York ethnomusicologist documents the soul of Curtis Mayfield

Rob Bowman, professor of ethnomusicology in the Department of Music, Faculty of Fine Arts, recently returned from Chicago where his two-hour documentary film, Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions, received its world premiere to a standing-room-only crowd.

After the screening Bowman and his co-producer, David Peck, took part in a Q&A session with Mayfield’s widow, Altheida, and Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, the two surviving members of the musical group,The Impressions.

Above: From left, Fred Cash, David Peck, Altheida Mayfield, Sam Gooden and York Professor Rob Bowman. Photo by Debra Meeks, courtesy of Rob Bowman.

“The audience response was phenomenal,” said Bowman. “It just goes to show what a deep impact this music still has.”

Soul and R&B musician Curtis Mayfield (1942 -1999) has achieved near-mythic status in the history of American popular culture as a pioneer of funk and of politically-conscious African-American music. The legendary guitarist and composer is best known for his anthemic music with his trio, The Impressions, and for his soundtrack for the 1972 "blaxploitation" film, Superfly.  

The film features rarely-seen footage, including candid interviews with Mayfield throughout his career and 22 complete vintage television performances from The Impressions and Mayfield’s solo career, filmed between 1965 and 1973.

“Unlike most music documentaries that only show a 30-second performance clip, ours goes at a slower pace and allows the audience to enjoy the whole song,” said Bowman. “It’s a music-centric approach to filmmaking.”

Rounding out the archival footage are in-depth contemporary interviews with Cash and Gooden, Altheida Mayfield, arranger Johnny Pate, rapper Chuck D., musician Carlos Santana and civil rights activist Andrew Young, former US ambassador to the UN.

Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions was released on DVD by Universal Music in North America and Europe on May 6. Click here to view the trailer. 

Bowman researched and conducted the onscreen interviews for the film, and wrote the liner notes for the 28-page illustrated booklet that accompanies the DVD.  He recalls his interview with Young as a pivotal moment in his research.

“Young worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” Bowman explained. “He went into how the music of The Impressions was a virtual soundtrack for the civil rights era in the 60s, and the effect that songs like People Get Ready, Choice of Colors and We’re a Winner had on the movement. These songs were sung for inspiration in churches and during marches, sometimes led by Dr. King himself.

“You embark on the project because you know the music is important and the story needs to be told,” Bowman said. “Then you talk to someone who was there and who was involved, and you realize how deep this went, and it takes the story to a whole new level."

Movin’ On Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions is the fifth DVD that Bowman has collaborated on with Peck. Peck’s company, Reelin’ In The Years Productions, is one of the largest music footage libraries in the world, archiving over 10,000 hours of performances. Peck approached Bowman to collaborate on music documentaries after they met at the 2003 launch of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis, a project Bowman championed from conception to realization, and to which he contributed extensive research.

Known as York’s “rock ’n’ roll professor”, Bowman is an alumnus (BA ‘78, MFA ’82) and one of the longest-serving instructors at the University – he pioneered popular music studies at York more than three decades ago at age 22. He has produced and contributed liner notes and commentary to dozens of CD and DVD productions, including reissues of recordings by Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding and The Temptations.  

A five-time Grammy Award nominee, he won a Grammy in 1996 for Best Album Notes for his monograph for the 10-CD boxed set of The Complete Stax/Volt Soul Singles, Vol. 3. He is also the author of numerous articles and several books on American popular music, including the award-winning Soulsville, USA: The Story of Stax Records (1998).