As a young teenager from the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, Curtis Mayfield worshipped at the altar of Sam Cooke, which comes as no surprise—generations of future artists would venerate the King of Soul. In the early 1950s, Cooke was the divine voice fronting the Soul Stirrers, the mighty gospel quartet whose harmonies influenced everything from doo-wop to Motown. The young Mayfield followed in his footsteps with his first group, Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers.
And when Cooke pivoted from the church to pop, Mayfield also took note. He too would transition from sacred music to secular stardom, becoming one of soul music's enduring icons, but Mayfield made sure to safeguard his legacy early on in his career. "When my father started recording in 1958, no Negro artist [owned their work]," his son Todd Mayfield wrote in Traveling Soul, his biography of his father, but Curtis looked to the example of Sam Cooke's SAR Records, which the singer started in 1961. "Already one of Dad's heroes in music, Cooke became his hero in business, too. Dad followed in Cooke's footsteps and founded his own publishing company. He called it Curtom."
Curtom would soon become one of the most vital record labels of the late '60s, run by Mayfield and Eddie Thomas, its name a melding of their names. And while Cooke never recorded for his label (instead using it to promote other artists), Mayfield handled Curtom's daily business, was its main A&R, and wrote and produced albums for its many acts—all while being its biggest-selling artist. For the first half of the '70s they had one of the most successful black independent labels this side of Detroit. "Own yourself, own yourself, own yourself," was Mayfield's mantra, his son recalled. "Curtom made him a titan. He'd done what a black man in America wasn't supposed to do—snatched control from a system designed to subjugate him."
Mayfield remains a singular talent in pop music, his gifts still not properly perceived and revered in the culture. His aching falsetto and politically-aware songs kindled a fire in Bob Marley, his adroit and awe-inspiring guitar work heavily influenced Jimi Hendrix, while his way with a beat has made him a foundation of hip-hop, sampled numerous times by Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Mayfield knew his worth though and saw firsthand how labels pilfer from their artists, how they paid pennies on the dollar for smash hits, taking the publishing with them. And while Mayfield's first two imprints, Windy C and Mayfield, suffered from distribution problems, with Curtom, he finally took control of his fate.
"Black Power's emphasis on economic autonomy resonated with Mayfield's determination to control his music," Craig Werner wrote in Higher Ground, and his increased social consciousness in turn powered his songwriting and business dealings. With his band the Impressions, Mayfield's pen led to songs that inspired and empowered their audience, such as "Keep On Pushing," "People Get Ready," and their 1967 hit, "We're A Winner." It also led the group to leave their label, ABC-Paramount, for Curtom. "We were trying to equalize things," Thomas said of the label and its roots in Black Power. "That was our whole policy cause we were not equal, we were stuck down at the bottom and no matter what happened, we stayed there. That's why we were fighting to get up."
In 1970, Mayfield went solo. His first five solo albums all made the Top 40: His debut, Curtis, went Top Twenty, Curtis Live spent 38 weeks in the Top 100, and with his soundtrack for blacksploitation classic, Superfly, Curtis reached #1. Such success allowed Mayfield to move his mother out of the Cabrini-Green projects and provide for his extended family. At the label's pinnacle, Mayfield did it all—head writer, producer, A&R man, CEO, president, and star artist. But while he envisioned a Motown-like level of success, it was basically a one-man show: "My father pulled off the staggering task of creating an entire record label's worth of music by himself," Todd Mayfield says.
Yet outside of his own iconic songs, Curtis's magic touch never quite extended to the other artists on his roster. So while he recognized the genius of Donny Hathaway and released his earliest singles on Curtom, it was only when Hathaway went to Atlantic that he became a star. In trying to help out old friends like Major Lance, Gene Chandler, and Billy Butler, the only one to taste the R&B Top 20 was Major Lance's "Stay Away from Me." In signing the family group the Five Stairsteps, Mayfield anticipated the future success of other family acts like the Jackson 5 and the Osmonds.
Mayfield knew what he had and produced lush soul albums like the group's 1968 LP Love's Happening, which Craig Werner called "a weirdly appealing combination of flower-power musings and gospel-bubblegum production." That album boasts one of hip-hop's foundational breaks in the form of "Don't Change Your Love," sampled by A Tribe Called Quest, Common, De La Soul, LL Cool J, Pete Rock, and many others. But the band could never break through commercially on Curtom. Ironically, it was only when Mayfield's workload kept him from working with the band—leading them to move over to the Buddah imprint—that they finally achieved soul ubiquity with 1970's "O-o-h Child."
Mayfield also knew he had a star with the mighty-voiced Baby Huey. If the 400-pound soul belter hadn't succumbed to a drug-related heart attack at the age of 26, he might have become a superstar on the imprint. As it was, Mayfield produced the posthumous The Baby Huey Story: The Living Legend, which didn't sell well upon its release. But it too would become a hip-hop staple, its breaks powering everyone from Eric B. & Rakim and A Tribe Called Quest to Ice Cube and Ghostface Killah.
But while Mayfield might have anticipated hip-hop, as the '70s went on, he stubbornly did everything he could to avoid bowing to the unrelenting rhythms of disco. As R&B, soul, and funk all became absorbed in it, Curtis Mayfield and Curtom found themselves on the outside looking in as disco took over dancefloors, black radio, and the pop charts. Only Linda Clifford, Mayfield's sometime duet partner, had measurable success with "If My Friends Could See Me Now" and "Runaway Love."
Even Mayfield's film scores finally faltered during the '70s. While Mayfield had chart success working with soul queens like Gladys Knight and the Pips, Aretha Franklin, and Mavis Staples on various soundtracks, in 1977, under the long shadow of Star Wars, the gritty prison film Short Eyes—with a deep Mayfield soundtrack—failed at the box office and on the charts, nearly bankrupting Curtom. He enlisted Mavis Staples for his second movie soundtrack, A Piece of the Action, but that film was eclipsed by Saturday Night Fever and the rise of disco. Mayfield took his own half-hearted stabs at disco, with Do It All Night and Heartbeat. And while those albums offer some sweet moments (check out the exquisite "In Love, In Love, In Love" and the space disco stomp of "What Is My Woman For?"), Mayfield couldn't adapt to the changing trends and by 1980, Curtom formally ceased operations.
"I had the ambition to want to be rich like Motown and Berry Gordy, I was striving for that like you can't believe," Mayfield told The Face in 1983. "But it took a little bit more than I could handle myself to make another Motown. It just wasn't in the cards for one man to run a publishing company, be a recording artist, and be a producer." Curtom may have faltered, but its example lives on. Rappers not only sample Mayfield's music, but model their own labels on the example of Curtom. One need only look to the massive success of P. Diddy's Bad Boy, Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella, Rick Ross's MMG or Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music to see that there is immeasurable power for such African-American artists, provided that you "own yourself."