Jay, and selected the material the group were to perform for Carter — rather corny songs the group were not at all comfortable with. They ran through that repertoire, and Carter said they sounded good but didn’t they have any originals? They played a couple of originals, and Carter wasn’t interested in those.
Then Carter had a thought — did they have any songs they felt ashamed of playing for him? Something that they didn’t normally do?
They did — they played that song that the group had written, the one based on “Open Our Eyes”. It was called “For Your Precious Love”, and Carter immediately called in another group, the Spaniels, who were favourites of the Impressions and had had hits with records like “Goodnite Sweetheart Goodnite”:
[Excerpt: The Spaniels, “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite”]
Carter insisted on the Impressions singing their song for the Spaniels, and Butler in particular was very worried — he assumed that Carter just wanted to take their song and give it to the bigger group. But after they played the song again, the Spaniels all enthused about how great the Impressions were and what a big hit the Impressions were going to have with the song. They realised that Carter just *really liked* them and the song, and wanted to show them off.
The group went into the studio, and recorded half a dozen takes of “For Your Precious Love”, but none of them came off correctly. Eventually Carter realised what the problem was — Mayfield wasn’t a member of the musicians’ union, and so Carter had hired session guitarists, but they couldn’t play the song the way Mayfield did. Eventually, Carter got the guitarists to agree to take the money, not play, and not tell the union if he got Mayfield to play on the track instead of them. After that, they got it in two takes:
[Excerpt: Jerry Butler and the Impressions, “For Your Precious Love”]
When it came out, the record caused a major problem for the group, because they discovered when they saw the label that it wasn’t credited to “The Impressions”, but to “Jerry Butler and the Impressions”. The label had decided that they were going to follow the strategy that had worked for so many acts before — put out records credited to “Singer and Group”, and then if they were successful develop that into two separate acts.
To his credit, Butler immediately insisted that the record company get the label reprinted, but Vee-Jay said that wasn’t something they could do. It was too late, the record was going out as Jerry Butler and the Impressions and that was an end to it.
The group were immediately put on the promotional circuit — there was a rumour that Roy Hamilton, the star who had had hits with “Unchained Melody” and “Ebb Tide”, was going to put out a cover version, as the song was perfectly in his style, and so the group needed to get their version known before he could cut his cover.
They travelled to Philadelphia, where they performed for the DJ Georgie Woods. We talked about Woods briefly last episode — he was the one who would later coin the term “blue-eyed soul” to describe the Righteous Brothers — and Woods was also the person who let Dick Clark know what the important Black records were, so Clark could feature them on his show. Woods started to promote the record, and suddenly Jerry Butler and the Impressions were huge — “For Your Precious Love” made number three on the R&B charts and number eleven on the pop charts.
Their next session produced another hit, “Come Back My Love”, although that only made the R&B top thirty and was nowhere near as big a hit:
[Excerpt: Jerry Butler and the Impressions, “Come Back My Love”]
That would be the last time the original lineup of the Impressions would record together. Shortly afterwards, before a gig in Texas, Jerry Butler called the President of the record label to sort out a minor financial problem. Once the problem had been sorted out, the president put the phone down, but then one of the other Impressions, Arthur Brooks, asked if he could have a word. Butler explained that the other person had hung up, and Brooks went ballistic, saying that Butler thought he was in charge, and thought that he could do all the talking for the group. Well, if he thought that, he could do all the singing too. Brooks and his brother Richard weren’t going on stage. Sam Gooden said he wasn’t going on either — he’d been an original Rooster with the Brooks brothers before Butler had joined the group, and he was siding with them.
That left Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield said he was still going on stage, because he wanted to get paid. The group solidarity having crumbled, Gooden changed his mind and said he might as well go on with them, so Butler, Mayfield, and Gooden went on as a trio. Butler noticed that the audience didn’t notice a difference — they literally didn’t know the Brooks brothers existed — and that was the point at which he decided to go solo.
The Impressions continued without Butler, with Mayfield, Gooden, and the Brooks brothers recruiting Fred Cash, who had sung with the Roosters when they were still in Tennessee. Mayfield took over the lead vocals and soon started attracting the same resentment that Butler had. Vee-Jay dropped the Impressions, and they started looking round for other labels and working whatever odd jobs they could.
Mayfield did get some work from Vee-Jay, though, working as a session player on records by people like Jimmy Reed. There’s some question about which sessions Mayfield actually played — I’ve seen conflicting information in different sessionographies — but it’s at least possible that Mayfield’s playing on Reed’s most famous record, “Baby What You Want Me to Do”:
[Excerpt: Jimmy Reed, “Baby What You Want Me to Do”]
And one of Mayfield’s friends, a singer called Major Lance, managed to get himself a one-off single deal with Mercury Records after becoming a minor celebrity as a dancer on a TV show. Mayfield wrote that one single, though it wasn’t a hit:
[Excerpt: Major Lance, “I Got a Girl”]
Someone else who wasn’t having hits was Jerry Butler. By late 1960 it had been two years since “For Your Precious Love” and Butler hadn’t made the Hot One Hundred in that time, though he’d had a few minor R&B hits. He was playing the chitlin’ circuit, and in the middle of a tour, his guitarist quit. Butler phoned Mayfield, who had just received a four hundred dollar tax bill he couldn’t pay — a lot of money for an unemployed musician in 1960. Mayfield immediately joined Butler’s band to pay off his back taxes, and he also started writing songs with Butler. “He Will Break Your Heart”, a collaboration between the two (with Calvin Carter also credited), made the top ten on the pop chart and number one on the R&B chart:
[Excerpt: Jerry Butler, “He Will Break Your Heart”]
Even more important for Mayfield than writing a top ten hit, though, was his experience playing for Butler at the Harlem Apollo. Not because of the shows themselves, but because playing a residency in New York allowed him to hang out at the Turf, a restaurant near the Brill Building where all the songwriters would hang out. Or, more specifically, where all the *poorer* songwriters would hang out — the Turf did roast beef sandwiches for fifty cents if you ate standing at the counter rather than seated at a table, and it also had twenty payphones, so all those songwriters who didn’t have their own offices would do their business from the phone booths.
Mayfield would hang out there to learn the secrets of the business, and that meant he learned the single most important lesson there is — keep your own publishing. These writers, some of whom had written many hit songs, were living off twenty-five-dollar advances while the publishing companies were making millions. Mayfield also discovered that Sam Cooke, the man he saw as the model for how his career should go, owned his own publishing company. So he did some research, found out that it didn’t actually cost anything to start up a publishing company, and started his own, Curtom, named as a portmanteau of his forename and the surname of Eddie Thomas, the Impressions’ manager.
While the Impressions’ career was in the doldrums, Thomas, too, had been working for Butler, as his driver and valet, and he and Mayfield became close, sharing costs and hotel rooms in order to save money. Mayfield not only paid his tax bill, but by cutting costs everywhere he could he saved up a thousand dollars, which he decided to use to record a song he’d written specifically for the Impressions, not for Butler.
(This is the song I mentioned at the beginning with the potential slur in the title. If you don’t want to hear that, skip forward thirty seconds now):
[Excerpt: The Impressions, “Gypsy Woman”]
That track got the Impressions signed to ABC/Paramount records, and it made the top twenty on the pop charts and sold half a million copies, thanks once again to promotion from Georgie Woods. But once again, the follow-ups flopped badly, and the Brooks brothers quit the group, because they wanted to be doing harder-edged R&B in the mould of Little Richard, Hank Ballard, and James Brown, not the soft melodic stuff that Mayfield was writing.
The Impressions continued as a three-piece group, and Mayfield would later say that this had been the making of them. A three-part harmony group allowed for much more spontaneity and trading of parts, for the singers to move freely between lead and backing vocals and to move into different parts of their ranges, where when they had been a five-piece group everything had been much more rigid, as if a singer moved away from his assigned part, he would find himself clashing with another singer’s part.
