Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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The Impressions: Everlasting Impressions

The Impressions
The Impressions Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions The Impressions The Impressions

Best known for their string of classic Sixties hits - many of which were heavily influenced by gospel music and served as inspirational anthems for the Civil Rights Movement of the day - iconic soul trio The Impressions this month (via the Soulpower organisation in conjunction with AGMP) arrive in the UK for two highly-anticipated shows at The Barbican, London (June 10) and Bridgewater Hall, Manchester (June 11).

Initially formed in Chicago, Illinois in 1957 when two local, then-gospel vocalists Jerry Butler and Cutis Mayfield joined up with a doo-wop group from Chattanooga, Tennessee called The Roosters (whose members comprised Sam Gooden along with Richard Brooks and his brother Arthur), the then-quintet first changed their name to ‘Jerry Butler & The Impressions’ after signing to Vee-Jay Records - for whom their first US hit single was the 1958-released ballad ‘Your Precious Love’, which peaked at Number Three in the R&B chart and Number 11 on the pop listings.

Meanwhile, with Butler leaving the group shortly after for a successful solo career, by the end of 1958 Curtis Mayfield had taken over as the Impressions’ new, distinctively-brittle-voiced lead-singer and songwriter, with Fred Cash - a returning original Roosters member from Chattanooga - coming on board as the new fifth member.

With the new line-up signing to ABC-Paramount Records in 1961, 1962 straightaway brought The Impressions their biggest single to date with the Number Two US R&B smash ‘Gypsy Woman’ - though, with its immediate follow-ups failing to match its success, by the end of the year the Brooks brothers had left the group, in turn creating what is now generally regarded as The Impressions’ “classic” line-up of Mayfield, Gooden and Cash… Indeed, with said trio soon aligning themselves with producer Johnny Pate to help update their sound, The Impressions would go on to score no less than 20 US hit singles through the Sixties for the ABC label - beginning with 1963’s R&B chart-topper ‘It’s Alright’.

1964 meanwhile brought forth the first of Mayfield’s black pride anthems, the Top 10 pop and R&B smash ‘Keep On Pushin’. Which - along with future socially-aware compositions like 1965’s gospel-influenced ‘People Get Ready’ (arguably the group’s signature tune) and 1968’s chart-topping, more overtly-political ‘We’re A Winner’ (which was banned on radio stations in some parts of the US) made the threesome a relevant and potent force within the decade’s Civil Rights Movement. An important lyrical aspect of The Impressions, which later continued following their move - in 1968 - to Curtis’ then-new Curtom Records. For whom the threesome scored further US Top Three hits with message songs like 1969’s haunting R&B Number One ‘Choice Of Colors’ and 1970’s funkier ‘Check Out Your Mind’.

Meanwhile, 1970 also saw Curtis Mayfield departing from the group for an internationally-successful solo career and being replaced by new lead-vocalist Leroy Hutson (formerly of The Mayfield Singers) for a notably-less-successful period, before Hutson’s departure (also to pursue a solo career) in 1973 led to The Impressions unexpectedly replacing him with two new vocalists - Reggie Torian and Ralph Johnson - and in turn becoming a quartet for the first time. A decision which - kicking-off with the new line-up’s 1974 US soul chart-topper ‘Finally Got Myself Together’ - led to a new era of chart popularity. Which included two further American Top Three R&B smashes (‘Same Thing It Took’; ‘Sooner Or Later’) plus the group’s first (and to date, only) UK Top 20 hit, 1975’s uptempo ‘First Impressions’.

Nevertheless, The Impressions’ return to the higher echelons of the charts would prove relatively short-lived - and 1976 found the quartet leaving Mayfield’s Curtom Records behind for the Atlantic-affiliated Cotillion Records, where they enjoyed their final major hit with ‘Loving Power’. Following which, stays with both 20th Century Records and MCA Records yielded comparatively little in terms of chart success - though live-wise the reunion of Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield with the group in 1983 for an Impressions Silver Anniversary nationwide US tour did prove a major success.

Despite The Impressions’ inability to regain past chart glories, however, the last 20 years (amidst sporadic single and album releases and various membership changes) have nevertheless seen numerous prestigious accolades and acknowledgements being bestowed upon them - including being inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1991; The Grammy Hall Of Fame in 1998; and The Vocal Group Hall Of Fame in 2002. Additionally, 2001 found them featuring heavily on British rock god Eric Clapton’s globally-successful, multi-million-selling ‘Reptile’ album; while 2008 saw Universal Music releasing the DVD ‘Movin’ On Up - The Message And Music Of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions’ - the first-ever video compilation of The Impressions, which boasted brand-new interviews with long-standing members Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, along with taped interviews with the now-sadly-deceased Curtis Mayfield.

