Soul Serenade: Curtis Mayfield — Keep On Keeping On

Curtis MayfieldCurtis Mayfield was 14 years old when he joined the group that would become the Impressions. He was born in Chicago in 1942 and by the time he was seven, he was singing in the church’s gospel choir with a group called the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. Mayfield became friends with Jerry Butler in high school and in 1956, he joined Butler’s group, the Roosters. The other members of the group were the brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks. Two years later, the group changed their name to the Impressions and added Sam Gooden to the lineup.

The Impressions had an early smash with Butler singing lead on “Your Precious Love” and it was enough to motivate Butler to leave the group to start a solo career. Mayfield followed him and co-wrote and played on Butler’s solo hit “He Will Break Your Heart.” But Mayfield wasn’t interested in being a sideman and soon returned to the Impressions who had replaced Butler with Fred Cash. It was the classic Impressions lineup of Mayfield, Gooden, and Cash which signed with ABC Records and released a string of hits which began in 1961 with “Gypsy Woman” and continued with “I’m So Proud,” “It’s Alright,” “Keep on Pushing,” “Amen,” “We’re a Winner,” and “Choice of Colors,” which would be the last hit that Mayfield recorded with the Impressions.

After 14 years with the group, Mayfield left the Impressions to start a solo career. That is where Keep On Keeping On, the new box set from Rhino Records begins. Rhino has lovingly collected Mayfield’s first four solo albums to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the start of Mayfield’s solo career and to mark the 20th anniversary of his death. The set begins with Mayfield’s first solo album, Curtis, which was released in 1970 and reached the Top 20 on its way to becoming a Gold Album. Curtis includes the hit singles “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go,” and “Move on Up.” In addition to its commercial success, Curtis was one of the most influential albums of its time, inspiring later socially conscious work by Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

Curtis Mayfield - Keep On Keeping OnA year after his successful debut as a solo artist, Mayfield returned with Roots, which reached the Top 10 on the R&B chart. While not quite as successful as the debut, Roots scored with hits like “Get Down,” “Beautiful Brother of Mine,” and “We Got to Have Peace.” Mayfield’s next effort, which is not included in this set because it was not a true solo album, was his incredibly successful soundtrack for the film Super Fly. The album went to #1 on both the pop and R&B charts and pushed two singles, “Freddie’s Dead,” and “Superfly” into the Top 10.

In 1973, Mayfield released his third proper solo album, Back to the World. The album topped the R&B chart and returned Mayfield to the Top 20 on the pop albums chart. The album’s hit singles included “Future Shock,” “If I Were a Child Again,” and “Can’t Say Nothin’.” Mayfield’s fourth solo album and the final one collected in this set was released in 1974. Sweet Exorcist came within a whisker of the top spot on the R&B chart, settling at #2 and also found Top 40 success on the pop chart. The album’s success was driven by two hit singles, the title track, and “Kung Fu.”

Keep On Keeping On ends with the Sweet Exorcist album but fortunately, Mayfield’s career did not. He continued to record into the 1990s and standout albums from this period included Sparkle (1976) and Heartbeat (1979). “So In Love,” released in 1975, was the last Mayfield single to hit the pop chart but records like “Only You Babe” (1976), “You Are, You Are” (1978), and “She Don’t Let Nobody (But Me)” (1981), continued to find success on the R&B chart. In all, Mayfield scored more than 30 solo hits on the R&B chart to go along with a similar number of R&B hits during his time with the Impressions.

On August 13, 1990, Mayfield was paralyzed when a lighting rig fell on him during a show in Brooklyn. The accident ended his career as a guitar player but he could still write songs and sing, something he did to great effect on his final album, New World Order, in 1997. Mayfield died of complications from diabetes in 1999.

Curtis Mayfield is remembered for introducing social activism into soul music. The Impressions hits “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” and “We’re A Winner” became anthems of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and were often used by Martin Luther King to inspire marchers. Mayfield and the Impressions were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1995 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991 (he was also inducted into the Rock Hall as a solo artist in 1999, one of a handful of double inductees). He received a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Just before he died, Mayfield was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Soul Serenade: Denise LaSalle, “Trapped by a Thing Called Love”

Denise LaSalleWhen Koko Taylor died nine years ago, the title “Queen of the Blues” was bestowed on Denise LaSalle. Then LaSalle died in January of this year and the title has been vacated, at least for the time being.

LaSalle had the classic upbringing for a blues singer. She was born in Mississippi to a family of sharecroppers. She took the well-trod road north to Chicago when she was 13 and moved in with an older brother. Like many southern singers, LaSalle was influenced by both country and blues music. She began to make her name in R&B circles around the Windy City and in 1967 she signed with the legendary Chess Records label. “Love Reputation” was her first single for the label and while it was not a huge national hit, it did show some promise regionally.

Denise LaSalle

It was her third single, “Trapped By a Thing Called Love,” that had the magic. By the time it was released in 1971, LaSalle had moved on to the Detroit-based Westbound Records. The song, which was written LaSalle, was a huge hit for her, topping the R&B chart, reaching #13 on the pop chart, selling a million copies, and earning the singer a Gold Record. The record was co-produced by LaSalle and her then-husband Bill Jones.

The following year, LaSalle scored again with “Now Run and Tell That,” and “Man Sized Job” both of which were Top 5 R&B singles and made the pop chart as well. All of LaSalle’s early hits were recorded at Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records in Memphis. In 1975, LaSalle left Westbound for ABC Records where she scored another Top 10 R&B hit with “Love Me Right” in 1977. When ABC Records was sold in 1978, the new label, MCA, dropped LaSalle mostly because they didn’t know how to market black music.