But as the group were not having hits, Mayfield was still looking for other work, and he found it at OKeh Records, which was going through something of a boom in this period thanks to the producer Carl Davis. Davis took Mayfield on as an associate producer and right-hand man, primarily in order to get him as a guitarist, but Mayfield was also a valuable talent scout, backing vocalist, and especially songwriter. Working with Davis and arranger Johnny Pate, between 1963 and 1965 Mayfield wrote and played on a huge number of R&B hits for OKeh, including “It’s All Over” by Walter Jackson:
[Excerpt: Walter Jackson, “It’s All Over”]
“Gonna Be Good Times” for Gene Chandler:
[Excerpt: Gene Chandler, “Gonna Be Good Times”]
And a whole string of hits for Jerry Butler’s brother Billy and his group The Enchanters, starting with “Gotta Get Away”:
[Excerpt: Billy Butler and the Enchanters, “Gotta Get Away”]
But the real commercial success came from Mayfield’s old friend Major Lance, who Mayfield got signed to OKeh. Lance had several minor hits written by Mayfield, but his big success came with a song that Mayfield had written for the Impressions, but decided against recording with them, as it was a novelty dance song and he didn’t think that they should be doing that kind of material. The Impressions sang backing vocals on Major Lance’s “The Monkey Time”, written by Mayfield, which became a top ten pop hit:
[Excerpt: Major Lance, “The Monkey Time”]
Mayfield would write several more hits for Major Lance, including the one that became his biggest hit, “Um Um Um Um Um Um”, which went top five pop and made number one on the R&B charts:
[Excerpt: Major Lance, “Um Um Um Um Um Um (Curious Mind)”]
So Mayfield was making hits for other people at a furious rate, but he was somehow unable to have hits with his own group. He was still pushing the Impressions, but they had to be a weekend commitment — the group would play gigs all over the country at weekends, but Monday through Friday Mayfield was in the studio cutting hits for other people — and he was also trying to keep up a relationship not only with his wife and first child, but with the woman who would become his second wife, with whom he was cheating on his first. He was young enough that he could just about keep this up — he was only twenty at this point, though he was already a veteran of the music industry — but it did mean that the Impressions were a lower priority than they might have been.
At least, they were until, in August 1963, between those two huge Major Lance hits, Curtis Mayfield finally wrote another big hit for the Impressions — their first in their new three-piece lineup. Everyone could tell “It’s All Right” was a hit, and Gene Chandler begged to be allowed to record it, but Mayfield insisted that his new song was for his group:
[Excerpt: The Impressions, “It’s All Right”]
“It’s All Right” went to number four on the pop chart, and number one R&B. And this time, the group didn’t mess up the follow-up. Their next two singles, “Talking About My Baby” and “I’m So Proud”, both made the pop top twenty, and the Impressions were now stars.
Mayfield also took a trip to Jamaica around this time, with Carl Davis, to produce an album of Jamaican artists, titled “The Real Jamaica Ska”, featuring acts like Lord Creator and Jimmy Cliff:
[Excerpt: Jimmy Cliff, “Ska All Over the World”]
But Mayfield was also becoming increasingly politically aware. As the Civil Rights movement in the US was gaining steam, it was also starting to expose broader systemic problems that affected Black people in the North, not just the South. In Chicago, while Black people had been able to vote for decades, and indeed were a substantial political power block, all that this actually meant in practice was that a few powerful self-appointed community leaders had a vested interest in keeping things as they were. Segregation still existed — in 1963, around the time that “It’s All Right” came out, there was a school strike in the city, where nearly a quarter of a million children refused to go to school. Black schools were so overcrowded that it became impossible for children to learn there, but rather than integrate the schools and let Black kids go to the less-crowded white schools, the head of public education in Chicago decided instead to make the children go to school in shifts, so some were going ridiculously early in the morning while others were having to go to school in the evening.
And there were more difficult arguments going on around segregation among Black people in Chicago. The issues in the South seemed straightforward in comparison — no Black person wanted to be lynched or to be denied the right to vote. But in Chicago there was the question of integrating the two musicians’ union chapters in the city. Some Black proponents of integration saw merging the two union chapters as a way for Black musicians to get the opportunity to play lucrative sessions for advertising jingles and so on, which only went to white players. But a vocal minority of musicians were convinced that the upshot of integrating the unions would be that Black players would still be denied those jobs, but white players would start getting some of the soul and R&B sessions that only Black players were playing, and thought that the end result would be that white people would gentrify those areas of music and culture where Black people had carved out spaces for themselves, while still denying Black people the opportunity to move into the white spaces.
Mayfield was deeply, deeply, invested in the Civil Rights movement, and the wider discourse as more radical voices started to gain strength in the movement. And he was particularly inspired by his hero, Sam Cooke, recording “A Change is Gonna Come”. As the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement was so deeply rooted in religious language, it was natural that Mayfield would turn to the gospel music he’d grown up on for his own first song about these issues, “Keep on Pushing”:
[Excerpt: The Impressions, “Keep on Pushing”]
That became another huge hit, making the top ten on the pop chart and number one on the R&B chart.
It’s instructive to look at reactions to the Impressions, and to Mayfield’s sweet, melodic, singing. White audiences were often dismissive of the Impressions, believing they were attempting to sell out to white people and were therefore not Black enough — a typical reaction is that of Arnold Shaw, the white music writer, who in 1970 referred to the Impressions as Oreos — a derogatory term for people who are “Black on the outside, white inside”.
