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It’s All Right
Usually the Impressions ripped through three or four songs a session—a pace Curtis Mayfield kept most of his career. But when they recorded “It’s All Right” in August 1963, the song stopped them dead. “We didn’t record anything else that day,” recalled Fred Cash, a member of the group. “We just kept on playing that song over and over wondering if this was a hit.” Gene Chandler (Duke Of Earl) said, “Let me tell you something—if you don’t want that song, give it to me. This is a hit.” (1)
Growing up in the Chicago projects in the late 40s and early 50s, Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield met during their adolescent years singing in a gospel choir, The Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers. "All people who sing probably started in church," Butler once said, "because that's one place you can be good or bad and somebody's gonna say, 'Amen.'" (2) Butler tried his hand in secular music in his mid-teens when he briefly joined a doo-wop group known as The Quails. Meanwhile, Mayfield, three years younger than Butler, was singing and playing guitar for The Alphatones at 14 years old.
In 1957, Sam Gooden, brothers Arthur and Richard Brooks, three members of the quintet, The Roosters, moved from their hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee to Chicago with hopes of landing a recording contract. The group, looking for two replacement members, added Butler whose recommendation of Mayfield, completed the Chicago version of the group.
In 1958, meeting with rejection from every company they approached, their fortunes changed when a promotional rep from Vee Jay Records by the name of Eddie Thomas, heard them perform and arranged an audition with Vee Jay co-owner, Calvin Carter. Butler wrote about the first meeting with Thomas in his 2004 autobiography. (He showed up) "out of nowhere . . . in this canary yellow and white Cadillac," calling himself a manager. Thomas drove the band around Chicago, which impressed them enough to earn their trust. Thomas thought "the Roosters" sounded too country; they settled on The Impressions instead at Thomas's suggestion.” (2) When Eddie explained the choice of the name to the group, he told them, “The Impressions, because we leave a good impression.” (11)
Armed with a handful of songs written by Vi Muzynski, a wealthy woman from Nashville who wanted to be in the record business, the Impressions auditioned at the Vee Jay studios in Chicago. Carter was unimpressed and asked if they had any songs of their own. The group went through their list only to hear Carter tell them, “I really want to record you guys but I really don’t hear that hit song. Do you have anything else?” It was a song that Butler had penned as a poem in 1955 when he was just 16 years old that convinced Vee Jay to sign the newly-dubbed Impressions. Butler explained, “I told the guys ‘Let’s do Precious Love.’ Curtis started to play his guitar and as we got into the song, Calvin’s eyes lit up. ‘That’s it! That’s it! That’s the one!’” (11)
Though writing credit is shared with Arthur and Richard Brooks, For Your Precious Love debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on June 16th, 1958 and topped out at #11 on July 21st. (3) (4) In 2011, the song was placed at #335 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time. (5)
L-R bottom row: Arthur Brooks, Curtis Mayfield, L-R top row: Jerry Butler, Sam Gooden, Richard Brooks.
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
The success of the song changed the lives of Butler and the Impressions. "Suddenly I am rich and famous," Butler said. "At least that's what people listening to the radio thought. They told my mother she had to move out of Cabrini-Green,” Butler recalled. So he put a down payment on a south side home on 65th Place, a property he still owns, and the family moved. (2)
But the song also caused friction within the group because of an unexpected surprise. A week after the recording session, the Impressions showed up at Vee Jay’s offices eagerly anticipating the records arriving from the pressing plant. When the box of records was opened, the room became quiet. The label read: For Your Precious Love by Jerry Butler and the Impressions. “I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” Butler recalled. “Laugh because I had just been made the featured name in the group, or cry because I knew Curtis, Sam, Arthur and Richard didn’t like it one bit. In that one excruciating moment, it felt as if someone had walked into the room and purposely—cruelly—drawn a shade to temper our gaiety. The silence was deafening.”
