It was a Friday evening right before one of the final preview rehearsals, I sat with Jackie Taylor and Reggie Torian in her office at the north side Black Ensemble Theater on Clark street to interview them on Jackie’s latest play. The phone was ringing off the hook placing ticket orders. The cast had been on WGN -TV performing scenes of the play earlier in the day.
Jackie Taylor and Curtis Mayfield grew up on Chicago’s North Side. They were residents of Cabrini Green. Little did they realize they were destined for greatness in the world of entertainment.
Jackie remembers she and her girl friends would go to Park Seward, 375 West Elm, and listen to the “big boys” rehearse. The big boys included Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. They were young teens, doing what young black urban males did back then. They were doo-woppers, harmonizing and laying the ground work for what would become “soul” music.
Curtis and Jerry attended the same church and they sang on the corner, in the park and in the church choir. Jackie was literally among the first to hear a young Curtis Mayfield and Jerry Butler. One day she says they weren’t in the park anymore. The big boys had a hit record. “You have to remember Curtis was so young when he started writing. He wrote one of the classic, Impressions songs, “Gypsy Woman” at the age of 12. The first song that became a hit was Jerry Butler’s classic “For Your Precious Love.” They were only 18 years-old when they signed with ABC Records.”
The, then six-year-old grew up to be Jackie Taylor, a musician in her own right. She plays guitar and piano, but mostly she is a playwright, theatrical producer, and actress. She produces plays to inspire and to end racism.
The Curtis Mayfield Story
Taylor has produced a masterpiece in “It’s All Right – The Curtis Mayfield Story,” as she introduces her new season. The story is told through Curtis’ eyes as he was paralyzed for the last 12 years of his life. Curtis had an accident, where a scaffold fell on him during an outdoor festival performance in Brooklyn, New York. The scaffold struck his spinal cord and he was never to walk again, paralyzed from the neck down.
Enters a Real Impression
Reggie Torian plays Curtis Mayfield. He transforms himself to include a soft speaking voice. In real life, Reggie is the falsetto voice and lead singer of the Impressions and replicates the Mayfield sound. He has done two tours of duty with the legendary group lasting for over 41 years. He knows Curtis Mayfield’s music thoroughly because he, along with the original members of the group Fred Cash and Sam Gooden perform regularly in sold out dates around the country and in Europe. The mighty Impressions music has been awarded in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. They have just released new music, “Rhythm” (a Major Lance song). It is their first new tune in over 30 years.
Torian is a master of old school music. He is a gentleman with swagger and honored to tell the Mayfield story.
Torian, a Kentucky native moved to Chicago Heights as a young child and graduated from Thornton Township High School where he and his two older sisters attended. He joined the Impressions as a “kid” fresh from the house band at The High Chaparral night club. His singing career began at the age of 5, where he had an Elvis Presley routine patterned after Elvis’s appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. He says, “He liked shaking his leg because the girls would scream.”
This is his debut performance as an actor but he is not foreign to the stage. His professional showmanship and stage presence serves him well in the theater setting. He is in a paralyzed motionless position, laying perfectly still as he narrates his friend’s life story capturing the pain, the triumphs, trials and tribulations of Curtis’s life. He performs effortlessly.
And then right there before your very eyes the Curtis Mayfield story unfolds with Cecil Jones as a younger Curtis. Reggie considers Jackie the greatest teacher as she mentored him, teaching the purity of expressing emotion.
“The emotion of the music became the emotion of the dialogue.” The key, he says is having “access to the emotion. You find the emotion and ride it.” There is a difference in acting and singing. The difference, “ is music is quicker with two verses, a bridge and choral repletion. The script, on the other hand is word to word. “
“The biggest challenge in playing the part is breathing.” He is a perfectionist and had to learn phrasing over again, laying flat on his back. In a rehearsal exercise on trust as the cast of 14, was jumping over the seats in the theater, Torian, a former high jumper fell and ripped his thigh. He kept moving with therapy and often in pain, says the accident heightened his sensitivity to the role.
Who was Curtis Mayfield?
Who was Curtis Mayfield? Curtis, Taylor says, “was one of the best songwriters ever. His messages still resonate today in terms of self-pride and dignity as an African American. “People Get Ready” is considered one of the top best songs of all time as rated by the top industry songwriters. We need to be motivated and do what Curtis suggested.” She recites a few Mayfield lyrics:
We People who are darker than blue
Don’t you realize we are all of the same hue?
The debonair Torian says, “ he was the greatest lyricist to live in the 60’s 70’s 80’s and 90’s. He was a progressive writer and he spoke to the times. He recreated himself several times through his music. He wrote a sound track for his era. He was a poet. Often we talk about his songwriting but he was also a unique guitarist. He developed an exceptional style. His guitar was tuned to the black keys of the piano , which provided a distinguished sound. Then he tuned the guitar as though he was left handed, making the strings stack differently.” Torian adds, “there are only three guitarists today that play like Curtis; Billy Butler, (Jerry’s brother), Binky Griptite and Eric Clapton.”
Reggie notes music has changed through the years. “When the Impressions recorded it was in the studio and it was true to pitch without vocal acrobatics. The recording process has changed drastically. Our music was about romance rather than today’s music of eroticism. In the Mayfield days there was no digital correction of voice. The best result was in the studio with a band in the room. And because of tight budgets, it was usually with few takes.”
“Curtis developed the “Chicago sound” and it plays with a strong horn line. And that’s because of Johnny Pate the arranger who was a jazz saxophonist. He and Curtis made music together. Curtis was prolific as he wrote for Walter Jackson, Major Lance, Gene Chandler, Jerry Butler and many others. He changed the musical score as he wrote for the big screen in such movies as, Superfly, Claudine and Sparkle.
What’s next for Mr. Torian? In addition to being a member of the trio of gentlemen, The Impressions, and embarking on his first acting role, he is also a metaphysical minister and his answer reflects it.
“I am living in the moment and we will see what shows up.”
**The Story of Curtis Mayfield runs at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4450 N. Clark Street, with showing Wed-Sun. Tickets: $49.50 -$65. For more information and/or to purchase tickets, visit, http://www.blackensembletheater.org/it-s-alright-to-have-a-good-time.