Oddly, though, Black audiences seem not to have recognised the expertise of elderly white men on who was Black enough, and despite white critics’ protestations continued listening to and buying the Impressions’ records, and incorporating Mayfield’s songs into their activism. For example, Sing For Freedom, a great oral-history-cum-songbook which collects songs sung by Civil Rights activists, collected contemporaneously by folklorists, has no fewer than four Impressions songs included, in lightly adapted versions, as sung by the Chicago Freedom Movement, the group led by Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and others, who campaigned for an end to housing segregation in Chicago. It quotes Jimmy Collier, a Black civil rights activist and folk singer, saying “There’s a rock ’n’ roll group called the Impressions and we call them ‘movement fellows’ and we try to sing a lot of their songs. Songs like ‘Keep On Pushin’,’ ‘I Been Trying,’ ‘I’m So Proud,’ ‘It’s Gonna Be a Long, Long Winter,’ ‘People Get Ready, There’s a Train a-Comin’,’ ‘There’s a Meeting Over Yonder’ really speak to the situation a lot of us find ourselves in.”
I mention this discrepancy because this is something that comes up throughout music history — white people dismissing Black people as not being “Black enough” and trying to appeal to whites, even as Black audiences were embracing those artists in preference to the artists who had white people’s seal of approval as being authentically Black. I mention this because I am myself a white man, and it is very important for me to acknowledge that I will make similar errors when talking about Black culture, as I am here.
“Keep on Pushing” was the Impressions’ first political record, but by no means the most important. In 1965 the Civil Rights movement seemed to be starting to unravel, and there were increasing ruptures between the hardliners who would go on to form what would become the Black Power movement and the more moderate older generation. These ruptures were only exacerbated by the murder of Malcolm X, the most powerful voice on the radical side. Mayfield was depressed by this fragmentation, and wanted to write a song of hope, one that brought everyone together.
To see the roots of the song Mayfield came up with we have to go all the way back to episode five, and to “This Train”, the old gospel song which Rosetta Tharpe had made famous:
[Excerpt: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, “This Train (live)”]
The image of the train leading to freedom had always been a powerful one in Black culture, dating back to the Underground Railroad — the network of people who helped enslaved people flee their abusers and get away to countries where they could be free. It was also a particularly potent image for Black people in the northern cities, many of whom had travelled there by train from the South, or whose parents had.
Mayfield took the old song, and built a new song around it. His melody is closer than it might seem to that of “This Train”, but has a totally different sound and feeling, one of gentle hope rather than fervent excitement. And there’s a difference of emphasis in the lyrics too. “This Train”, as befits a singer like Tharpe who belonged to a Pentecostal “holiness” sect which taught the need for upright conduct at all times, is mostly a list of those sinners who won’t be allowed on the train. Mayfield, by contrast, had been brought up in a Spiritualist church, and one of the nine affirmations of Spiritualism is “We affirm that the doorway to reformation is never closed against any soul here or hereafter”. Mayfield’s song does talk about how “There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner, Whom would hurt all mankind just to save his own”, but the emphasis is on how “there’s hope for *all*, among those loved the most”, and how “you don’t need no baggage”, and “don’t need no ticket”. It’s a song which is fundamentally inclusive, offering a vision of hope and freedom in which all are welcome:
[Excerpt: The Impressions, “People Get Ready”]
The song quickly became one of the most important songs to the Civil Rights movement — Doctor King called it “the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement” — as well as becoming yet another big hit.
We will continue to explore the way Mayfield and the Impressions reacted to, were inspired by, and themselves inspired Black political movements when we look at them again, and their political importance was extraordinary. But this is a podcast about music, and so I’ll finish with a note about their musical importance.
As with many R&B acts, the Impressions were massive in Jamaica, and they toured there in 1966. In the front row when they played the Carib Theatre in Kingston were three young men who had recently formed a group which they had explicitly modelled on the Impressions and their three-part harmonies. That group had even taken advantage of Jamaica’s nonexistent copyright laws to incorporate a big chunk of “People Get Ready” into one of their own songs, which was included on their first album:
[Excerpt: The Wailers, “One Love (1965 version)”]
Bob Marley and the Wailers would soon become a lot more than an Impressions soundalike group, but that, of course, is a story for a future episode…