… Cue veteran Impressions member Fred Cash hooking up - from his Chattanooga home - with ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis, to discuss, in charming, clearly-spoken Southern tones, his legendary group‘s trailblazing five-decade-plus career - in addition to an update on The Impressions’ current activities and what can be expected from their upcoming UK live dates.

The group’s upcoming UK live dates

“Well, the last time we played in London was actually with Eric Clapton on his tour back in 2001, which we really enjoyed. And so we’re definitely excited about coming BACK! You know, with us having never performed in London in concert alone before, to come to the UK at this point in our career to me is a great THING. Because, as far as the travelling side of things goes, these might be the last shows we’re ABLE to do there… Then in terms of the material, we’re of course gonna be doing all the stuff that the fans want to hear - ‘It’s Alright’, ‘I’m So Proud’... You know, all the big hits that we’ve had over the years!”

How The Impressions’ current line-up (Fred Cash; Sam Gooden; Reggie Torian) interact vocally onstage

“Well, as you know, when Curtis was in the group, we all kinda flew the lead vocals back and forth, with Curtis as the MAIN lead. And we haven’t really varied too far from that pattern ever SINCE… So what you’ll find is that, in our shows Reggie will be doing 65/75% of the leads, with Sam and myself CONTRIBUTING to that. You know, because we didn’t wanna get away from what really made us in the first place, we’ve kinda always STUCK to that.”

The group’s current and upcoming activities

“Well, we’ll be performing in Washington DC at Constitution Hall on the fourth of June before heading to London on the eighth. Then, after being in the UK for about four or five days, we’ll come home, rest for a little bit, and then start hitting the road AGAIN. You know, we are still very much out there performing and doing what we love to DO… And then recording-wise, while we are currently listening to some new songs, we have actually already got a live CD in the can that we recorded in Los Angeles with the LA Symphony Orchestra, which we’re hoping to put out before the end of the year. You know, we did actually release a Christmas album last year called ‘I’m Coming Home For Christmas’ on a label that me and two other people started here in The States called Rebirth Music LLC. So, as far as the actual release of the live album goes, we’re just gonna kinda play it by ear to see whether we can get the distribution that we need to put it out on our OWN label, or whether we need to go to someone ELSE.”

Fred’s memories of Chattanooga, Tennessee in the Fifties, when he and fellow long-time Impression Sam Gooden started out by forming a local quintet called The Roosters

“Well, Sam lived next-door-but-one to me. So we grew up as little boys going to school and playing together every day. And in our hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee there wasn’t a lot to do at night except sit around and entertain OURSELVES. So, after we got outta school, we’d play baseball, play softball… And then one day we decided to form a GROUP! You know, people like The Midnighters and Ray Charles were hot at that time. And so we just kinda sat on the corner and patterned ourselves after them - not really thinking that what we were doing could one day turn into a CAREER. We were basically just amusing ourselves because we didn’t have anything ELSE to do!... So from there we hooked up with two other friends and a girl, and called ourselves The Four Roosters & A Chick - because back in those days a lotta groups had bird names! But then, because we were so young, neither my mother nor my father wanted me to be out at night SINGING. So what I’d do was, at night - once they’d gone to bed - I’d slip out of the window and join the other guys on the corner, and then we’d go do to this little club on East 9th Street called Memos, where we’d SING!... And then, once we’d finished, I’d come home, slip back in through the window, go back to bed… And neither my mom nor my dad would ever know I’d been OUT!”

The story behind three members of The Roosters moving to Chicago, where in 1958 - after joining-up with local vocalists Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield - they became ‘The Impressions’, and how Fred himself joined the line-up two years later

“Well, back then there wasn’t any record companies here in Chattanooga, Tennessee. So, to try and get a label-deal, you had to move to either Chicago, Detroit, California or New York. So three of the guys in our group - the two Brooks brothers and Sam - basically said ‘We’re gonna go to Chicago to see what we can DO!’. But, with me being so young, my mother wouldn’t let me go WITH them!... So anyway, around a year later I hear this record ‘Your Precious Love’ by The Impressions and I’m like ‘Hey this a great RECORD! But, this can’t be the same fellas I used to sing with, because we couldn’t SING!’… Then, maybe six months after that, I’m sitting on my porch, I see this green station-wagon coming up the hill, and I’m like ‘Hey, that looks like the FELLAS in there!’... So they pull up in front of my house, everybody’s smiling, one of them gets out with a big roll of money he’s showing to me... And I’m like ‘Oh BOY! What have I MISSED here?!’!... Not knowing that Jerry was about to do his last show with the guys, and that they’d basically come back to GET me!... So next thing I know, I’m taking Jerry’s place in The Impressions and leaving for CHICAGO!... You know, by that time my mother was happy to let me go and do my thing - and I’m very glad she DID!”

