Before he became famous for transforming a coke dealer's wet dream into a Super Fly soundtrack of redemption songs in 1972, Curtis Mayfield poured his soul into the Impressions. The Chicago-based doo-wop/soul trio, led by Mayfield from 1961-1970, pioneered message music in an era when Motown, the nation's premier manufacturer of soul, was still on a singular mission to churn out crossover hits. Before Marvin Gaye came to ponder "What's Going On" (1971), Mayfield and the Impressions distilled the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream into a Civil Rights anthem with such songs as "People Get Ready" (1965).
A decade after his departure (1942-1999), we're still wrapping our heads around Mayfield's imperial soul. By mixing social commentary and delicate love-song compositions, Mayfield and the Impressions gave voice to the pathos and passions of black America.
With the National Black Arts Festival's tribute to Mayfield's songbook — To Curtis With Love feat. the Impressions, Eddie Levert, Van Hunt, Dionne Farris, Joi Gilliam and Frank McComb — hitting Atlanta Symphony Hall tonight, we talked to Fred Cash of the Impressions, from his current home in Chattanooga, Tenn., about the genius of Curtis Mayfield and got a song-by-song breakdown of some of their classics that came to define the era.
So the Impressions actually started in 1958 with Jerry Butler as the lead, but after the success of the first record ["For Your Precious Love"], Butler left the group and Mayfield became the lead. Once you all became a threesome [Fred Cash, Curtis Mayfield and Sam Gooden] and started putting out a lot of hits, what was that era like?
Cash: Oh man, it was great. We had a great working machine, man. At that time, our manager was working for ABC-Paramount, and he was the promotion man. We had Johnny Pate, who was a great arranger, and we had Curtis, who was a great writer and producer. Hey man, we had a click happening. We would just turn them out. We sold some 60 million records, that's what we've sold so far.
What was it like working with Curtis Mayfield in terms of his songwriting and composing?
Cash: He was a genius. I'm telling you, he was a genius. A lot of times, late at night, when the fellows would be out, he and I would be in our hotel rooms. At 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, I'd hear a knock on my door, "Hey Cash, come over here and listen to this tune I'm writing." He'd have on his robe, sitting on the side of the bed with an open-face guitar and he'd be playing. I'd tell him, "Curtis, man, you wrote us another hit." That could've been "Keep on Pushing," that could've been "This is My Country," that could've been "We're a Winner." Any of those tunes. He was just a great, great writer.
I read in the liner notes to Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions: The Anthology (1961-1977) that a lot of the Impressions black pride songs from that time, especially "We're A Winner," weren't embraced initially by black radio?
Cash: Well, black radio embraced it. The white radio stations wouldn't play it. That was WLS in Chicago, one of the biggest stations at that particular time. They would not play that record. They thought this song was going to cause some kind of riot. They didn't listen to the song to see what it was talking about; they just heard some parts of it and said no. Even when we got ready to go to California, we did the Joey Bishop television show, and that was when "Choice of Colors" came out and that was a big record for the Impressions. Well, we went out to rehearse the song so we could record it for the television show, and the producer came out and said, "Well, no, y'all can't do that song on this show." So Joey Bishop came out and said, "What's going on?" Because we were getting ready to pack up and leave. We said that the producer here said that we couldn't do that song on this show, and he said, "Is that y'all's hit record?" And we said yeah. So he said, "Well, y'all are gonna do it." So that's how we got the chance to perform that song on that particular television show.
Were you pretty much relegated to performing on what's now known as the Chitlin' Circuit back then?
Cash: Yeah, well that's basically what it was. We hit all the theatres, the Apollo Theater, the Royal Theater in Baltimore, Md., the Howard Theater in Washington, D.C. We hit all those in a row, then we'd go to the Regal Theater in Chicago. You would have Smokey Robinson and the Miracles on the show, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, all of us would be on one show, and that was the Chitlin' Circuit.