Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns
The Impressions' "People Get Ready" At 55: How Curtis Mayfield Created A Musical Balm For Black America
In August 1963, a throng of roughly 250,000 Americans, nearly 80 percent of them Black, marched on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., advocating for racial harmony and demanding economic equality. One month later, Ku Klux Klan members killed four young Black girls in the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala. Two years later, Malcolm X was assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Soon after, some 600 demonstrators marched across Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, to demand equal voting rights for Black people, only to be met by plumes of tear gas from police and law-enforcement officers as white spectators watched and jeered on the sidelines.
All of these events happened nearly 60 years ago. Today, as thousands of demonstrators around the world take to the streets and social media to protest the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, David McAtee and many other Black people at the hands of police, we'd be remiss to forget that America has been here before. But back in the days of Martin Luther King Jr., we had a multitude of musicians of color—John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin and many others—who compassionately commented on society's convulsions. One of the tenderest, most talented among them was Curtis Mayfield.
The singer, songwriter and guitarist is best known for his solo career throughout the 1970s—namely, his GRAMMY-nominated soundtrack to Gordon Parks Jr.'s 1972 blaxploitation classic, Super Fly. But his signature song is "People Get Ready," his gossamer 1965 ode to deliverance written for his launchpad group, The Impressions. Featuring a gospel lilt and drawing themes from his upbringing in his grandmother's Traveling Soul Spiritualists' Church, the beatific ballad faces down recent American nightmares and offers not the sword in return, but a safe passage to paradise.
Mayfield joined The Impressions in 1957, back when they were called The Roosters, alongside vocalists Sam Gooden, Jerry Butler, who would be replaced by Fred Cash the following year, and brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks. The group knocked out a rapid series of hits like 1958's "For Your Precious Love," 1961's "Gypsy Woman" and 1963's "It's All Right." Despite their accolades, their Blackness meant trouble for the group while touring through the Deep South.
"Oh lord, it was rough," Cash said in Traveling Soul: The Life Of Curtis Mayfield, the 2016 biography from Mayfield's son, Todd Mayfield. "We were just scared to death a lot of times," Cash said, recalling the hassles the group experienced with soundpeople and the police.
While staying in all-Black boarding houses, Curtis Mayfield often brooded alone and wrote while his bandmates went out celebrating. "I'd sit in my room and live through my own fantasies and write," he was quoted as saying in the book.
Despite the racism they faced, their hits were lucrative, especially the Mayfield-penned "It's All Right." "That song bought Sam's home, Curtis' home, and my home; we all bought homes off that song," Cash exclaimed in Traveling Soul. "By twenty-one, twenty-two years old, we all had our own homes and Cadillacs in the doggone garage."
Some activists took the song's affirmative lyrics—"Hum a little soul, make life your goal / And surely something's got to come to you"—as something more profound: a call to empowerment. This came as a surprise to its writer.
"My father didn't mean it that way," Todd stated in Traveling Soul. "He wasn't quite mature enough as an artist." Still, Mayfield didn't fight this reading; the song's countercultural ripple effect, however minor, expanded his mind. That same year, Bob Dylan released "Blowin' In The Wind," while Sam Cooke put out "A Change Is Gonna Come" in response. Both songs, charged with personal and sociopolitical import, resonated with Mayfield and inspired him to dig deeper artistically.
"He was a big-picture thinker," Todd explained in Traveling Soul. "He wasn't the type to pick up a sign and start marching or get involved in the day-to-day machinations of the movement. Rather, he could observe it from a wide angle and use his poetic mind to craft something that spoke to peoples' souls."
In 1964, The Impressions took two more artistic steps in "Talking About My Baby," which featured a heavier gospel influence in its call-and-response, and "Keep On Pushing," Mayfield's first major statement as a topical songwriter: "A great big stone wall stands there ahead of me / But I've got my pride and I move the wall aside and keep on pushing / Hallelujah! Keep on pushing." (When an astonished Cash asked Mayfield how he wrote it, he simply responded, "I'm living.")
Soon after, Mayfield faced a quick series of extreme life changes: His brother Kirby died of an enlarged heart, he left his wife Helen and he moved into an opulent apartment on the second-highest floor of Chicago's Marina Towers. On December 11, 1964, a motel operator fatally shot his idol Sam Cooke in what was ruled a "justifiable homicide." The following February, Malcolm X's assassination shook him even further. These rattling events could have inspired a rattled response. Instead, Mayfield converted the turmoil into a tranquil hymn.
From its twinkling first seconds, "People Get Ready" casts a different type of spell than common doo-wop tracks: It joins The Velvet Underground's "Pale Blue Eyes," George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" and Bill Fay's "Be Not So Fearful" in the pantheon of songs that rapidly lower the blood pressure. It might be Zen if it weren't Christian to the core: Mayfield takes the readymade blues trope of a locomotive leaving the station and recasts it as a caravan to Zion. "There's a train a-comin'," he sings, "You don't need no baggage / You just get onboard."
For people of color struggling with anger, shock and sorrow, "People Get Ready" was a balm. "It was the same train that formed the Underground Railroad during slavery," Todd Mayfield wrote in Traveling Soul. "It was the movement train my father's generation boarded, determined to get to a better place or die trying."
"People Get Ready" launched to No. 14 on the U.S. pop charts and became deeply entwined with the civil rights movement. Chicago churches even began integrating it into their services, swapping the line "Don't need no ticket / You just thank the Lord" for "Everybody wants freedom / This I know." However it was tweaked, "I can remember [the song] just making people listen," Mayfield is quoted in his son's biography about the singer. "It was so different from what was looked upon as a hit."
The song comforted Black Americans across the nation. Major artists were listening, and paying attention, too. Bob Dylan, one of Mayfield's heroes, recorded "People Get Ready" during the sessions for 1975's The Basement Tapes, again as part of the 1975 rehearsals for his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and a third time for the 1990 film, Flashback. Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and Alicia Keys all gave the song their own unique shades, to say nothing of Jeff Beck, The Doors and U2, who all performed it live at some point. In 1998, the first year of its eligibility, the song was inducted into the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame. (Mayfield himself received the GRAMMY Legend Award in 1994 and the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.)
With his reputation as a progressive artist cemented, Mayfield burned brightly throughout the 1970s on the strength of Super Fly as well as acclaimed solo albums like Curtis (1970), Roots (1971) and the live album Curtis In Chicago (1973). His commercial fortunes waned in the 1980s, and in 1990, he suffered a monumental setback when a freak lighting accident paralyzed him from the waist down. In 1999, he died at 57 due to complications from type 2 diabetes.
"People Get Ready" still hovers over all of Mayfield's myriad hits like a divine ball of caring energy. As the struggle for racial equality reaches its modern-day boiling point, the iconic song feels evermore like an extended hand, a reminder that the downtrodden are cared for, beckoning Black lives and allies to band together and climb aboard.