June 3, 1942
After his devastating injury, he spent many days on his back, not able to do anything. But, he never gave up on life, and, he never gave up on trying to bring hope to the world.
He was born on June 3, 1942 in Chicago, Illinois, one of five children. His father left the family when he was five. His mother and grandmother moved the family into several public housing projects. From his grandmother, he learned how to love music via her Travelling Soul Spiritualists’ Church. At the age of seven he found a guitar hidden in a closet, learned how to play it, then sang for the first time at his aunt’s church.
Hoping to find his way out of poverty, he dropped out of high school, joining several bands. In 1958, one of the bands he joined, changed its name to the Impressions.
Curtis Mayfield would eventually write the songs, sing lead, play guitar, and even produced the records.
Mayfield always believed in hope. At a time when the nation was in turmoil, after “the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham — which killed four little girls — and the assassination of President Kennedy,” Mayfield wanted to give people hope, singing:
“People get ready,
there’s a train comin’
You don’t need no baggage,
you just get on board….”
According to Juan Williams, when he did a report for NPR, “The train that is coming in the song speaks to a chance for redemption — the long-sought chance to rise above racism, to stand apart from despair and any desire for retaliation — an end to the cycle of pain.”
“I think it’s a song that touches people…” says Peter Burns, the author of the biography Curtis Mayfield: People Never Give Up. “It is a song of faith really, a faith that transcends any racial barrier and welcomes everyone onto the train. The train that takes everyone to the promised land, really.”
“People Get Ready” has been sung by many musicians, both black and white, including Rod Stewart, James Taylor, and Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen quoted from “People Get Ready” as part of his concert performances in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Mayfield’s soulful, positive songs became anthems for the civil rights movement. His lyrics often crossed racial and religious lines, spreading messages of hope in the face of oppression, pride, and courage to a generation who were demanding their human rights.
Because of his uncompromising look at racism, injustice, and poverty, he was often banned on the radio which cost him revenue, but he continued his quest for equality. Paralyzed from the neck down after an accident performing in concert, Mayfield never gave up, continuing to write and sing songs protesting social and political equality, recording in pain, usually line-by-line while lying on his back.
“I’ve got to keep on pushing
I can’t stop now
Move up a little higher
Some way, somehow
‘Cause I’ve got my strength
And it don’t make sense
Not to keep on pushin’ …
Now look-a look
What’s that I see
A great big stone wall
Stands there ahead of me
But I’ve got my pride
And I’ll move on aside
And keep on pushin’….”:
By the time of his death at age 57 due to declining health because of his paralysis., he had influenced many songwriters, from James Brown to Springsteen. He inspired many, never giving up hope and giving his positive message of love, peace, and understanding to all who would listen:
“A better day is coming
for you and for me
With just a little bit more education
And love for our nation
Would make a better society
Now some of us would rather cuss
and make a fuss
Than to bring about a little trust
But we shall overcome our beliefs someday
If you’ll only listen to what I have to say…”
“He broke his back, his widow Altheida Mayfield said, “but not his spirit.”