DATE August 28, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jerry Butler talks about his autobiography: "Only the
Strong Survive: Memoirs of a Soul Survivor"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's Soul Music Week on FRESH AIR. Today through Labor Day we're featuring
interviews with soul singers, songwriters, session musicians and producers.
1957 singers Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield teamed up in Chicago to form
vocal group The Impressions. The group's first hit was the 1958 recording
"For Your Precious Love," featuring Butler singing lead. The following year
Butler left the group to start a solo career, going on to have such hits as
"He Will Break Your Heart," "Moon River," "Make It Easy On Yourself,"
Union Man" and "Only The Strong Survive." Curtis Mayfield went on to become
star singer, songwriter and producer. We'll hear an interview from the
archive of the late Curtis Mayfield later in the show.
I spoke with Jerry Butler last year after the publication of his memoir,
the Strong Survive." He was born in rural Mississippi in 1939. Three years
later, he moved with his family to Chicago, where he still lives. In fact,
he's now in politics, serving his fourth term on the Cook County Board of
Let's start with some music.
(Soundbite of music)
Backup Singers: I remember.
Mr. JERRY BUTLER (Singer; Author, "Only The Strong Survive: Memoirs of a
Soul Survivor"): I remember my first love affair.
Backup Singers: I remember.
Mr. BUTLER: Somehow or another, the whole darned thing went wrong.
Backup Singers: I remember.
Mr. BUTLER: And my mama had some great advice, so I thought I'd put it in
the words of this song.
Backup Singers: I remember.
Mr. BUTLER: I can still hear her saying, `Boy...'
Backup Singers: Boy. Boy.
Mr. BUTLER: `...oh, I see you sitting up there all alone crying your eyes
out 'cause the woman that you love is gone. Oh, there's going to be,
going to be a whole lot of trouble in your life.'
Backup Singers: A whole lot of trouble.
Mr. BUTLER: `Oh, so listen to me. Get up off your knees 'cause only the
strong survive.' That's what she said. She said only the strong survive.
Only the strong survive. Yeah, you got to be strong.
Backup Singers: Oh.
Mr. BUTLER: You better hold on.
Backup Singers: Hold on.
Mr. BUTLER: Don't do...
Backup Singers: Go. Go. Go.
GROSS: Jerry Butler, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. BUTLER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Tell us the story behind this song.
Mr. BUTLER: Actually, this song--the lyrics were actual conversation that I
had with my mother when I was about 16 years old. I was in love with an
woman, if you can believe that, and naturally, she said, `This is a kid.
got to move on with my life and do some other things.' And so she just kind
of dropped me like a hot potato. So I went and told Mama, `Hey, look, this
the end of the world.' She said, `Boy, let me tell you this, that you have
not seen half of the beautiful, lovely women in this world. And for you to
going through these kinds of changes this early in your life is absolutely
ridiculous. Get out of here. You'll get over it.' And "Only The Strong
Survive" was really created out of that conversation. Kenny Gamble and Leon
Huff were the co-writers on it. But the introduction that was recited was
really from that conversation with my mother.
GROSS: Now you first sang gospel music. You were part of a group called
Northern Jubilee Singers(ph), and Curtis Mayfield was in that group too.
of course, you also sang together in The Impressions. How did you first
Mr. BUTLER: Curtis' grandmother, the Reverend Annabelle Mayfield(ph), was
the pastor of this little congregation called the Traveling Soul
Church. And Curtis' older cousins had this little group called the Northern
Jubilee Singers. I wound up at this church one afternoon with a friend of
mine, a fellow by the name of Terry Williams(ph), because we just had
in common and loved to do it. He said, `I want you to meet these people and
get to know them and maybe you will decide to get involved with the group.'
In fact, I did.
We used to kick Curtis to the side, because he was probably nine years old.
He was the little guy. You know, I was 13. I was an old man. And so we
of kept shoving him to the back, shoving him to the back, until he learned
to play the guitar. And then he kind of just took over because he was the
real musician out of the group.
GROSS: Had your voice changed yet?
Mr. BUTLER: As a matter of fact, it had. My voice went into the baritone
register when I was about 13, and it has never come up again.