Butler objected stating, “We came here as the Impressions, and that’s the way we want it.” Ewart Abner, president of Vee Jay, explained how much it would cost to reprint 50,000 labels and why the company chose one guy to feature on the record label. “It would help us get more airplay,” adding that Vee Jay “had only their best interests in mind,” Abner stated. “We know more about promotion and publicity than you do and you should trust us to do what’s best for you.” (11)
Problems with the name developed to the extent that Butler left the group and went solo in 1959. First, it was the marquee at the Apollo Theater in New York. “Jerry Butler” was in large type while “The Impressions” was in much smaller type. Abner flew to New York and had to repeat the Chicago speech to get the group back on track. It affected the group to the extent they didn’t want to perform." (12) Another slight occurred in Florida when “The Impressions” weren’t even mentioned on the marquee. (13) After a mutiny in San Antonio by Arthur and Richard over some other perceived slight, Butler decided to leave the group. “Fame didn't change me as much as it changed the people around me," Butler mentioned in the 2011 Chicago Reader article. (2)
Mayfield, who toured briefly with Butler as his guitarist, wrote a number of his early hits including He Will Break Your Heart, I’m A Telling You and Find Another Girl. Mayfield returned to business with The Impressions as Fred Cash, an original member of the Roosters, took over Butler’s spot with the group. Cash recalled those first rehearsals on Chicago’s South Side. “Curtis lived in the suburbs and he’d come into the city,” Cash told the Chicago Tribune. “He’d pick out the parts on his guitar that we needed to sing. I was singing bass, tenor, baritone, and lead. Curtis sang high tenor. We didn’t have training. It was all instinct. Curtis would ask me all the time whether he should go to school to learn some more about music. But he didn’t need to. He wrote a lot of our early hits, like Gypsy Woman, when he was just a kid, and we had material for years. He was a genius with a gift for putting words together that would inspire.” (6)
Mayfield used the money earned from writing royalties of Butler’s early hits and moved the group to Chicago. In 1961, the group signed with ABC-Paramount Records, moved to New York and released their first post-Butler single, Gypsy Woman. Entering the Billboard pop chart on October 16th, 1961, the single climbed to #20 on December 4th. (3) (4)
When successive singles over the next few months failed to match the success of Gypsy Woman, Richard and Arthur Brooks left the group in 1962. Now a trio, Mayfield moved the group back to Chicago and turned to producer Johnny Pate, who helped the group update their sound. Augmenting lush sounds with horns and Mayfield’s falsetto voice, the Impressions scored a mild success with Sad, Sad Girl And Boy.
L-R: Fred Cash, Sam Gooden and Curtis Mayfield circa 1965.
Photo courtesy of Afro Newspaper Gado/Getty Images.
On August 21st, 1963, the trio hit Universal Studios in Chicago to record their next single, It’s All Right. The song’s horn arrangement was a suggestion from Mayfield that took its cue from a Bobby Bland single (possibly That’s The Way Love Is). The idea for the song came from a conversation between Curtis and Fred when the Impressions were on tour in Nashville. While Mayfield was talking about future plans, Cash would interject with “Right” and “Well, that’s alright” and Mayfield had his hook line, “Say It’s alright.” The next evening, as they sat in the car between shows, Curtis played the whole song for Sam and Fred. (9)
After the day in the studio, Fred and Sam were so excited about the recording, they followed Curtis to his suburban home just to hear it again. They knew instinctively that Gene Chandler was right. “When we recorded that song, I discovered what it meant to make magic,” Mayfield said. (1)
Released in September of 1963, It’s All Right was a rousing success as it reached #4 on the Billboard pop list on November 9th and was the first of six #1 hits on the R&B chart. (3) (4) (7) Cash recalled, “That song bought homes for all three of us. By 21-22 years old, we all had our own homes and Cadillacs in the doggone garage.” (1)
In 1964, Mayfield’s composition for the Impressions’ single, Keep On Pushing, became the unofficial anthem for the Civil Rights Movement. "It wasn't hard to take notice of segregation and the struggle for equality at this time. These were the issues that concerned me as a young black man. So it was easy to write songs that might prove to be inspiring or give food for thought like Keep On Pushing, Choice Of Colors or take on the gospel hymns like Amen. In fact, Keep On Pushing was a perfect example of what has laid in my subconscious for years—the musical strands and themes of gospel singers and preachers that I'd heard as a child." (8)
From 1958-1975, the Impressions landed a total of 39 songs on the Billboard Hot 100. Ten of them hit the top 20 while just two were top ten hits. (3)
Mayfield pursued a solo career in 1970. In 1972, he hit the top ten with Freddie’s Dead and Superfly, both songs featured in the movie, Superfly. (10) Curtis Mayfield passed away on December 26th, 1999.
The Impressions lip-synch It's All Right in this 1965 episode of Hollywood A Go Go.
From a 2004 live concert in Chico, CA, Huey Lewis and the News perform an a cappella version of It's All Right.
1) Mayfield, Todd, with Travis Atria, Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield, 2017, Pages 94-95.
2) Cox, Ted, Chicago Reader, Jerry Butler: Soul Survivor, April 7, 2011. Link.
3) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 334.
4) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Pop Charts 1955-1959, Pages 52-53.
5) Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. Rolling Stone. April 7, 2011.
6) Kot, Greg, Chicago Tribune, The Impressions keep on pushing, June 28, 2012, Link.
7) Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles 1942-1999, Page 204.
8) Phillips, Richard, World Socialist Web Site, Curtis Mayfield Dies: A Modest Man Of Great Musical Talent And Sensitity, January 24, 2000, Link.
9) Burns, Peter, Curtis Mayfield: People Never Give Up, January 13, 2003, Pages 24-25.
10) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 453.
11) Butler, Jerry with Earl Smith, Only The Strong Survive: Memoirs Of A Soul Survivor, 2000, Page 40-50.
12) Butler, Jerry, Page 59.
13) Butler, Jerry, Page 65.
This LP included their first six singles including Gypsy Woman and It's All Right.
Album art courtesy of DaGuy from the Album Art Exchange website.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss