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: Gene Chandler, “Groovy Situation”

Gene ChandlerHow many artists can you think of whose careers spanned the years from doo-wop to classic soul and into the disco era and had hits in all of them? The one that leaps to mind for me is Gene Chandler. There were landmarks along the way for Chandler, from his 1962 doo-wop smash “Duke of Earl,” to his 1964 soul classic “Just Be True,” to his 1978 disco hit “Get Down.”

Chandler is a Chicago guy, born and raised. He was a teenager when he joined his first band, the Gaytones. In 1957 he became a member of the Dukays. His career with that group was interrupted by a stint in the Army but he returned to them when he got out in 1960. The Dukays got a record deal with Nat Records and working with producers Carl Davis and Bunky Shepherd they released their first single, “The Girl is a Devil,” in 1961.

A subsequent session yielded four more songs. Nat Records chose “Nite Owl” to be the next Dukays single so Davis and Shepherd offered another song from the session, “Duke of Earl,” to a different local label. Vee-Jay released “Duke of Earl” as a single in 1962 but under the name Gene Chandler as opposed to the Dukays. The rest is pop music history. The single sold a million copies in its first month of release and spent three weeks atop the charts.

The following year, Chandler left Vee-Jay and signed with Constellation Records. In the three years he was with the label Chandler had one hit after another including “Just Be True” in 1964, and “Nothing Can Stop Me” in 1965. Both of those songs were written by Curtis Mayfield. After Constellation went belly-up, Chandler alternated releases with Chess Records and Brunswick Records.

Gene Chandler

In the late ’60s, Chandler got involved as a producer and started a couple of labels of his own. He produced his 1970 hit “Groovy Situation” which was released by Mercury Records. The song was written by Russell Lewis and Herman Davis and had been originally recorded by Mel & Tim. Earlier, Chandler had produced the Mel & Tim smash “Backfield in Motion.” Chandler’s version of “Groovy Situation” had the magic though and it reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 and it was a Top 10 hit on the R&B chart while becoming a million-seller.

While it was nearly impossible to match the success that Chandler had with “Duke of Earl,” “Groovy Situation” became Chandler’s second biggest hit. Both songs have made numerous appearances in movies over the years. “Duke of Earl” is in the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame named it one of the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.

When disco was in its ascendancy Chandler adapted when many others couldn’t or wouldn’t. Toward the end of the 1970s, Chandler once again worked with producer Carl Davis and had disco hits like “Get Down,” “When You’re #1,” and “Does She Have a Friend.”

Gene Chandler has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and he has received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. In 1970 Chandler was named Producer of the Year by the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers and he has been inducted twice into the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame, once as a performer and again as an R&B Music Pioneer. From his first chart single in 1961 to his last in 1986, Gene Chandler has had a remarkable genre-spanning career.

Soul Serenade: The Radiants, “It Ain’t No Big Thing”

The RadiantsChicago has been known as a blues mecca ever since giants like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf made their way north from Mississippi seeking greater opportunity. In fact, the electrified and electrifying sound they and others developed would come to be known as Chicago Blues. But the music coming out of the Windy City was not limited to blues. Soul music giants like Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Jerry Butler, and Billy Stewart called Chicago home as well.

The Radiants never quite reached the level of success that the artists I mentioned above achieved but they did manage to send a few records up the charts in the 1960s. The group’s original lineup of lead vocalist Maurice McCallister, baritone Wallace Sampson, second tenor Jerome Brooks, bass singer Elzie Butler, and first tenor Charles Washington met while they were singing in the youth choir at Greater Harvest Baptist Church. Like other artists who got their start in church, the Radiants began their career singing gospel in churches but also adding in some secular R&B songs that McCallister wrote.

It wasn’t long before the Radiants abandoned gospel altogether. Before their first recording session, Washington had left the group and been replaced by McLauren Green. The group recorded demos and shopped them around but couldn’t get a bite. All of the big labels turned them down including Motown and Chess. But Chess eventually had a change of heart and signed the Radiants.

At Chess, the group was mentored by Billy Davis, one-time songwriting partner of Berry Gordy, Jr. The Radiants’ first single for the label was released in 1962. “Father Knows Best” b/w “One Day I’ll Show You” was unsuccessful everywhere with the exception of Cleveland, where it was a local hit. Chess singles “Heartbreak Society,” “Shy Guy,” and “I Gotta Dance to Keep My Baby” followed and while they all sounded like hits, none of them were. Poor promotion by the label seems to have been the culprit.

Green was drafted and he was replaced by Frank McCollum. But by 1964 the Radiants were in disarray. Things got so bad that the group actually broke up, leaving only McCallister and Sampson to form a new lineup. Leonard Caston, Jr. had been the organist at Greater Harvest and his return from the army was timely as he became the third member of the new Radiants lineup.

The Radiants

Now a trio, the Radiants released “Voice Your Choice” in late 1964. It was their biggest hit, reaching #16 on the R&B chart, and #51 on the Billboard Hot 100. The follow-up single was “It Ain’t No Big Thing” and although it failed to make the Pop chart, it reached #14 R&B. The Radiants modeled themselves after the Impressions on these records, with McCallister and Caston trading lead vocals, and employing the Impressions three-part harmony style.

Caston had his eye on a songwriting and production career and left the Radiants in 1965. James Jameson replaced him and he can be heard on the single “Baby You Got It.” That’s about the time that things got complicated. McCallister left the group shortly after the single was released and the departure of the group’s founder should have put an end to things, right? Well, no.