Malaco Records came calling shortly thereafter and LaSalle began a long and successful career with the label. Over the course of more than 20 years with Malaco, LaSalle released 11 highly regarded albums for the label. Eventually, LaSalle moved on from Malaco and made two gospel albums for Ordena Records before returning to secular music with three albums for Ecko Records.

More than ten years after she left the label, LaSalle returned to Malaco in 2010 and released the album 24 Hour Woman. During this time LaSalle continued to perform and was a popular artist at blues festivals. She was inducted in the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011, and the Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2015.

Denise LaSalle, the “Queen of the Blues,” died on January 8, 2018, at the age of 78.

Soul Serenade: Ruby And The Romantics, “Our Day Will Come”

Ruby and the RomanticsAlright, you caught me. Yes, I played hooky last week. But after all, I was on vacation at the beautiful Jersey shore, and it was the first week I missed in more than six years, so I’ve earned a little slack, right? Besides, I’m back this week with a really cool song that was a huge hit in 1963.

Who was this Ruby of Ruby and the Romantics? She was Ruby Nash of Akron, Ohio, and while she was still studying at Central High School in Akron she began singing in groups that included her sister and three friends. And what about those Romantics? Well, some of them had been in a group called the Embers who eventually became the Supremes (no, not those Supremes), and then the Fellos.

Leroy Fann, one of the Fellos, knew Ruby from Akron, and occasionally asked her to sing with his group. Eventually, a group coalesced around Ruby that included Fann, Ronald Mosley, Ed Roberts, and George Lee. In 1961 they signed with Kapp Records out of New York and became Ruby and the Romantics at the behest of Kapp A&R man Allen Stanton.

Crooner Jack Jones was supposed to be the one to record “Our Day Will Come” but Ruby and her group liked the song, saw its potential, and pressed Kapp to let them record it. They were right of course as their recording of “Our Day Will Come” shot up the Billboard Hot 100 to #1 in 1963 and gained the same lofty position on the R&B chart.

Ruby and the Romantics

“Our Day Will Come” was written by Mort Garson and Bob Hilliard. In order for them to allow Ruby and the Romantics to record it, Stanton had to promise the songwriters that if group’s version failed to become a hit, Jack Jones would record it. With Stanton at the helm, two versions of the song were recorded, but it was the one with the bossa nova beat and Leroy Glover’s striking organ solo that was chosen for release and became a smash. Other backing musicians on the record were guitarists Vinnie Bell, Al Gorgoni, and Kenny Burrell, bass player Russ Savakus, drummer Gary Chester, and percussionist George Devens.

The follow-up single for Ruby and the Romantics, “My Summer Love,” did respectable business too, reaching the Top 20. And then they came back with the original version of “Hey There Lonely Boy” (later a smash for Eddie Holman as ‘Hey There Lonely Girl’), which worked its way up to #27 on the Pop chart. Kapp released several other singles but none of them saw much success. Ruby and the Romantics moved on to ABC Records, where three singles and an album failed to match their earlier chart successes.

Ruby and the Romantics recorded one single for A&M Records in 1969. “Hurting Each Other” was notable due to the fact that it reunited the group with Stanton. Unfortunately, the old magic failed to materialize, and it was the final single that Ruby and the Romantics recorded before breaking up in 1971.

The full-range harmonies of Ruby and the Romantics were an acknowledged influence on the Temptations, and the Carpenters gathered inspiration from the group as well, recording three of their songs. There have been over 60 cover versions of “Our Day Will Come” including takes on the song by Bobby Darrin, Frankie Valli, Dee Dee Sharp, Amy Winehouse, the Supremes (yes, those Supremes), and James Brown.

Ruby Nash returned to Akron when the group broke up and still lives there. She is the only surviving member of Ruby and the Romantics. Sadly, neither she or any of the heirs of the Romantics see any royalties from the hit records.

In 2013, Ruby and the Romantics were part of the first class of inductees into the newly established Rhythm and Blues Music Hall of Fame.

Soul Serenade: Rufus And Chaka Khan, “Ain’t Nobody”

Rufus with Chaka Khan - Ain't NobodyOnce upon the ’60s there was a band out of Chicago called the American Breed, and in 1968 they had a big hit with a song called “Bend Me, Shape Me.” Eventually two of the band’s members, Chuck Colbert and Lee Graziano, encountered a bar band called Circus, and added a couple of that band’s members to a lineup that also included two latter-day members of the American Breed. They called the new band Smoke.

By 1970, Smoke had new managers, and a new name … Ask Rufus, which eventually became just plain Rufus. Lineup changes included the departure of Colbert and the addition of Dennis Belfield on bass. The following year the band signed to Epic Records, and following the recording of one unreleased album departed Epic in 1972. That year Graziano left as well, and Rufus added a young singer by the name of Chaka Khan … (more)

Soul Serenade: Lee Dorsey, “Ya Ya”

Lee Dorsey - Ya YaSometimes the weeks go by so quickly, each one with a new Soul Serenade column, and once in awhile one of the capitol cities of soul gets overlooked for too long. That’s certainly the case with New Orleans. I haven’t visited the Crescent City in quite awhile in this column, but I’m going to make up for that this week by featuring one of the city’s most iconic artists … (more)

Soul Serenade: Lee Dorsey, “Ya Ya”