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The story of Tennessee music is a tale of two cities, really: Nashville and Memphis. But to count out Chattanooga is to ignore the origins of the Impressions, the long-running, socially conscious soul group that launched the careers of Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. On the street corners of mid-twentieth-century Chattanooga, boyhood friends Fred Cash, Sam Gooden, Arthur Brooks, and Richard Brooks started a vocal group called the Roosters, which, in the late ’50s, migrated north to Chicago. There, the band—sans Cash, whose mother wouldn’t let him go—hooked up with Butler and Mayfield, and the Roosters became the Impressions. After the success of the Impressions’ 1958 45 “For Your Precious Love,” lead vocalist Butler left to go solo, but that’s when things really started to heat up: Mayfield took over for Butler, Cash joined back up in Mayfield’s place, and the Brooks brothers split altogether. So by the early ’60s, the classic lineup of Mayfield, Gooden, and Cash—the trio that turned out eternal tunes like “People Get Ready,” “It’s All Right,” “I’m So Proud,” “We’re a Winner,” “Keep on Pushing,” “This Is My Country,” and “Check Out Your Mind”—was firmly in place.
But it wouldn’t last. In 1970, Mayfield jumped ship to drop funk cornerstones like Curtis and Superfly, leaving the Impressions frontman-less again. With various third members, the Impressions never stopped pushing, always with Cash and Gooden at the core. On July 20, the current incarnation of the Impressions—Cash, Gooden, and lead singer Reggie Torian—will unite at Lincoln Center for “Here But I’m Gone,” a tribute to Mayfield featuring artists like Bilal, Mavis Staples, William Bell, Dr. Lonnie Smith, the Roots, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Sharon Jones guitarist Binky Griptite, who will serve as musical director for the show. Mayfield, who would’ve turned seventy in June—he died in 1999—was also paid tribute to earlier this year when, with Griptite at the helm, the Impressions laid down an unrecorded composition of his at Daptone Records’ Bushwick studio. Cash, who has long since moved back to Chattanooga, spoke to Sound of the City about working with Mayfield, encouraging B.B. King at the Apollo, taking Donny Hathaway on tour, and telling the truth.
How did you get involved with Daptone and Binky Griptite?
DJ Pari, who’s our road manager at this point, booked us over in London, England, last year. And that’s how I met Binky. Binky was telling [Pari] that, “Hey, man, I would love to do something with the Impressions.” And we kept talkin’ about it ’til Binky called and we started putting it together. As far as putting some music together. We went then to New York. We played there. We cut four songs. And it just kinda snowballed from there.
Are you gonna make a full LP?
Well, at this point, we’re gonna start shopping it. We’re gonna kinda hole up with these four songs and see what kinda bite we can get on it. And if things go the way we anticipate, then yeah, we probably will go ahead and do an LP.
What songs did you cut?
When Curtis was sick, Sam and I stopped in Atlanta to see how he was doing and chitchat with him a while. And in the process of that conversation, he was tellin’ me about this song that he had. And the name of it was “Homeless.” And he played it for us and I said, “Man, I really like this song. Why don’t you let the Impressions do it?” He said, “Yeah, take it with you.” We was between labels at that particular point and didn’t get a chance to do it. And I had that song here in my home for about twenty years. And I was cleaning out my office, with a whole big bag of tapes, and can you imagine what tape fell out of that bag? It was that tape: “Homeless.” And I called Sam. I put it in the machine first, and I played it, and it sounded so good, just like when he played it for us. And then I called Reggie, the other fella, in Chicago, and played it for him. And he said, “Man, I’m gonna give you some sugar.” They just thought it was such a good song. And that was one of the songs that we decided to put in the mix, so we could cut it.
Can you walk me through how the Impressions started? It was originally the Roosters?