There was another Chess group called the Confessions and they were led by a guy named Mitchell Bullock. They recorded a single called “Don’t It Make You Feel Kinda Bad” but broke up before it was released. Davis had the idea of enlisting Bullock to work with Sampson and Jameson. When they added Caston’s brother Victor, the Radiants were a quartet again. Remember that Confessions single? Without re-recording it or changing anything Chess released it as a Radiants single.

“Don’t It Make You Feel Kinda Bad” wasn’t a big hit, only reaching #47 on the R&B chart, but the next Radiants single, “Hold On,” managed to reach #68 on the Pop chart, and #35 R&B in 1968. It would be the last chart record for the Radiants. They left Chess the following year and broke up in 1972.

McCallister went on to have some success with as part of a duo that also included former Radiant McLauren Green. They two collaborated as Maurice & Mac on a single called “You Left the Water Running” which is revered by soul music aficionados. Chess never released a Radiants album but did include several of the group’s singles on compilation albums.

Soul Serenade: Bunny Sigler, “Let The Good Times Roll & Feel So Good”

Bunny Sigler - Let the Good Times RollI’m headed back to Philadelphia next week and for me it’s a place where the good times roll. My upcoming trip put me in mind of Bunny Sigler, an early progenitor of Philly Soul who hit it big with his 1967 hit “Let the Good Times Roll/Feel So Good.” The two-song mashup reached #22 in the summer of that year.

When Sigler was born in Philadelphia in 1941 his parents named him Walter. But since he was born just two days before Easter, he took on the nickname Bunny almost immediately, and it stuck. His love of music began when he attended his mother’s Baptist church as a child. The church music inspired him to form his own vocal group when he was in high school, and so the Opals were born. The group was a quartet that included Sigler’s brother … (more)

Soul Serenade: Gene Chandler, “Groovy Situation”

Soul Serenade - Gene ChandlerOne of the biggest hits of my childhood was “Duke of Earl” by Gene Chandler. It was pretty much impossible for children of any age to not love the 1962 single with its addictive bass chant “Duke, Duke Duke, Duke of Earl … ” I’m hearing it in my head even as I write this, and now that you’re reading it, I’ll bet you are too. The proof that the record was, and is, undeniable was the #1 spot it reached on both the Pop and R&B charts.

Gene Chandler (born Eugene Dixon) grew up on the South Side of Chicago. He began his music career in the early ’50s with a band called the Gaytones. Later in the decade he became a member of the Dukays. Chandler’s singing career was interrupted when he was drafted into the Army, but by 1960 he had returned to the Dukays, and was their lead singer when they signed with Nat Records. Their first single for the label was “The Girl is a Devil,” which was released in 1961. The record reached a respectable #64 on the Pop chart.

A subsequent Dukays session for Nat Records resulted in four more tracks, including “Nite Owl,” and “Duke of Earl.” When the record company fatefully decided to release “Nite Owl” as the group’s next single, producers ‘Bunky’ Sheppard and Carl Davis shopped “Duke of Earl” and landed a deal with Vee Jay Records to release it as a solo single for Chandler. The record sold a million copies in just over a month and topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. Chandler played the part to the hilt, donning a top hat, cape, and monocle, and billing himself as ‘The Duke.’

By 1963, Chandler had left Vee Jay, and signed with Constellation Records. His hits for Constellation included “Just Be True,” and “Nothing Can Stop Me,” both penned by Curtis Mayfield, and produced by Davis. When Constellation went belly-up on 1966, Chandler moved on to Chess Records, then to Brunswick Records. The two labels actually alternated Chandler releases for some period of time.

More hits followed, including “What Now,” “Rainbow,” “I Fooled You This Time,” “Think About It,” “A Man’s Temptation,” “Rainbow ’65” (record live at the Regal Theater in Chicago), and “Bless Our Love.” But Chandler grew weary of constant performing, and looked to get into record production. One of his biggest successes as a producer was Mel & Tim’s 1969 smash “Backfield in Motion.” The record was a Top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100.

Chandler’s success as a producer earned him the National Association of Television and Radio Announcers Producer of the Year award in 1970. It was an impressive achievement for Chandler, particularly in light of the fact that his competition for the award that year included Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, and Norman Whitfield.

Gene Chandler

Chandler was not done as a singer however. He released “Groovy Situation” in 1970, and it became his second biggest single, after “Duke of Earl.” The song was written by Russell Lewis and Herman Davis, and had originally been recorded by Mel & Tim. Chandler’s version reached #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, went Top 10 on the R&B chart, and sold a million copies.

Chandler collaborated with Jerry Butler on the album Gene and Jerry: One on One later in 1970. He sang with Curtis Mayfield on the live album Curtis in Chicago in 1973, and with Arthur Louis on the Knocking on Heaven’s Door album, which also featured Eric Clapton, the following year. Chandler released four singles on Mayfield’s Curtom label, but none of them had any chart success.

Later in the decade Chandler found renewed success in the disco era. His hits from that period included “Get Down,” “When You’re #1,” and “Does She Have a Friend?” It was also during this time that Chandler was named Executive Vice President of Chi Sound Records.

Chandler continues to perform in the U.S. and Europe. His extraordinary career spanned the doo-wop, rhythm & blues, soul, and disco era. Chandler is a Grammy Hall of Fame inductee, and was given a Pioneer Award by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation. He was inducted into the Official Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2014.