2021 intro: In November 1976, the legendary Curtis Mayfield (whose “There’s No Place Like America Today” album is part of the 2021 Black History Month campaign at Warner Music Group) sat down with David Nathan at the Chicago headquarters of Curtom Records studios to talk about his work at the time with other artists as well as the formation of Curtom and more…

Curtis Mayfield: The Creative Mastermind

By David Nathan

In person interview, Chicago, November 1976

TO TRY and describe Curtis Mayfield’s enormous contribution to the music world would take far more adjectives than we have at our disposal. From his early years as lead singer with the Impressions, through to the formation of Curtom, his own solo career, his undeniable success with movie soundtracks and more recently, his work with some of the finest performers of our time: all facets of one man.

Curtis’ writing credits alone would leave him a place in the annals of popular music: songs like “People Get Ready”, “Keep On Pushin”, “You’ve Been Cheatin'”, “Superfly”, and to paraphrase one of his other songs, “On & On”!

In person, Curtis is quiet, mellow and in many ways a true reflection of his music: gentle and truly creative.

DN: You’ve been involved in the last couple of years in producing several acts. People like Gladys Knight, The Staples and Aretha Franklin. How did those events come about and how did you approach each act?

CM: They came because of movies — I was involved in scoring them. We were asked by Buddah. Originally, we were approached by the director of “Claudine” to do the soundtrack and we had to find an artist.

Gladys & The Pips had only recently signed with Buddah Records — so we teamed up and had them all squared away. I guess the approach is always different — it has to do with every individual. Of course, the thrill was here — we were very happy that Gladys was coming to our studio — and the script and story of the movie was so nice, so sweet that it just all seemed to fall into place.

It’s more like a happening, you could say. Then, after it had done so well, we seemed to be showing some opening in dealing with movie scores and artists and we were asked by Warner Bros, and Sidney Poitier if we’d do “Let’s Do It Again”, which brought about a different type of thing because it was a comedy.

And I wondered to myself what kind of songs I could write if I wanted to be funny. However, once I got the script and discussed it with Sidney, I guess I found myself into it too — I didn’t have to deal with the laughter, I had to deal with the music.

I guess with “Let’s Do It Again”, I was sort of turned on by the lady — the beautiful lady who started off the movie — in the opening scene, Janie Kennedy. That was enough to inspire me to write the movie score!

I was writing “Sparkle” at the same time. As a matter of fact, I wrote the music for that before I got “Let’s Do It Again”. I guess I’d written that a full year before the movie came out. I was writing the songs not knowing really who was going to do them.

The script to me is a whole lot deeper than the screen portrayed so it got me off into what I considered would be a really strong film. And seeing how the ladies had to deal with the business sort of reminded me of how we’d had to — I saw myself in the same vein.

And when I started writing the music, I tended to think of Aretha as being the one person who could carry my music to the heights I wanted — just on the strength of her voice.

I didn’t know really until two or three weeks before we released the album who was going to sing it. It turned out that Aretha had heard the music and was very pleased with it and she immediately wanted to record it. As a matter of fact, it was me singing on all the demos — but I couldn’t do it because it was all for the ladies to sing!

It was like a special ‘come-together’ because the closer we got to deadlines, we still didn’t know who would do it. Then along came Aretha and she knew all the songs.

DN: It sounds almost as if the songs were tailor-made for the artists in question.

CM: Well, in a sense they are because the feelings, the stories relate. I was fortunate enough to be dealing with the three monster acts.

DN: Did it frighten you at all dealing with them?

CM: No! Not in the least! I wish I could deal with everyone as beautiful as the three ladies (Gladys, Mavis Staples, Aretha) were.

DN: To go back to the past. When you started Curtom Records, what were your intentions, what gave you the inspiration to form the company?

CM: It wasn’t so much my intentions as my dream, of finally having dealt with the roadwork — with Eddie Thomas in the beginning, with the Impressions. Then you know enough at one level to move on to the next. It has always been my intention — you find through life whatever your business is, you almost have to buy your life back! In other words, you strive to own as much of yourself as you possibly can.

As I started out as a writer maybe dealing with other publishers, I learned the publishing business so inevitably, I would get my own. So I started Curtom as a publishing company — even back when we were working at Vee Jay with Jerry Butler.

He was off as a single then. I was writing songs then for Major Lance, Walter Jackson, whoever would record the songs. Then we’d come out with a tune — “We’re A Winner” on A.B.C. and we realized at that point that it would be difficult at that stage for us to become an A.B.C. ourselves, so that’s why we went off independently.

We were doing mostly all the roadwork and promotion ourselves anyway. So Eddie Thomas and I decided to start Curtom. In fact that’s where the name comes from — Curtis and Thomas.

We had a place on the South side of Chicago and the most fortunate thing at that point then was that we didn’t get a hit! Because we just didn’t have the money to press up the records for a hit!

You’ve got to collect money from your distributors and it all takes time — we’d have definitely been bankrupt but it was enough for us to learn what was going on.