That’s right. Well, as little young guys, Sam and myself didn’t have a whole lot to do but sit around on the corner and sing at night. And during the day, we’d play baseball or softball. Whoever had hit records out at that particular time—coulda been Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, or Ray Charles—we’d sit around and try to emulate and sing those songs. That’s how it all came about. And it just kinda got serious at one point. We thought maybe we wanted to try to do a bit more with our careers. But as you know, there was no record labels in this particular area at that time. You had to go to Chicago, New York, California, Detroit. So Sam and the other fellas we was singing with decided to move to Detroit. To see if they could further their music career. And I was so young at that point, my mother wouldn’t let me go. So they went on to Detroit, and left there and went to Chicago, and that’s where they met Jerry and Curtis Mayfield. Jerry was with the group some six months before they cut “For Your Precious Love” and he decided to go solo. And in the process of doing that, they played their last show at the auditorium here in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Knowing that Jerry was getting ready to leave the group, they came by and got me to see if I wanted to go back to Chicago with them and join the group. So that’s what I did. After that six months, Jerry left and I replaced him.
Can you tell me about living in Chicago during the ’60s? That was the heyday of Chicago soul.
Oh, yeah. Everybody at that particular time—the Chi-Lites, Gene Chandler, Major Lance, the Impressions—we all had big hits during that era. And did a lot of tours together. And Jerry Butler as well. That was a good time for all of us. ‘Cause everybody had big records.
What was it about Chicago at that time that produced all of these people?
I wish I knew. But like I said, the Chi-Lites, Gene Chandler, all of us came out of that era. Just like the Temptations and the Tops. All those guys came out of Detroit, you know? We don’t why, but it happened! It happened. They were able to get a contract with Motown and we was able to get a contract with Vee-Jay and then ABC-Paramount.
Can you tell me about the first time you met Curtis Mayfield?
When I was living in Chattanooga, and they did their last show [with Butler], that’s when I met Curtis Mayfield. After Jerry had left. I just thought he was a genuine guy. He had so much talent, playing guitar and writing songs, you know? I just really, really admired him. And thought he was a great writer. And a producer as well. And a good friend.
What was the rehearsal process like for the Impressions?
Curtis lived out in Markham, Illinois, and Sam and I—again—lived next door to each other, in Chicago. And Curtis would drive into Chicago and we would rehearse in my basement or in Sam’s basement with just the guitar. Curtis would bring his open-box guitar and we’d sit there for hours, just rehearsin’. [We’d] learn all the songs that Curtis had written, ’cause when Major Lance was recording, we’d go in and do the backgrounds. Until the record company made us stop doing it.
How did you divide up the parts? Just by listening to the guitar?
Yeah, we’d pick out the parts on the guitar. That’s why when you heard three people it sounded like five people.
Why did your voices sound so special together?
I wish I knew. I wish I knew, man. But it was a great blend. We had such great success, selling almost seventy million records at this point. I’m proud of the body of work that Curtis, Sam, and myself have done over the years. It still stands today. We were just in Madrid, Spain, a few months ago, and just to hear seventeen and eighteen-year-old people—I mean, kids—singing along with these songs, that just blew my mind. To know that they knew these songs. It just made me proud.
In the late ’60s, songs like “Keep on Pushing” and “This Is My Country” became civil rights anthems. What were your political thoughts at the time?
Well, my political thoughts was just what was happening with Martin Luther King, and that was one way for us to kinda leave our mark, was through the songs. The “Keep on Pushing.” The “Choice of Colors.” The “We’re a Winner.” “This Is My Country.” ‘Cause we was working so much at that particular time that there was very little time that we had to do marching. But that’s one way that we did—through the music.
And what do you think about what’s going on in America today?
Well, that’s why we’re still out here singing these songs. They still need to be sung. I’m looking at what’s happening with Barack Obama, and how people are fighting against him. It looks like he’s trying his best to do the right thing. Matter of fact, we got an email from him a few months ago to do some campaigning with him but that was at the time that we was in the studio recording these songs, and we couldn’t cancel the studio time. It’s just one of those things where these songs still need to be talked about and need to be sung.
Was there any resentment when Curtis left in 1970?
