Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen (Simon and Schuster) and Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield by Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria (Chicago Review Press) are two books that don't require comparison for any reason other than that they were published in the same week of October this year, the subjects' active periods overlap, and they have both been influential to legions of musicians who have come after them. So compare we will.
Mayfield and Springsteen were born seven years apart, in 1942 and '49 respectively. And while Springsteen's book plays up the hardscrabble life of a blue-collar family in New Jersey, Mayfield's son Todd paints a picture of his father truly living hand-to-mouth in Chicago. Both musicians were influenced by the church — Mayfield through his grandmother, a practitioner of "spiritualism" who embraced gospel music; and Springsteen down the street from St. Rose of Lima Church (and the most holy of altars in his neighborhood, his father's local saloons of choice).
The common denominator between the two is their singular drive to succeed and to own their visions. They came of age before American Idol, before YouTube and social media and a thousand ways to get your name, face, and music in front of fans. They plied their trade, they traveled, they practiced, and they hustled.
Over the course of seven years, Mayfield "scored twenty-two hit singles on the pop and R&B charts with the Impressions, including four R&B number ones, and a dozen charting albums," writes Todd Mayfield. "He'd written more than forty hits for other artists, toured the world, and become a major voice of his generation. He had fought and clawed his way to something only a handful of black musicians had ever attained in the business — autonomy." He would eventually found his own publishing company, Curtom Records.
In 1971, Mayfield was offered the job of scoring the blaxploitation film Super Fly. With singles such as "Pusherman" and "Freddie's Dead," Mayfield was able to call upon his upbringing in Chicago's Cabrini-Green and White Eagle housing complexes where he'd struggled as a child with his family. "He wasn't just writing about [characters] Priest and Freddie; he wasn't just writing about junkies and pushers; he was writing about himself and his childhood."
At the same time Mayfield was working on the soundtrack, Springsteen was getting his first whiff of real success by signing with Columbia Records, forming the E Street Band, and recording his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. Like Mayfield, Springsteen craved total control over his life and music — he needed to be The Boss. "Clarity ruled and allowed us to forge a bond based on the principle that we worked together, but it was my band," Springsteen writes. "I crafted a benevolent dictatorship; creative input was welcomed within the structure I prepared, but it was my name on the dotted line and on the records."
In the end, Springsteen's songs are about hope, about breaking free of the cage that holds us, his characters on a last chance power drive: "Together we could break this trap, we'll run till we drop, baby we'll never go back."
Mayfield's songs are about survival with characters battling institutionalized racism and the violence and drugs in the street, doing what they have to do merely to stay alive: "Everybody's misused him, ripped him off, and abused him. Another junkie playin', pushin' dope for the man."
Mayfield was involved in a freak accident on stage in Brooklyn in 1990 when a hurricane-force wind blew a lighting rig onto him, paralyzing him from the neck down. He died in 1999, shortly after being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His music has lived on through the sampling of today's rap and hip-hop artists and in the influence of R&B chart-toppers. Springsteen, of course, continues to record and tour at a punishing pace for a 67-year-old man, often playing four-hour shows night after night.
Worlds collide: If you search YouTube for the 1994 Grammy awards tribute to Curtis Mayfield, you'll see an all-star band led by Bruce Springsteen.