Two schools of soul were started in the late ‘50s by The Falcons, who promulgated a ragged-edged shouting style, and the Impressions, who gave birth to soul’s intense-yet-soft side. The Impressions were actually made up of members of two groups: Arthur and Richard Brooks (tenors) and Sam Gooden (baritone) of the Roosters, and Jerry Butler (baritone) and Curtis Mayfield (tenor) of the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers.
The three Roosters splintered from their original quintet when they moved to Chicago from Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1957. The Jubilees’ Jerry and Curtis were Chicago residents who were traveling the gospel circuit and performing in the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church, of which Mayfield’s grandmother was a pastor. To help out with the family finances, both boys sang with secular groups on the side, Jerry with the Quails and Curtis as part of the Alphatones.
When the Roosters came on the scene, Jerry convinced Curtis to join, and soon they had both a sound and a manager named Eddie Thomas.
During 1957 Thomas came up with an unusual gig for the teenagers: a downtown fashion show. Performing their usual set of rhythm and blues doo wop songs, the group also did an original with music by the Brooks brothers and lyrics by Butler titled “For Your Precious Love.” It caught the attention of one Mrs. Vi Muzinski, who arranged an audition with Calvin Carter of Vee-Jay Records. A more elaborate version of the Vee-Jay encounter was described by Curtis Mayfield in an interview. It seems the group was standing knee-deep in snow at the door of Chess Records, but the secretary, seeing them through the window, refused to let them in. Rather than freeze, they went across the street to Vee-Jay Records, entered, and were greeted by a great dane that held them at bay until Carter came down. They auditioned with “For Your Precious Love” right in the hallway and wound up recording for the label a few days later. (It was Carter who changed the name of the Roosters to the Impressions).
Whichever version is correct, “For Your Precious Love” was released on Vee-Jay in May 1958. It was an unusual all-verse ballad that never repeated the title, had no hook, and had a quiet gospel tone. With Butler’s baritone lead, it is, arguably, the first recognizable soul-styled ballad. There were immediate complications: before many copies of the Impressions’ single could be pressed on Vee-Jay, Ewart Abner, the label’s general manager, arranged for “Precious Love” to wind up on a Vee-Jay distributed label called Falcon, which some say Ewart owned a piece of. To further complicate matters, Falcon then had to change its name or face an infringement suit, so it became Abner Records, with the exact same logo and artwork (a picture, not surprisingly, of a falcon). The song was now on three labels, each of which read “Jerry Butler and the Impression” since Vee-Jay recognized his distinctive style and wanted him out front.
By July 28th “For Your Precious Love” was at number 11 Pop and number three R&B. Its flip side, the more traditional doo wop rocker “Sweet Was the Wine,” became a street-corner vocal group favorite over the years.
In September, their second single, “Come Back My Love,” with a similarity to “Precious Love,” came out and went to #28 R&B but never crossed into Pop.
By the fall of 1958, Jerry Butler decided to go solo. Three remaining Ewart Abner singles under the name the Impressions went nowhere, including “At the County Fair,” the first recording with a Curtis Mayfield lead.
When Butler’s solo career finally managed to take off, it was due in part to his writing and duetting collaboration with Curtis on “He Will Break Your Heart” (Butler’s fifth solo single and his first on Vee-Jay).
Meanwhile, Fred Cash of Chattanooga, a Rooster before that group moved north, took Jerry’s place in the Impressions. When Vee-Jay left them out in the cold, re-signing only Butler, their manager arranged for the recording of two short-lived singles, “Shorty’s Got to Go” on Bandera, and “Don’t Leave Me” on Swirl, both in 1958. Curtis, now clearly the lead voice and writer, took the quintet to New York and established a record deal with ABC Paramount in 1960.
Their first ABC single established them as distinct from other vocal groups, thanks to Curtis’ unique, fragile-sounding falsetto. “Gypsy Woman” reached number 20 Pop while rising to number two R&B. A few more singles were issued, but none with the impact of “Gypsy,” so in February 1963, Curtis, Sam, and Fred opted to return to Chicago while the Brooks brothers chose to stay in New York. The Impressions were now a trio, and their first 45 release under that configuration was “Sad, Sad Girl and Boy” (#84).
