My cousin Stan was my idol when I was a kid. He was a couple of years older than me, a good looking guy with blond hair. He was great at sports, and he was president of his high school class. In other words, pretty much all the things that I was not. His family lived a couple of hours away from mine, but we got to spend our summers together in our grandparent’s house in Atlantic City. Those were magic times for me.
At some point Stan’s family moved from their farm in NJ to a suburb of Philadelphia. Much like the rest of the Philly kids, Stan became enthralled with soul music. Thank goodness for those Philly kids. I spent countless nights with them on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, and they gave me the love of soul music that is one of the things I value most in my life.
Stan turned me on to a lot of music, but there are two albums I very clearly remember him playing for me. One was a Miracles greatest hits compilation, a two-disc set called From the Beginning, which was released in 1965. That album introduced me to the new music that was coming out of Motown. Need I say more?
The other album that stuck with me was from a Chicago group. It was the self-titled 1963 debut album by the Impressions. In retrospect what made the album so good is that it collected chart singles that the group had recorded previously. A total of six of the album’s cuts were hits to one degree or another, including “I’m the One Who Loves You,” “Sad Boy Sad Girl,” and the smash “It’s Alright.” The first of these hits was “Gypsy Woman” which reached #2 on the R&B chart in 1962. It was a song written by Curtis Mayfield when he was only 14 years-old, which makes the song’s sophisticated lyrics and flamenco inflections that much more impressive.
Those were not the Impressions first hits however. In 1958, when they were still called Jerry Butler & the Impressions, they scored big with “For Your Precious Love.” It wasn’t long after that that Butler left for what would turn out to be a very successful solo career. Mayfield went with him for awhile, playing guitar in Butler’s band, and he wrote a number of Butler’s early solo hits. Mayfield returned to the Impressions however, and became their new lead singer.
The Impressions signed with ABC-Paramount in 1961, and “Gypsy Woman” was their first single since Butler left the group. The next few singles didn’t quite measure up in terms of popularity, but then producer Johnny Pate came onboard and updated their sound. As a result, “It’s Alright” became a million-selling record in 1963, reaching #1 on the R&B chart, and #4 on the pop chart.
Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions went on to have a storied career. They made some of the most important and inspirational music of the civil rights era, and influenced countless artists including a young Bob Marley. Mayfield left the group in 1970 and became a legendary solo artist. In 1990 he was paralyzed when stage lighting equipment fell on him at an outdoor concert in New York. He soldiered on, gamely recording his vocals for his fine album New World Order while lying on his back. Mayfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 1999, but by then he was too ill to attend the ceremony. He died on December 26 of that year in Roswell, GA.
The Impressions, with a number of lineup changes, had several R&B hits in the 1970’s, and continued touring in some form into the new century. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.[youtube id=”25M2-J-r2HE” width=”600″ height=”350″]