GROSS: What about Curtis Mayfield's? His couldn't have. He was only nine.
How did he sound?
Mr. BUTLER: Well, you know, Curtis was just the opposite. Curtis always
kind of sounded like a little girl, you know. (Singing in little voice) Got
to keep on pushing. Can't stop now. Move up a little higher.
So he always had that kind of thing going. And I think, over time, he
effectively, as Smokey has done, used it to the point that it became really
kind of his natural sound.
GROSS: Now did you and Curtis Mayfield leave gospel music for rhythm and
blues at about the same time?
Mr. BUTLER: You know, we were never big and famous, as was Sam Cooke or Lou
Rawls with the Pilgrim Travelers, and Sam Cooke with The Soul Stirrers. We
were basically a local group of kids attached to this one particular church.
And even though on occasion we might wind up in the company of those great
stars, we were never really known outside of the city of Chicago. And so
we started singing rhythm and blues, nobody was really affected by it, but
maybe the people who belonged to the church and us.
When Sam left, that was an uproar throughout the whole country in most of
churches, because here was this gospel icon that had gone from singing the
sacred music to singing the secular music. And so there was a lot of, you
know, gnashing of teeth and carrying on about that.
But Curtis and I, we've really made the--and I would like to say we made an
extension rather than a transition. Because even in Curtis' music
the civil rights movement or what have you, you can still hear the strains
the gospel. And he really wrote kind of inspirational songs, as opposed to
what I call `hope to die' love songs, which are the kind of things that I
GROSS: What's an example of a `hope to die' love song?
Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Your precious love means more to me than any love
could ever be. Whereas, he was writing: (Singing) Got to keep on pushing.
Can't stop now. Move up a little higher. You see the difference in that?
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
Well, I think it's time to hear your first hit, "For Your Precious Love,"
which was recorded in 1958 when you were with The Impressions. And you say
that this was--that the lyric was originally a poem that you wrote when you
were in high school?
Mr. BUTLER: Yes. A poem called "They Say(ph)," as a matter of fact, as you
will hear it in the lyric.
GROSS: And was it changed at all for the lyric, or is it exactly the same?
Mr. BUTLER: The only thing that was changed is the title: "For Your
GROSS: OK. This is 1958. Jerry Butler and The Impressions.
(Soundbite of music)
JERRY BUTLER and THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) Your precious love means more
me than any love could ever be. Oh, when I wanted you, I was so lonely and
blue. So that's what love will do. And, darling I was so surprised, oh,
I first realized that you were fooling me. And, darling, they say that our
love won't grow, but I just want to tell them that they don't know. For
GROSS: My guest is soul singer Jerry Butler. that's his 1958 hit with The
Impressions, "For Your Precious Love." And he has a new memoir called "Only
the Strong Survive."
Now you recorded "For Your Precious Love" in your first recording session
Vee-Jay and you also recorded that day "Sweet Was The Wine." Which was
supposed to be the A side?
Mr. BUTLER: Actually, we thought--when I say `we'--I thought and most of
people who were in the room when "For Your Precious Love" was recorded, felt
that "For Your Precious Love" was a hit. But because it was such a ballad
so slow and so spiritual in feeling, the record company wanted to go with
other side, which was more up tempo and danceable and supposedly more what
teen-agers were all about. But "For Your Precious Love" won out. And it
just one of those songs that teen-agers, as well as older people, enjoyed,
it became the A side.
GROSS: Were there any squabbles about who would get to sing lead on your
Mr. BUTLER: You know, it kind of came with the song. For instance, if
Curtis wrote the song, Curtis sang the lead. If I wrote the song, I sang
There was a squabble after "For Your Precious Love" was released because
Vivian Carter, who owned Vee-Jay Records and was the V in Vee-Jay Records, I
should say, was also a disc jockey in Gary, Indiana. And she decided,
had an experience with a group called The Spaniels where she wanted to take
the lead singer and give him a career of his own, but he was so interwoven
with the fabric of The Spaniels that she was afraid she would destroy the
whole thing, made a promise to herself that the next time someone came
that door that had a unique sound and had a unique voice in it, that she was
going to build that unique voice along with the group. So that in later
if there was a breakup or if she decided to move one of the parts toward
another career, she could take one act and make two.