Mayfield began to write in a more spiritual and black-awareness vein, and September’s “It’s All Right” catapaulted the group into the high reaches of stardom (#4 Pop, #1 R&B). Gospel-styled recordings like “Keep on Pushin’” (#10 Pop, 1964), “Amen” (#7 Pop, #17 R&B), “People Get Ready” (#14 Pop, #3 R&B), and “Meeting Over Yonder” (#48 Pop, #12 R&B) followed in 1965.
Mayfield was wearing numerous professional hats. He wrote for other artists (Jan Bradley, “Mama Didn’t Lie,” #14 Pop, #8 R&B, 1963) and became Okeh Record’s head producer, working with an writing for Major Lance (“Monkey Time” with the Impressions backing, #8 Pop, #2 R&B, 1963) and Gene Chandler (“Rainbow,” #47 Pop, #11 R&B, 1963) among others. He continued to pen love songs for the Impressions while singing lead on “Woman’s Got Soul” (#29 Pop, #9 R&B, 1965) and “I’m So Proud” (#14 Pop and R&B, 1964), and in 1966 he started his own short-lived Windy C label (seven singles) that recorded The Five Stairsteps.
In 1967 Curtis addressed black political issues in his Impressions recording of “We’re a Winner,” which was banned on radio in many parts of the U.S. It still made number one R&B and #14 Pop. (Mayfield had another shorter-lived label called Mayfield Records, the chief success of which was the Fascinations’ “Girls AR Out to Get You” [#92 Pop, #13 R&B, 1967].) “We’re a Winner” was the Impressions’ last ABC single. Their contract expired and they signed with the new Curtom label that was distributed by Buddah and just happened to be owned by Curtis Mayfield. ABC issued a few more canned sides and the trio then went on a streak of 19 R&B charters for Curtom from 1968 to 1976, 12 of which crossed over to Pop. They included “Fool for You” (#22 Pop, #3 R&B, 1968), “This is My Country” (#25 Pop, #8 R&B, 1969), “Choice of Colors” (#21 Pop, #1 R&B, 1969), and “Check Out Your Mind” (#28 Pop, #3 R&B, 1970).
In the summer of 1970, Mayfield left the group to go solo but continued writing and producing for them. Leroy Hutson of the Mayfield Singers (on Mayfield) took the lead, but the group’s popularity declined without Mayfield’s familiar sound, much as it did in the early days after Jerry Butler left.
In 1973 Leroy Hutson opted for a solo career. The group then became a quartet with the addition of Ralph Johnson and Reggie Torian. The Impressions hit it big again with the Ed Townsend-produced “Finally Got Myself Together” (#17 Pop, #1 R&B) in the spring of 1974. Follow-up records like “Sooner or Later” (#68 Pop, #3 R&B) and “Same Thing It Took” (#75 Pop, #3 R&B) kept them in the public’s consciousness.
The group recorded the soundtrack for the film Three the Hard Way in 1973 and in 1976 moved over to Atlantic’s Cotillion affiliate.
Johnson left at that time to for the group Mystique, and Nate Evans took his place. Coming full circle, the quartet charted in 1981 with a remake of “For Your Precious Love” (#58, Chi-Sound), and by the late ‘80s was recording for MCA with its most recent charter being “Can’t Wait ‘Till Tomorrow” (#91 R&B, 1987).
In 1983 Jerry and Curtis joined with the original Impressions for a reunion tour.
Curtis Mayfield had a very successful solo career from 1970 through 1985, charting $&B 29 times and crossing Pop 11 of those times with songs like “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Follow” (#29 Pop, #3 R&B, 1970), “Freddy’s Dead” (#4 Pop, #2 R&B), and “Superfly” (#8 Pop, #5 R&B), both from the 1972 film Superfly.
Butler became an international star with an incredible 54 black charters after his Impressions days and 37 Hot 100 residents, including “Moon River” (#11 Pop, #14 R&B, 1962), “Make It Easy on Yourself” (#20 Pop, #18 R&B, 1962), “Let It Be Me” with Betty Everett (#5 Pop, 1964), “Hey Western Union Man” (#16 Pop, #1 R&B, 1968) and “Only the Strong Survive” (#4 Pop, #1 R&B, 1969).
Combine Mayfield’s and Butler’s hits with the Impressions’ 50 R&B chart songs and 37 Pop sides and you have three entities rooted in one group that had a total of 133 R&B chart singles and 85 on the Pop list. Add that to their position as one of the early proponents of soul and you’ve got an impressive set of accomplishments.
– Jay Warner