[Mayfield’s label] Curtom was growing so big at that particular time. Curtis came off the road and said, “I’m gonna go in and run the company.” In the process of doing that, Curtis came up with this song “Hell Below”—and as you know, he had his own recording studio there—and went in and wrote that song, and went in and recorded it, and put it out, and they put him right back out on the road again. So in the process of that, we had to find a lead singer to replace him. ‘Cause that song blew up so big, he had to go back out on the road.
Donny Hathaway wrote and arranged for you guys a little bit?
He did. I think he did “Choice of Colors” and another tune for us. He was just such a great talent. When we played the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., he would come over from Howard University and catch the show. ‘Cause as you know, we were doing two or three or four shows a day. And that’s how we met Leroy Hutson and Donny Hathaway. Matter of fact, we were the first ones to take Donny out on the road—he played keyboards with the Impressions for a while. We was playing at Morehouse College in Atlanta… this was the first time that I knew he could sing. The promoter said, “Have y’all got anybody in the band that can sing?” So we asked, and Donny said, “Well, I can sing a little bit.” Very shy, you know? Man, this guy went out there and killed them folks. I forgot what song he sung, but let me tell you something—he lit that audience up. And that’s the first time that we knew that Donny could sing.
Who else was in the band behind the Impressions?
Lenny Brown—he was the bass player. Billy Griffin—he was the drummer. Curtis played guitar. We just had those three pieces for a long time. And then we added a [second] guitar player. I can’t recall his name at this time. [It was Joseph Thomas.]
Can you tell me about Major Lance?
I knew Major Lance real well. On a lot of his songs, we recorded with Major. And Curtis would write songs [for Lance]. He wrote “Monkey Time” in Nashville, Tennessee. We was playing the Top Hat. And in between shows, we’d go sit in the car with his guitar and we just sang and practiced. That’s where he wrote “It’s All Right,” too. In Nashville, Tennessee. I used to have a saying: “Man, it’s alright. It’s gonna be alright.” And Curtis took that, and that’s how he came up with “It’s All Right.”
Did the political songs ever get you in trouble? Did you ever feel uncomfortable singing them?
No. We was telling the truth. We sung those songs all over the South and everywhere else. Never had no trouble. We’ve got a documentary out, called Movin’ on Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. And they interviewed [politician] Andy Young, and he was just tellin’ how they would sing those songs. “People Get Ready,” “Keep on Pushing”—that gave them inspiration as far as the march was concerned. As well as “Amen,” you know?
Since this is for the Village Voice, what New York venues did the Impressions play in the ’60s?
The Apollo Theater. Did a lot of shows there. Matter of fact, when B.B. King did his first show at the Apollo Theater, he was so nervous, he said, “Man, you think the people are gonna like me?” I said, “B.B., people are gonna love you here. Gonna love you.” And that was his first experience at the Apollo Theater. And they loved him.
So the Impressions played the same night as B.B. King’s first time at the Apollo?
Do you remember learning how to sing?
Well, we come from the church. Sam’s mother was a preacher in the church. My mother played piano in the church. My father was a deacon in the church. And that’s how we learned to sing—from the church. And like I said, at night, we wouldn’t have nothing to do but sit on the corner. If there were hit records out, we would sit there trying to emulate them. That’s how we learned to do it.
Do you remember any of your favorite records from growing up?
I remember one, by Hank Ballard: “Thrill on the Hill.”
Are you familiar with any of the artists who have come out of Chicago recently, like Kanye West and Common?
No, I haven’t met any of those guys. That’s the new crop that came up. And they’ve done well and are doing well for themselves. So hey, let ’em carry it on from where we left off.
The Impressions play with Aloe Blacc, Bilal, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Inyang Bassey, Kyp Malone and Tunde Adebimpe, Mavis Staples, Meshell Ndegeocello, The Roots, Ryan Montbleau, Sinéad O’Connor, and William Bell as part of the tribute to Curtis Mayfield at Avery Fisher Hall on Friday, July 20.