The Impressions happened to be that act. And Jerry Butler happened to be
voice. And so when the recording was released, it was released as Jerry
Butler and The Impressions, and the group never recovered from it. We
and fought about the billing from that day until the day I left, which was
about seven months, eight months later.
GROSS: Did that have to do with your leaving?
Mr. BUTLER: Yes.
GROSS: Explain more about that.
Mr. BUTLER: Well, here we were, five young guys, walked into a recording
studio as The Impressions, walked out as Jerry Butler and The Impressions.
The other four guys were wondering, `Well, what did Jerry do to get top
billing? How did all of a sudden it start to look as though we're working
him, as opposed to him being just part of the group?'
When we got to the Apollo Theater in New York, they had Jerry Butler in
big letters, The Impressions in small letters. By the time we get to Miami,
Florida, there's just Jerry Butler on the marquee; no Impressions at all.
in each one of those places, the other guys refused to perform because their
feelings were hurt. Their pride was hurt. They just could never understand
it. And no matter how much I told them that I hadn't done anything, that
was a decision that had been made by the record company, they just never
GROSS: Did you realize yourself at the time how talented a singer and
songwriter Curtis Mayfield was?
Mr. BUTLER: No. You know, Curtis was, when we first started, writing fairy
tales, you know, "Minstrel And Queen," "Gypsy Woman," those kinds of little
songs. And they were cute, but they, to me, did not show any out-of-sight
kind of talent.
About 1963, two or three, somewhere in there, he started to write the songs
that, to me, were really Curtis Mayfield. He had matured to the point where
he was writing "We're a Winner," "Keep On Pushing," say, "It's All Right,"
"I'm So Proud of You."
And then in the late '60s, he starts to do movie scores, "Superfly"...
Mr. BUTLER: ...and "Let's Do It Again," and "Claudine," and that was when,
you know, my head started spinning around. And I said, `You know, this guy,
who I've treated as a younger brother most of his life, and as a kid brother
at that, is really a genius.'
GROSS: You wanted him to work as your backup guitarist when you went solo.
Mr. BUTLER: Yeah. Actually, what happened was when the group broke up, I
got my share of whatever was left and started out on a solo career. I was
performing in Washington, DC, and my guitarist, who denies to this day that
did it--a fine guitarist by the name of Philip Upchurch--just quit. And he
said, `I'm leaving. I've got a better gig. And I'm out of here.'
I was in a lurch. I didn't know what to do. I needed a musician to help me
get through these performances. And so I called on my friend Curtis and he
responded. He said, `You know, all I can play are the songs that I've
or the songs that we wrote together. And, yeah, I'll do that.' And so he
flew out to Washington and we started to work together. And out of that, we
developed some songwriting skills between the two of us, and we started a
publishing company called Curtom Music, which he later sold to Warner
Music for a whole lot of money.
GROSS: Now you say in your memoir that when you were a, quote, "lightweight
celebrity," before you became very famous, that you still lived in the
projects in Cabrini Green in Chicago.
Mr. BUTLER: Yeah.
GROSS: And you say you used to be able to ignore the pee in the elevators
the stairs, the wine bottles and junkies. You'd been surrounded by that
of filth most of your life. But then it became too much to bear. What
changed that made that filth too much to bear?
Mr. BUTLER: Well, you know, you become oftentimes a product of your
environment. Once you have something else to compare it to, then it's
difficult. You know, it's like, `How are you going to keep them down on the
farm after they've seen Paris?'
Mr. BUTLER: You know? Suddenly, we were moving around. We were being
treated as celebrities. We were eating in restaurants. We were going and
living in hotels where the rooms were spic-and-span and the beds were made
perfectly, and there was no smell of urine around. And suddenly we realized
that it was within our reach to get out, to be part of a bigger and better
And what I'm hoping that the book will do, and as I go around talking to a
of young people who are still living in those kinds of conditions, that you
can get out. You have to work. You have to compete. But you can get out.
GROSS: My guest is soul singer Jerry Butler. More after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: It's Soul Music Week on FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview
with singer Jerry Butler.
Let me get to another hit you had, "Moon River," which is the Henry Mancini
song, the title song from the movie of the same name. This is a much
mean, Andy Williams also had a hit of this and his hit was a very, like,
middle-of-the-road kind of recording. Did you consider this a different
direction for you musically?
Mr. BUTLER: Well, allow me to make one small correction in your statement,
first of all.
Mr. BUTLER: The movie was entitled "Breakfast at Tiffany's"...
GROSS: Of course. Right, yes.
Mr. BUTLER: ...and not "Moon River."
Mr. BUTLER: But the song was sang in the movie by Audrey Hepburn, sitting
the window sill with an acoustical guitar. Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer
were the writers, and they wanted to get as many people to record this song
possible because they were sure that it was going to at least be nominated,
not win, the Academy Award. Nobody wanted to record the song. First of
it was a waltz. Second of all, it was "Moon River." `Well, where's Moon
River and what is that all about?' Calvin Carter, who is the brother of
Vivian Carter who owned Vee-Jay Records and was the A&R man for the company,
said, `Jerry, this is going to be an important song for your career. Sing
Curtis and I took the song and we hated it in three-quarter time, so we put
in four-four time. Well, when we got to the studio singing it in four, it
about four minutes, 15 seconds long, which was far too long for air play in
that period of time. And so we had to speed it up. When we were speeding
the tempo, we got into a slight cha-cha, bossa nova kind of rhythm and that
gave it a different edge. So we added a guitar to give it the
flavor and a harmonica. And then we just draped all these violins and
around it to give it New York sophistication because that's really what the
whole deal was about, was that there was this pretty young girl who was from
some rural area who had come to the big city. And she was dealing with this
concept of a Moon River, wider than a mile. She was going to cross it in
style. She was going to be somebody. She was going to do all these
And so we had the first vocal recording of "Moon River." Mancini and Mercer
believed that I should have sang it on the Academy Awards show. The problem
was that CBS, which was the company that Columbia Records was owned by, was
also planning to give Andy Williams a television show, and they needed a
song for his show. And he had recorded this "Breakfast at Tiffany's" album,
and "Moon River" was going to be that song. "Moon River" got the Academy
Award. Andy Williams sang it, and it became the theme song for his show.
GROSS: Do you feel kind of cheated by that?
Mr. BUTLER: Oh--you know, I think when it first happened, I did. But if I
had sang "Moon River" on the Academy Awards show, my life probably would
been a lot different than the life I've had, which has been pretty good.
GROSS: OK. Let's hear 1961, Jerry Butler's recording of "Moon River."
(Soundbite from "Moon River")
Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Moon River, wider than a mile. I'm crossing you in
style someday. Dream maker, you old heartbreaker, wherever you're going,
going your way. Two drifters...
GROSS: Our interview with Jerry Butler was recorded last year after the
publication of his autobiography, "Only the Strong Survive." We'll hear
Curtis Mayfield in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is
(Soundbite from song)
Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) People get ready there's a train a'comin'. You don't
need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith through
GROSS: Coming up, as Soul Music Week continues, we listen back to a 1993
interview with the late Curtis Mayfield, whose many hits included "Keep On
Pushing," "We're a Winner" and "Superfly." Also we continue our interview
with Jerry Butler, and Ed Ward profiles Sam Cooke.
(Soundbite from song)
Mr. CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) The darkest of night with the moon shinin'
bright. There's a set goin' strong, lot of things goin' on. The man of
hour has an air of great power. The dudes have envied him for so long. Oh,
superfly. You're gonna make your fortune by and by. But if you lose, don't
ask no questions why. The only game you know is doin' fly. Ah, ha, ha.
