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.
As we get ready for festive celebrations, holiday seasons and the eventual return to the conventions of life in a new year, we also get ready to appreciate. To be with others. To show our appreciation of them through gifts, shared time and thought.
And People Get Ready is the subject of this post a more poignant, perhaps less vivid post about human-to-human connection.
Curtis Mayfield is one of the most inspiring, revered and yet unheralded figures in the annals of musical heritage YET to those who know, he is the powerhouse of all things soulful.
Less known than perhaps those from the Motown empire, and almost as regularly sampled as James Brown, Mayfield truly is a legend.
Multi-talented as a falsetto vocalist within 1960’s Chicagos’ (arguably) premier group The Impressions his writing prowess matched Smokey Robinsons. His vocal prowess matched Eddie Kendricks and his musical arrangements matched anything Thom Bell or Barry White put together.
Born in Chicago in 1942, he and his friend Jerry Butler joined the Impressions at the tender age of 14. A gospel vocalist and self-taught guitarist (influenced by none other than Muddy Waters).
As early as 1956, riding the Doo-Wop craze, For Your Precious Love and Come Back My Love gave the Impressions credible hits. Butler was often lead vocalist and when he (and Mayfield) left and then returned to the Impressions, Butler eventually left permanently for a solo career and Mayfield took on lead vocals. It ironically proved to be a turning point in the Impressions fortunes.
Gypsy Woman, It’s All Right, Woman’s Got Soul, Keep On Pushing, Cant’ Satisfy, You’ve Been Cheatin’, and of course the iconic People Get Ready.
In the final throes of the 60s, Mayfield set up Curtom Records and left ABC to pursue more creative freedom. And the rise of socio-political commentary in songs sparked into action by the Civil Rights Movement gave Mayfield a wider field to write into. And produce. Many of his Chicago soul artists also moved to Curtom and Mayfield produced a crafted, unique sound that became his own signature style.
The Superfly movie soundtrack, “(Don’t Worry) If There’s A Hell Below We’re All Gonna Go”; “Freddie’s Dead” “Pusherman”; “Give Me Your Love”; “You’re So Good To Me” and “Move On Up” were to become the iconic soundtrack of the early 1970s emergence into understanding and appreciating the struggles of urban, ghett0ised life. Oft-sampled by Hip-Hip and Modern R&B artists, Mayfield became part of the Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye push on socio-conscious activism. Recording anti-war songs, highlighting corruption and disadvantage and furthering the cause of music as a commentary on society.
Sadly, his career took a turn for the worse when rigging on stage collapsed on Mayfield in 1990, and he became paralysed from the neck down. He recorded and wrote still but from a horizontal position to give his lungs the necessary power to still sing. He lost the ability to play his beloved guitar though but continued to record until his premature death in 1999. December 26th to be precise in a Georgia hospital.
People Get Ready though is his fitting epitaph. Simple of words but haunting of impact, it has been voted as the 24th most influential song in musical history and is one of Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 500 songs of all time.
Mayfield is quoted as saying this:
That was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church. Like there’s no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song.
People Get Ready is in a long tradition of Black American freedom songs that use train imagery as an extension of the spiritualist idea that once we die our soul goes on a journey to the afterlife.
In 1965, when this song came to land in the Hot 100 in the USA, pop music ruled the roost. There was no “What’s Going On”, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” “Living For The City” or “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”. It stood out as a call to action. To live a life worth living and to prepare for what may be next for the souls and spirits that follow us.
Mayfield left us too early and that tragic accident somewhat limited his potential revival in the way we had an additional resurgence with our 1960s heroes like Terry Callier, Gaye, Robinson and Wonder.
But Mayfield also left this indelible imprint on our consciousness with this song. Of hope, togetherness and clarity.
For as the middle verse of this song says in its final two lines:
Faith is the key, open the doors and board them
There’s hope for all among those loved the most.
Rest in Power Curtis Mayfield. And thanks for the wonderful, rich tapestry of creative genius you’ve left the world of music with. We are indeed in need of “no ticket” and we thank you for what your craft and love gave to the world.
Perry is Founder and Chief Energy Officer of People and Transformational HR Ltd (PTHR) and is a Chartered Member of the CIPD, a fellow of the RSA and Visiting Professor at 4x Business Schools in the UK. Perry is a 3x published author; a 2x TEDx Speaker and 3x Member of HR’s Most Influential Thinkers List.
Perry’s musical heritage is in the music of black origin and particularly 1960s American R&B and British Soul & Funk from the 1980s-date.