Curtis Mayfield started out in music at the age of 7, singing in his grandma’s church in Chicago. He taught himself guitar, keyboard, piano, saxophone and drums. When he was 14 he wrote a song “Gypsy Woman” that would later hit the top of the charts. And at 16, he dropped out of high school to join a traveling gospel act who would become famous as the Impressions. Later on, like other African-American artists James Brown and Sam Cooke, he would become a businessman too, one who would help out other African- American artists and control the way all of their music was marketed and made.
“People Get Ready” was a song Curtis wrote for the Impressions. And it would become one of Martin Luther King’s favorites and a standard used for demonstrations during the civil rights struggles in the 1960’s. Throngs of famous people would later record the song, including Bob Dylan, U2 and Aretha Franklin.
But in the 60’s in Chicago, the situation was bleak. Neighborhoods were dramatically separated by race. City tax money didn’t go to the African-American communities. Schools only taught kids in shifts for a few hours a day, then set the students free onto the streets. Slums were getting more and more dangerous and dilapidated. And Curtis was concerned.
Curtis Mayfield wrote “People Get Ready” to announce the arrival of a train, a train that carried the foremost civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King to Chicago. Where he was going to help form a protest and talk to the city leaders. It was also a metaphorical train, meaning he was saying “come with us, or you’ll miss out on the big changes that are coming.”
Curtis shared a philosophy with Martin Luther King, Jr. in that what really mattered about people was not “the color of their skin but the content of their character”. And this song “People Get Ready’s” lyrics have the stamp of sincerity, intelligence and soul shared by both great men.
There ain’t no room for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner
For there’s no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne
So people get ready, there’s a train a comin’
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
KEXP Documentaries are produced by Michele Myers with assistance from John Felthous and Jentery Sayers. And made possible by a grant from the American Music Partnership of Seattle. Find more KEXP Documentary series like: American Sabor, The New World and Death Drugs and Rock n Roll in on-demand at kexp.org.