Hard to understand, but a helluva man. This god of the slum had a mind,
wasn't dumb. But a weakness was shown 'cause his hustle was wrong. His
was his own, but the man lived alone. Ooh, superfly. You're gonna make
fortune by and by. But if you lose, don't ask no questions why. The only
game you know is doin' fly.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. It's Soul Music Week on FRESH
AIR. Let's get back to our interview with singer Jerry Butler. He
The Impressions with Curtis Mayfield in 1957, and sang lead on their hit
Your Precious Love." Then Butler went solo, recording such hits as "He Will
Break Your Heart," "Moon River," "Western Union Man" and "Only The Strong
Survive." In 1962, he had a hit recording of the Burt Bacharach-Hal David
song "Make It Easy On Yourself." I asked Butler how he got to work with
Mr. BUTLER: Burt had recorded "Make It Easy On Yourself" as a--I guess, a
demonstration record with Dionne Warwick, who was really his voice. And
took this record to Scepter Records. Florence Greenberg, at that time, was
the president, the owner of the company. She fell in love with Dionne's
voice, but she didn't like "Make It Easy On Yourself." And so Burt was kind
of stuck with this big production on this song and no place to go with it.
He used it as a demonstration record and sent it to Calvin Carter out here
Chicago. And Calvin said, `Jerry, this is a good song. We ought to record
this song.' And I said, `OK. Who are we going to get to arrange it?' He
said, `I like the way this guy arranged this song. And so we're going to
him.' And we went back to New York and hired Burt to do the arrangement.
that's how "Make It Easy On Yourself" came about.
GROSS: Did you learn anything musically from working with Bacharach, or
learning about singing this particular song? Did he give you any advice
this particular song?
Mr. BUTLER: You know, Burt and I were kind of at odds. Burt was a very
strict musician in the sense that--and especially with his songs because
of these songs were new, had never been heard before and he wanted to make
sure that the melody was precise and that the rhythm was precise. That's
I said he used Dionne the way he used her because Dionne was like an
instrument for Burt. (Singing) `Do you know the way to San Jose?
Dot-dot-dot-dot-dot-dot,' you know. It was very structured. She could have
been a trumpet.
GROSS: I know exactly what you mean.
Mr. BUTLER: OK. I had a tendency to lay back. (Singing) `Oh, breaking up
is so very hard to do. But yeah--do-dee-da-da'--because I wanted people to
hear my phrasing. Burt wanted people to hear his song. And so we argued a
lot about it. `Well, you came in late.' And I said, `But that's where I
it.' `Well, it doesn't fit.'
GROSS: So--but you kind of won on that one, don't you think?
Mr. BUTLER: Well, you know, I kind of had a lot going in my favor. I was,
quote, unquote, "the star." He was a fledging arranger just getting
And the record company was paying the bill. And so--which meant eventually
was going to pay the bill because they were going to charge all of this
back to me.
Mr. BUTLER: But we did, in fact, work as well as we could together and
became good friends. But I never had another hit with any of his songs,
whereas Dionne had several.
GROSS: Did you feel like you did what you wanted to do with "Make It Easy
Mr. BUTLER: Oh, yeah.
Mr. BUTLER: Yeah, yeah. As a matter of fact after I recorded it, it became
what was known in the industry as a `turntable hit.' It got lots of air
and we sold maybe a quarter of a million, half-million records or so.
a group from England called The Walker Brothers re-recorded it pretty much
same way that I'd done it. And then to show how what goes around comes
around, in the early '70s, Dionne re-records the song that I had learned
her demonstration record and had a big hit with it herself.
GROSS: It's been so much fun to talk with you. I want to thank you so
Mr. BUTLER: Thank you.
GROSS: Jerry Butler recorded last year after the publication of his memoir
"Only The Strong Survive." Let's hear his recording, "Make It Easy On
(Soundbite from "Make It Easy On Yourself")
Mr. BUTLER: (Singing) Oh, breaking up is so very hard to do. If you
love him then there's nothing I can really do. Don't try to spare my
feelings, just tell me that we're through. And make it easy on yourself.
Make it easy on yourself 'cause breaking up is so very hard to do. And if
GROSS: Coming up, a 1993 interview with Jerry Butler's friend and
collaborator, the late Curtis Mayfield as our Soul Music Week continues.
is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Curtis Mayfield talks about his singing, songwriting
and producing career
TERRY GROSS, host:
Like many great soul singers, Curtis Mayfield started off singing gospel
music. He later came to define the Chicago soul sound through his singing,
songwriting and producing. In the '60s with his group, The Impressions, he
had such hits as "Gypsy Woman," "People Get Ready," "I'm So Proud," "We're a
Winner," and "It's All Right." In the '70s, he did the soundtrack for
"Superfly." In 1990, he wrote some of the music for the sequel, "The Return
of Superfly." Later that year, he was the victim of a freak stage accident.
