February 27, 2015


The Train Keeps Rolling, 50 Years On (MARC MYERS, Feb. 25, 2015, WSJ)

The 1965 song opens like a movie, with shimmering strings, spiritual humming and a far-off horn--an orchestral scene-setter that signals a biblical storm has passed and the sun is emerging. As the four-bar introduction ends, the cooing voices of Curtis Mayfield and Sam Gooden, backed by Fred Cash, begin singing: "People get ready / There's a train a-comin' / You don't need no baggage / You just get on board."

The Impressions' "People Get Ready," a gospel-soul ballad about a train to the Promised Land, was released as a single 50 years ago this month. An obvious metaphor at the time for hope and racial equality, the song was written by Mayfield in the late summer of 1964 and recorded that October. The song's gentle, optimistic message came just months after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, and its sermon-like delivery, cadence and imagery were reminiscent of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech of August 1963. [...]

Born in Chicago in 1942, Mayfield found solace in the church, a religious and cultural beacon for the black community hemmed in by segregation. At age 7, Mayfield sang with a local gospel quintet, and he started his own group, the Alphatones, at age 14, where he began songwriting. Two years after he joined the Roosters, the vocal group changed its name to the Impressions in 1958. As northern gospel singers became comfortable with pop, many were highly marketable. RCA signed Sam Cooke and Columbia signed Aretha Franklin in 1960, while ABC-Paramount signed Mayfield and the Impressions the following year.

But Mayfield wasn't interested in recording brassy, swinging albums like those produced by the label for Eydie Gormé, Steve Lawrence and Ray Charles. His music required a more sensitive, sweet touch. "In 1962, the Impressions were appearing at New York's Apollo Theater so I went up there to hang out with the guys," said the group's longtime arranger-producer Johnny Pate, 91, during a recent phone conversation. "Curtis said people at ABC wanted to talk to me. I wasn't keen on going, since I didn't think much of R&B at the time. I was a jazz guy. So Curtis offered to come along. When we walked in, they closed the door, handed me a contract and asked me how much [money] I wanted to produce and arrange the Impressions. I signed on."

Since Mayfield didn't read or write music, he'd play the songs he wrote on his guitar for Mr. Pate, giving him enough on which to build arrangements for recording sessions. For "People Get Ready," which appeared on their fourth album for ABC, the group met at Mr. Pate's house in Chicago, where Mayfield handed Mr. Pate a tape. "It was just Curtis strumming on guitar and singing 'People Get Ready,'" Mr. Pate said. "I felt it immediately."

Mr. Pate, who began his career as a jazz bassist and led trios, wrote a lush, lullabylike score, while Mayfield created the vocal arrangements. The rhythm and vocal tracks for "People Get Ready" were recorded at Universal Recording in Chicago, while the "sweetening"--Mr. Pate's word for strings and orchestration--was added afterward. Mr. Pate included orchestra bells to lighten the mood and had the strings pluck in places to enforce the rhythmic feel of the song. Mayfield added his soulful and now-famous guitar solo.

It's the race case where the ofay cover is even better:<br><br>

Posted by at February 27, 2015 4:04 PM

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