I’d brought The Impressions with us — I was doing most of the writing and it continued on until I ran into Marv (Stuart) — who was very fresh and had never really been in the business, so he was very eager! He learned everything he could and we began to really get going.

Then we got kinda lucky — I realized that sooner or later, I’d have to leave the Impressions if I was to develop the company so after about 12 or 13 years together, I did that. Then we had two acts instead of just one.

One thing led to another and then came “Superfly” — which gave me a challenge not just as an artist but as a producer and a writer — and really opened doors.

DN: What would you say really inspires you to write? Do you sit down and write ten songs in one go — what really happens?

CM: Sometimes we speak of inspiration — yes, that’s what makes songs say something. But I think rather than just inspiration, it’s motivation, along with feelings.

Songs are, for me, ‘happenings’. Like I can go home now — and a lot of times you’re dealing with commercial schedules, you know — and it don’t come off. I can sit there with a stack of paper and twenty pens and I fall asleep, and then I might dream of something and I’ll get a song from that!

DN: During the sixties, black artists didn’t really speak out too much about things around them but you were instrumental in doing that.

CM: Yes, I guess during the Sixties the current events and things happening around me were my main topics. And there were love songs — loss of love etc., that’s always your topic.

So there was an intermixture of my feelings, my emotions — and things needed to be said. I felt it was a great way of saying things when people were shaking their shaggy-shaggies!

Back then, usually, they were doing that to the things they didn’t even listen to and it didn’t mean anything — the lyrics. So I figured why not give them something — an inspiration, a motivation — if nothing else, food for thought. And I’ve always been good at being pretty pessimistic!

But I credit a lot of my ability to my grandmother. I was brought up in her church — the Travelling Souls Spiritualist Church — so while I slept a lot, when she was behind the pulpit, I found myself being able to put things into lyrics and with messages, a way of making you turn your head whether you liked it or not — the important thing was that it was on your mind.

It was very right for the times — the Sixties were a time when all minorities had to deal with what was going on around them.

DN: Now we’re in the Seventies, what would you say are the most important things to be said to young people?

CM: It’s very, very hard for me to say. I don’t pretend to be anybody’s teacher or leader — I haven’t been writing songs with messages per se, other than what the topic in the lyric might be. I haven’t been deep into messages or civil messages or whatever because I feel the young people today are more up, more aware — they know what’s going down.

Right now, I guess my head is up like everybody else’s as to what’s going on or what’s about to be going on.

DN: Do you feel that the things you’ve said over the years have had the effect that you wanted them to?

CM: Well, naturally I’d like to think so. I guess to a certain extent, they have because the music sold. And people today are very careful about how they spend their money.

Of course, I didn’t get all of it! It’s an endorsement because they appreciate what’s being said not that you completely claim that to be yours but it’s part of what you do, carrying your banner.

DN: Do you think that white audiences have accepted you to the extent that they could have?

CM: Well, I’ve never thought too much about it in that way. For those who’ve got their heads in my direction and pick it up and listen to my music — that’s fine, I know they’re into the music. Then there’s the majority who’ll never hear your music or see you or until you make yourself a monster act by yourself — then they’ll fall in.

DN: Does that perturb you?

CM: No, it don’t bother me at all!

DN: In recent times, you’ve been working in the studios, producing yourself and other people and you haven’t been out on the road. How do you know at what point you can stop driving yourself, working hard?

CM: Well, I guess when you’ve got your trophies, your little awards they become like in the past tense. To me, I don’t feel that I’m a great success — although I’m sure on the other side, people look on me as having achieved many, many things. I guess people feel that based on what I’ve done in the past, I’m a success. I’m very proud of that and yet, because of my outlook on things and how I take in my rewards — I guess I’ll never feel that I’m a great, great success — it takes a lot of ego and playing a role that I’m not.

I like the idea of having money, just living a bit better — it’s easier to do that. I’m very happy that I’m in an area that people turn their heads and listen, that I’ve got respect and naturally, I feel proud of myself.

And then, every couple of years, when you get the money in, you wonder if you’re winning or losing. It’s possible for it to become a burden — you have to insure it, support it, and then with the success comes sacrifice — the non-privacy — I cherish the time I can get away from it all.

Then, there’s your personal life that’s very important. I’m just happy that I’m here, and I see other areas where I can still prove my versatile and creative ability — I hope to achieve the best I can.

I wouldn’t mind owning 300 million dollars! But you never want to reach the peak because after all, when you’ve gone all the way up, the only way to go is down.

DN: What would you say are the goals that you’ve set yourself to achieve in the future?

CM: Well, I guess right now is to make this little record company really work — which means whatever we have to do — with us or with other producers.

I’d like to think that this company can become another Motown as famous as all the things that Berry Gordy did for his company. And that would be fabulous — they’d be a lot of Smokey Robinsons running around! That’s a fantasy almost I guess — but it keeps my striving aiming.

DN: How far away do you feel you are from achieving that?

CM: One never knows, it could happen tomorrow. However, those are still ambitions — we’re going off into films. I’m going to be doing a little acting which I’m not even going to play on — like I told everyone, I can make them laugh!