Mayfield was performing at an outdoor concert before an audience of about
10,000 in Brooklyn, New York, when a lighting scaffold was blown over by a
gust of wind and fell on him, breaking his neck, leaving him paralyzed from
the neck down. His health continued to deteriorate and he died in late
I spoke with Curtis Mayfield in 1993. When he was growing up, his
had a church, the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church. I asked him if he
heard her preach a lot.
I know that when you were growing up, your grandmother had a church, the
Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church. Did you hear her preach a lot?
Mr. CURTIS MAYFIELD (Singer, Songwriter): Oh, yes. Reverend A.B. Mayfield,
Anna-Belle Mayfield. And, of course, I heard her preach a lot and I
even in my sleep, subconsciously observed a whole lot of her sermons. And I
believe through herself and my mother, who was quite fond of all types of
music and poems and things of that sort, she used to read to me a lot of the
old Paul Laurence Dunbar writings and lyrics, and I was quite acquainted
the limericks and Dr. Seuss of the old years, you know.
And, of course, I identified with her teaching me a few things on the piano
a youngster. So through these two ladies, I believe over the years, I've
carried out not only my ambitions but theirs as well.
GROSS: Now did you sing in her church?
Mr. MAYFIELD: Yes, I did. As I became older, around seven, eight years
I became acquainted with my cousins who was a part of the church and they
started a group known as the Northern Jubilees. And I believe this is what
sort of laid out my fundamentals as to harmonies because I can recall years
ago playing and my watching this black and white speciality record which was
78 RPM then and listening to such artists as Sam Cooke and the Soul
the Five Blind Boys and, of course, you'd have to wind up this Victrola that
we had and insert needles every so many records, you know, to keep it going
properly. And this is how I got started, I believe, with my harmonies.
GROSS: What part did you sing in a group?
Mr. MAYFIELD: I was always a tenor.
GROSS: When you started playing guitar, started writing songs, were they
secular songs or gospel songs?
Mr. MAYFIELD: They were what I would think pop songs, you know. While I
written a few gospel songs, what would be looked upon as gospel, I call them
more inspirational. Such songs as "People Get Ready" and "Keep On Pushing."
"Keep On Pushing" actually was written as a gospel song. However, I found
that all I need to do is change one lyric or one word and it was pop for us.
GROSS: The word was God that you would change?
Mr. MAYFIELD: That's right. Instead of God gave me my strength, I said,
`I've got my strength. And it don't make sense not to keep on pushing.'
GROSS: Why don't we play The Impressions, "People Get Ready"? And maybe
before we hear it, you can tell us about how you wrote the song, when you
wrote it, what was going through your mind then.
Mr. MAYFIELD: Well, I can't really recall when I wrote this particular
but this is a perfect example of what I believe has laid in my subconscious
to the preachers of my grandmother and most ministers when they reflect from
the Bible. You know, `People get ready, there's a train a'comin'. There's
hiding place. You don't need no baggage, you just get on board.'
GROSS: Why don't we hear it? This is Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions.
(Soundbite of "People Get Ready")
THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) People get ready, there's a train a'comin'. You
don't need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith to hear
the diesels hummin'. Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord. So
people get ready for the train to Jordan, picking up passengers coast to
coast. Faith is the key, open the doors and board them. There's hope for
among those loved the most.
GROSS: Curtis Mayfield is joining us from his home in Georgia.
You became the lead singer of The Impressions after Terry Butler left and
first hit that you had with you as lead singer was "Gypsy Woman." This was,
think, 1961. See, you wrote the song, you sang lead. It's a great record.
It's funny, the lyric is about something that I'm sure you had absolutely no
first-hand knowledge of. You know, a Gypsy woman who, you know, all through
the caravan, she was dancing with all the men. I mean, did you know any
women when you wrote this?
Mr. MAYFIELD: No. And you're absolutely--that's absolutely true about--I
lots of Western movies.
GROSS: Oh, right. I'm sure I saw the same ones.
