Everybody’s humming “Keep On Pushing” again, thanks to it being the soundtrack to a new ad, but there are a few details that even LeBron’s smart phone doesn’t know about the wonderful song that also stands in for the title of my book concerning political movement and music.
Among the young songwriters who knew the power of an anthem and made the Freedom Movement swing was Curtis Mayfield of Chicago. Just 17 and straight out of the Cabrini-Green housing projects when he hit it big with “Your Precious Love,” recorded by his vocal group the Impressions, Mayfield was a highly conscious, conscientious, and musicially gifted individual. By the early ‘60s he had already sustained the departure of his childhood gospel choir buddy, Jerry Butler, from the group and was leading Samual Goodens and Fred Cash on his own as he became a formidable writer of inspirational R&B hits.
The Impressions captured the ephermeral spirit of gospel’s lift and married it to Mayfield’s layered melodies with a message. In 1964 Mayfield came up with the black-powered “Keep on Pushing,” its sentiment and language borrowed from a gospel groove and easily adapted to the civil rights cause: “Hallelujah, hallelujah, keep on pushing.” “Keep on Pushing” was in perfect synch with Dr. King and the march forward; it has been characterized as one of the movement’s unofficial anthems. “Move up a little higher,” “I’ve got my strength,” “keep on pushing,” all phrases from the song, also borrowed from gospel’s language and its inspirational intent. These were elements that never strayed far from Mayfield’s consciousness, and combined with the melodious strains to which he set his words, he could disguise the tougher sentiments by weaving them into the complex harmonies, while never losing the threads. As time went on, Mayfield became more direct lyrically, but these early works were foundational to setting soul music in its new direction while they also passed in the mainstream.
The Impressions album Keep on Pushing was a Top 10 hit, making its impression on the masses as well as on two major 20th Century songwriters: Bob Marley had begun performing with his vocal group the Wailers in Kingston Jamaica, as if they were their country’s answer to the Impressions. “Amen” and “I Made a Mistake” from Keep on Pushing were an important part of their early repertoire. In 1965, Bob Dylan featured a picture of Keep on Pushing on the cover of his own album, Bringing It All Back Home. That same year, the Impressions hit again with “People Get Ready,” a song Mayfield was first inspired to get busy on following the March on Washington; it ultimately became the song for which he would be best known. “When humans from all walks of life can experience a piece of music and feel the same way—that’s soul,” he once said. Fifty years later, “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing” are still turning heads and inspiring people to singalong, though sadly Mayfield is gone. Following a distinguished career as a groundbreaking solo recording artist and performer, Mayfield became paralyzed as a consequence of an in-concert accident (a lighting rig fell on him). He still wrote, but didn’t perform; he died the day after Christmas in 1999 of complications from diabetes.
You can read more on Curtis Mayfield and “Keep on Pushing” in Keep on Pushing. And next time you see that LeBron spot, I hope you enjoy the Curtis song just a little bit more.
Amoeblog: There’s a lot of “Keep On Pushing” titled songs. Which one were you thinking of when you titled your book?
Denise Sullivan: I was thinking of the original song by the Impressions, written by Curtis Mayfield and the way “keep on pushing,” and “move up a little higher” reoccur in his other songs, like “We’re a Winner” and “Move on Up.” Mayfield isn’t talking about the ladder of success and financial status. He’s talking about raising consciousness and about transcendence–about moving above and beyond circumstances. Combine those themes that are of deep interest to me with the genius of his composition and you get a title that I hope conveys the potential for extreme unity, between message, music and people.