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The Impressions' "People Get Ready" At 55: How Curtis Mayfield Created A Musical Balm For Black America

Curtis Mayfield

Photo: Gilles Petard/Redferns

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The Impressions' "People Get Ready" At 55: How Curtis Mayfield Created A Musical Balm For Black America

The socially conscious soul great responded to a string of national atrocities with a peaceful redemption song

GRAMMYs/Jun 8, 2020 - 12:02 am

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.

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images

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Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on smallbiz.live. The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.

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Ladies Antebellum And Gaga, Jeff Beck, David Frost, John Legend Win Three GRAMMYs Each

Arcade Fire wins Album Of The Year; Esperanza Spalding wins Best New Artist

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(To view a list of 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards winners, click here.)

The evening began with a tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, but by the time the last of the 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards was handed out on Feb. 13, several other singers and bands looked something like royalty. Foremost among them was Lady Antebellum, who walked away with three trophies while the group members earned two more each for songwriting categories.

Lady Antebellum at the GRAMMYs

 

During a show memorable for its range of fully fueled performances, the country superstars sang a pitch-perfect medley of tunes that ended with a quiet rendition of the song that launched them, "Need You Now," and shortly afterward collected the Song Of The Year GRAMMY for it (along with co-writer Josh Kear, with whom they also took Best Country Song). But there was plenty more to come for the trio. They also took home the GRAMMY for Best Country Album for Need You Now. Accepting that award, lead singer Charles Kelley said, "This song has completely flipped our world upside down." By the time Lady Antebellum stood up to collect a trophy for Record Of The Year for "Need You Now," they were in disbelief, and possibly discombobulated: "Oh my gosh, we're so stunned we started walking the wrong direction," said singer Hillary Scott breathlessly.

Also racking up awards was Lady Gaga, who claimed three: Best Pop Vocal Album for The Fame Monster, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and Best Short Form Music Video for "Bad Romance." Never one to miss the chance to make an entrance, she hatched herself onstage from a giant opaque egg. That was a riff on her new single, "Born This Way," and perhaps her bared shoulders, which sprouted a pair of pointy elbows, were too. Her dancers and outfit gave off a Cleopatra vibe, but Gaga can't be stopped from seeming ultra-modern, and her performance of "Born This Way" reflected that; it was a warp-speed whirlwind.

Lady Gaga at the GRAMMYs



 

In keeping with that same modernist — or maybe futurist — spirit, she accepted her award for Best Pop Vocal Album in black body armor. But Gaga also proved she can be an old-fashioned girl with a soft side. In an emotional acceptance speech for that award, she surprised the audience by thanking Whitney Houston: "I imagined she was singing…because I wasn't secure enough in myself to imagine I was a superstar. Whitney, I imagined you."

Leading the nominees with 10 nods revolving around Recovery, an album that detailed his struggles with addiction but also reestablished him as a rap force to be reckoned with, Eminem took home trophies for Best Rap Album — a triumph over rivals including Jay-Z, Drake and B.o.B — and Best Rap Solo Performance for "Not Afraid." Onstage, his swagger proved undiminished.

A flame-haired Rihanna opened Eminem's performance with a searching rendition of their duet "Love The Way You Lie," but it was Slim Shady who came out blazing, spitting the lyrics to that song before raging into "I Need A Doctor" with Dr. Dre and singer Skylar Grey; Adam Levine from Maroon 5 handled piano duty.

Closing the show and likely lifting the Sunday-night spirits of indie kids everywhere was the Canadian collective Arcade Fire, who won the Album Of The Year GRAMMY for The Suburbs and, before the night's final performance, turned in a frothy and fierce rendition of the rocking "Month Of May."

Arcade Fire at the GRAMMYs

 

Other multiple winners for the evening included classical music producer David Frost, legendary rock guitarist Jeff Beck and R&B artist John Legend, who each earned three awards. Among those who won two each were alternative rock band the Black Keys, jazz giant Herbie Hancock, Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, urban/alternative group the Roots, Keith Urban, and gospel singer BeBe Winans.

And in a bit of surprise, jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding won Best New Artist over teen phenom Justin Bieber, as well Canadian rapper Drake, and adventurist rock outfits Florence & The Machine and Mumford & Sons.

Esperanza Spalding at the GRAMMYs

 

The show also featured a few firsts, including a first-time ever GRAMMY performance by Rolling Stone frontman Mick Jagger, who helped pay tribute to fallen R&B singer Solomon Burke.

But if there was also a constant, it was the annual, high-profile celebration of music that the GRAMMYs represent, and the 53rd GRAMMYs fit the bill once again, with performances, pairings and awards presentations that were full of pleasant musical surprises.
 

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