Mr. MAYFIELD: Yes. And it's funny, 20, 25 years later, I'm in Germany and
I'm performing in concert and I'm hearing people, you know, calling for
Woman," which was in the repertoire but I hadn't come to it yet. And after
the show, I had an interview such as what we're doing now and the
spoke in terms of there being lots of Gypsies in the place, which was out of
the ordinary. Gypsies never came to concerts. And, of course, they asked
about it and I had no idea other than maybe the song. They liked the song.
Well, after the interview, across the street, I'd been invited to a
where there was about 50 to 75 Gypsies, all the men sitting in a circle and
their women in the middle. And when I walked in the place, they gave me a
standing ovation, great applause. And one of the gentlemen came up to shake
my hand and he said, `Curtis, we've been waiting for you for 20 years.'
GROSS: You said before that singing in the gospel group helped you
harmonies and that you used some of those harmonies with The Impressions.
me play a record that I just particularly love the harmonies on and this is
"I'm So Proud." It's really such a beautiful ballad. How would you work
the harmonies for one of the records? Maybe you could talk specifically
working out the harmonies on this one.
Mr. MAYFIELD: Well, a song like "I'm So Proud," it just--there was nothing
to work out. As soon as I would say `prettier than all the world,' through
melody would automatically come the harmonies of Fred and Sam. There was
nothing to work out. It was easy as apple pie.
GROSS: Let's hear "I'm So Proud."
(Soundbite of "I'm So Proud")
THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) Prettier than all the world. And I'm so proud,
I'm so proud, I'm so proud of you. You're only one fellow's girl, and I'm
proud, I'm so proud, I'm so proud of you. I'm so proud of being loved by
And it would hurt, hurt to know if you ever were untrue. Sweeter than the
taste of a cherry so sweet. And I'm so proud, girl, I'm so proud, I'm so
proud of you. Compliments to you from all the people we meet. Yes, and I'm
so proud. I'm so proud. Believe me, I love you, too. I'm so proud of
loved by you.
GROSS: Curtis Mayfield is my guest.
Let me skip ahead to "Superfly," the songs that you wrote for the film of
name. It's really such a great score, you know, such a great set of songs.
How did you get the assignment to write the songs for the movie?
Mr. MAYFIELD: Well, a gentleman by the name of Philip Fenty in New York
to the Lincoln Center where I was appearing. Between shows, I met him and
Shore who was to become the producer. Philip wrote the screenplay and they
were very hot about--especially Philip who was from 125th Street in New York
City. He wanted me to write the music for "Superfly."
GROSS: Let me ask you about one of the songs I particularly like from
"Superfly" and that's "Freddie's Dead" which, I think, became one of the
popular songs from the movie. I mean, one of the really good things about
is the way this song tells a whole story. Do you want to talk about writing
Mr. MAYFIELD: Well, most of my lyrics in song, if you listen closely, will
not only give you a lyrical balance but also give you a visual balance and I
think that's probably what was appreciated through "Freddie's Dead" is that
you could also see it visually and it spoke of a young man who was a decent
guy overall, but was dealing with the wrong crowd, in with the wrong crowd.
And his doings were, you know, of the lowest caliber, dealing with drugs.
his old lady wasn't helping him any either.
(Soundbite of "Freddie's Dead")
Mr. MAYFIELD: (Singing) Freddie's dead, that's what I said. Let the man
read the plan, said it singing home. But his home was a rope and he should
have known. It's hard to understand there was love in this man. I'm sure
would agree that his misery was his woman and friends. Now Freddie's dead.
That's what I said.
GROSS: Our interview with Curtis Mayfield was recorded in 1993, six years
before his death.
Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward profiles Sam Cooke as our Soul Music Week
continues. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Gospel and soul singer Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers
TERRY GROSS, host:
At least three of the singers we're hearing from on Soul Music Week, Curtis
Mayfield, Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack credits Sam Cooke with having
inspired them to cross over from gospel to pop. Rock historian Ed Ward has
profile of Cooke during his early career before records like "You Send Me"
"Wonderful World." Ed goes back to Cooke's own gospel groups, which
to influence Cooke from his first hit to his last.