DN: How do you feel about your own recording career right now?

CM: A little scattered. Simply because of all the different hats I’ve had to put on. Being a ‘star’ — that’s never been where I’ve really earned my respect and satisfaction.

With the Impressions, and then with my solo albums, I guess I proved whatever I could do as an individual with that, and things like “Superfly”. I still love to sing, however I think my strength is my creativity and being versatile, rather than trying to put everything into one basket.

DN: You’ve been able to produce some of the true ‘greats’ that are around today. Are there still any other people you’d like to produce?

CM: I wouldn’t mind anyone who can sing well and has something to offer, the potential of being something — it’s a challenge. It would be nice to take someone with a no-name and it would be something to take someone with the potential and talent and get them over — and that’s what I want to do with the company — that’s another success story.

DN: How do you feel about the company now?

CM: I’m very pleased with it — I never think you ever move as fast as you’d want it to be. In this business, you start off real green — the importance is that we had the strength to bump our heads, make some mistakes and still keep on. It would be hard for me to do without the company now.

DN: How much time do you actually spend in the studio these days?

CM: Quite a bit. I’m usually working on one situation or another — and that’s why I haven’t been on the road as an artist, more or less.

I can’t come in and write though — which I didn’t know at the beginning! I thought I’d be able to do that — but when things start happening, there’s decisions to be made, you have your other artists to deal with. So usually I find myself as a client in my own place — I have to call in and book my time like everyone else!

That’s a real trip — that’s the way it comes off and you don’t anticipate that at the beginning. I guess I’ve been able to train myself to write anywhere — except here in the office unless it’s late at night!

DN: When you write a song, do you envisage the final production on it?

CM: Lots of times. It all depends on how strong that song is. Sometimes you write a song just as a song and you never consider all the other things that might be happening on the record. I guess as a producer you do — those are the tools of a creative person. You can actually see the whole picture — you see how it will turn out.

It starts in your mind. Like with the Staples new album — I could hear what was going to happen where — the songs were written specifically for the group.

And it’s funny, a lot of times, they can’t hear what you can hear. It’s like with your Mom putting together a special dish — you walk through the kitchen and see all the ingredients but until she’s finished, you may not be able to visualize what she’s going to do.

DN: How does that differ when you’re producing yourself?

CM: Well, you usually give more to those you’re doing something for than yourself. I don’t know why — I guess it’s hard to look outside yourself.

DN: How do you feel about the Staples album?

CM: I think it’s a gas — personally, I’d like to have it all back for myself! “Pass It On” is a very good album and I love Mavis’ voice.

Yes, we had a good time and of course, the lyrics were a little more direct than the group had been used to. Especially with Pops we had one line with “Let’s Do It Again” where we actually had to sit down and discuss it!

DN: We’ve heard people talking about “Sparkle” saying it’s the best thing that Aretha’s done in five or six years. How do you feel?

CM: Those are my fulfillments — I’d never gotten into Aretha until this. I was very pleased with my music and the contents even before I knew Aretha was going to do it. And her singing just brought everything together — I’d have to agree.

DN: By your being successful with her, we could almost ask where does she go from where you left her?

CM: Well, I can’t say — everyone has their own lives to lead arid something like that happens just once. I wouldn’t want to run it into the ground — I doubt very seriously if I’ll see Aretha in the studios again for another ten years.

DN: How do you feel about your artist roster?

CM: I feel very good about it. As you know, there’s been some changes. The Impressions have gone. But we have Mystique and we were fortunate enough to have people like Bunny Sigler work with them.

I’m going to be getting more involved. I think that’s very important, right now.

There’s Billy Butler — who goes back to the times when we were all kids…Major Lance, Billy, Jerry. He’s writing his own material and you know, the artists are intelligent people.

Leroy Hutson of course has his own thing and he’s a producer. I feel good about all of them because they are all able to give as well as demand — and that helps generate a Curtom family atmosphere.

DN: Chicago has given birth to a lot of creative people — Maurice White, the Staples and so on. Do you think there’s anything about the environment that’s caused that?

CM: Yes, I think environment has a lot to do with that. It affects the kind of music we deal with. You have to have a taste of life to know what you’re talking about. You have to deal with the bitter as well as the sweet.

DN: O.K. Here’s a strange question. How do you feel about the world?!

CM: Well, it’s hard to say. I feel that people now know or suspect a lot of truth — and sometimes that can be very confusing — so that means people are aware of the contradictions that we’ve been under. And when you bring it down, you’re going to realize that you’re just a grain, just a small drop.

And it’s very frightening, the more you think about it. But it’s very important to be knowledgeable — you know the truth.

And spiritual values and truth are instinctive. It just gets confused when you see scientific values changing daily — one day, they’re telling you heaven ain’t there no more — you know, we’ve reached Mars now and we still can’t reach heaven! You find yourself constantly having to re-evaluate things — discard what you find to be wrong.

It seemed that no sooner had we concluded our interview than Mr. M. was off into the studios again to mix his next single!


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