The late soul singer’s son turns in a thoughtful appreciation of his father, the author of the civil rights anthem “People Get Ready.”
Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999), perhaps the most famous graduate of Chicago’s infamous Cabrini-Green housing project, has been the subject of several books in whole or part. It seems unnecessarily contentious of his son to say that no previous biographer has done a good job at least in part because “they didn’t know where he came from.” He means that idiomatically, it seems, as well as genealogically, though it’s not very helpful to lay part of the difficulty on Mayfield’s “deeply divided nature as a Gemini.” Still, once the younger Mayfield settles into the story, he delivers an effective portrait of a man possessed of great talents and the usual demons. Late of the Impressions, paralyzed in a terrible accident that effectively ended his solo career, Mayfield is known today for his work on the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Superfly, a flick more often referred to than seen, but it is really for “People Get Ready”—covered by everyone from the Staples Singers to Rod Stewart—that Mayfield is best known. Here we see the song nicely deconstructed, its message an appeal to the coded Negro spirituals whose audiences knew very well that the train to Jordan was really a train out of Mississippi. The author is occasionally heavy-handed and obvious, as when he makes a trope of the childhood nickname Smut and Mayfield’s sensitivity over his large teeth. However, just as often he turns up things that other writers have underplayed or overlooked, and he hits on the right salient points, notably Mayfield’s contributions to the civil rights struggle in the face of censors and, at times, critics offended by his wordplays on racial slurs.
The portrait is warts and all, to be sure, but respectful—and it’ll make readers want to seek out the singer and songwriter, if they haven’t already fired up their old LPs.