(Soundbite from song)
Mr. SAM COOKE: (Singing) I was born by the river in a little tent. Oh, and
just like a river I've been running ever since. It's been a long, a long
coming, but I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it will.
I don't know how many times I've picked up a soul singer's biography and
that their career started in church. The black church has always been where
the soul in soul singing comes from, yet it's not always easy to show that
fact clearly. But in the case of Sam Cooke, the man who very nearly
soul music, we can hear it happen.
The story starts with The Soul Stirrers.
(Soundbite from "His Eye Is On the Sparrow")
SOUL STIRRERS: (Singing) Why should I feel discouraged? Why should the
shadows fall? Why should my heart feel lonely, Lord, and long for my
home? For Jesus is my portion. A constant friend is he. His eye is on, on
the sparrow and I know he watches me. Oh, Lord, I sing...
WARD: The Soul Stirrers were one of America's top gospel groups, founded in
the '30s around the incomparable singer R.H. Harris, whom we heard singing
"His Eye Is On the Sparrow." But in 1950, Harris decided to retire and The
Soul Stirrers, who were still headliners, searched for a replacement. They
found him in Sam Cooke, a minister's son from Chicago, who was only 16 years
old, but was already a veteran of the gospel scene after singing for a
of years with another top group, the Highway QCs. He had the looks. He had
the experience and, as they found out the first time they went into the
with him, he had the voice.
(Soundbite from song)
SOUL STIRRERS: (Singing) Oh, the bear will be gentle. You know the wolf
gonna be so tame. The mighty lion, he will lie down with a lamb. Oh, yes.
know the hosts from the wild will be led by a little child, and I'll be
changed from this creature that I am. Oh, there'll be peace in the valley
WARD: Don't discount the value of looks either. Gospel music is still show
business and yet it's the kind the young tend not to go see. Suddenly the
men in The Soul Stirrers found they were getting young girls in the front
and that the frenzy was wilder than usual.
(Soundbite from "Nearer To Thee")
SOUL STIRRERS: (Singing) Sometimes I like to be in company, and then again
I like to steal off all alone. A song is the only thing, Father, that will
console me, Lord, when I know trouble, trouble's about to come. I can fall
down on my knees and call God late at night, and I know, Lord, he'll make
he'll make my burdens all right. If I tell him, Lord, I've got a desire
(unintelligible). I'll tell him, Lord, I'll be all right if I can get
to thee, nearer to thee. Through all my trials, you'll help me, Lord, if I
can get nearer. I want to get a little bit nearer, nearer Lord. Lord, oh,
Lord, I, I want to be...
WARD: Even on this fairly primitive live recording "Nearer To Thee" made in
Los Angeles in the mid-'50s, you can get an inkling of the excitement Sam
Cooke generated; a palpably sexual reaction similar to, but different, from
the normal gospel fans' reaction. And those of you who are familiar with
Sam's later work will recognize where he got "Bring It On Home To Me."
By 1956 Sam Cooke was 21 years old and feeling the urge to move on. He
secretly recorded a pop song, "Loveable," and released it under the name
Cooke. The reaction was strong enough that he handed The Soul Stirrers his
resignation and never looked back. The gospel world was scandalized and a
rumor circulated that Sam Cooke had sold his soul to the devil. If he had,
the devil had gotten himself a bargain. Sam Cooke had more soul than most
people. Although he tried to reconcile with the gospel world and get it to
accept what he'd done, he was an outcast among them and remained that way
until the night in 1961 when he was shot to death in a still unexplained
incident in a motel.
Today, Sam Cooke's pop recordings still stand as milestones, but anybody who
loves his singing really owes it to themselves to look into the place where
it started, with The Soul Stirrers.
GROSS: Our rock historian, Ed Ward, lives in Berlin.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite from song)
Mr. COOKE: (Singing) If you ever change your mind about leaving, leaving me
behind, baby, bring it to me. Bring your sweet loving; bring it on home to
(Soundbite from song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Oh, help me! Yeah. I'm a midnight mover.
GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, Soul Music Week continues with singers Bobby
Womack and Barry White. I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite from song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Yeah, a real soul pleaser. I'm a midnight
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