How Fred recalls his first taste of major US chart success as a member of The Impressions, with the group’s 1961 all-time classic ‘Gypsy Woman’

“Well, just as ‘Gypsy Woman’ was about to be released, I received my papers to go into the armed forces! So of course I was scared to death! I was like ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna miss out on this AGAIN!’! But what happened, when I went down to take my physical, was that they were taking every other one and letting the other one go, taking every other one and letting the other one go... And thank God, I was one of the guys they let GO!... And then, with ‘Gypsy Woman’ being such a big record, it all turned out to be just a great time for me AND the other guys in the group!”

The story behind two of The Impressions’ original members - brothers Richard and Arthur Brooks - leaving the group in 1962, which then left the “classic” Impressions line-up of Curtis Mayfield, Fred Cash and Sam Gooden

“We were actually in Chicago at the home of our manager Eddie Thomas at that particular time. And what happened was that ABC/Paramount Records had just released a song us called ‘I’m The One Who Loves You’ - and basically the Brooks brothers had a FIT! Because they were wanting to do stuff like Little Richard was doing, whereas we kept telling them that we needed to have our OWN identity and that we couldn’t just be doing what everyone ELSE was doing. So they got really mad, took the record, threw it on the garbage, and said ‘We’re QUITTING! We’re gonna sign to End Records instead!’ - because at the time the group Little Anthony & The Imperials were really hot on End Records… So yeah, that’s how that break-up came ABOUT! And from there Sam, Curtis and myself just decided to keep rehearsing and just carry on as a trio.”

With The Impressions impressively going on to score 20 US hits through the Sixties with ABC Records, what the working relationship was like between the trio themselves and their then-producer Johnny Pate - who was generally credited with helping them update their sound and injecting a more lush, soul feel into their music

“Well, we definitely had a whole lotta hit records with Johnny Pate! And so in some ways we kinda felt like he was part of the GROUP! Because it was when he started arranging our music - putting brass parts in and just making the whole sound kinda livelier - that things just started really clicking for us. So yeah, we’d be like ‘Hey man, this is the fourth member of The Impressions right here!’ - because we had a really good rapport with him!... And as a matter of fact, when we were in Atlanta about three years ago filming this DVD called ‘Movin’ On Up - The Music And Message Of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions’ - we actually got a chance to SEE Johnny Pate again. And let me tell you - he may be in his Eighties, but this guy still looks really well!”

Fred’s views on the increasing amount of social awareness and black pride that Curtis Mayfield was, from 1964’s ‘Keep On Pushin’’ onwards, injecting into the The Impressions’ songs - which in turn made them highly relevant to the Civil Rights Movement of the day

“I felt GOOD about it! You know, a lot of those songs that Curtis would write he’d bounce off of ME! Because, when we’d be staying in the hotels at night, his room
would be next to mine. So at two or three o’clock in the morning, I’d hear a little knock - and it would be Curtis saying ‘Hey man, come and listen to this and see what you THINK of it!’… I mean he could have been writing ‘Choice Of Colors’ or ‘Keep On Pushing’ or ‘We’re A Winner’ - and I’d be telling him ‘Man, this is GREAT! I think this is gonna be a very big RECORD for us!’… Because during that period Curtis really did have his fingers on the pulse, when it came to writing those message songs. You know, this was the era of Martin Luther King, and those songs just fit like a glove with what was going ON!”

With The Impressions moving from ABC to Curtis’ own Curtom Records in 1968, how Fred feels the group then coped with the musical changes that were taking place in the late-Sixties/early-Seventies

“Well, at that particular time the new psychedelic music that was coming in was almost kinda killing a lotta the vocal groups like The Impressions and The Miracles, because it was like a whole new trend that was happening and we just weren’t that type of ACT! You know, we’d always been very much a slow ballad/medium-to-uptempo kinda group and, because that new, harder music just wasn’t our feel, I don’t think people would have ACCEPTED it from us. But, though it was a period where we were struggling to keep our heads about water, at the same time the LYRICAL message in Curtis’ songs like ‘Choice Of Colors’ was so relevant to the times that it did still keep us AFLOAT - just like those same songs that we recorded back then are still so well-loved TODAY!... So yeah, looking back that actually was still a good period for us too.”

With Curtis Mayfield leaving the group for a solo career in 1970, Fred’s recollections of his replacement Leroy Hutson - who sang lead with The Impressions from 1970 to 1973 before himself opting to go solo

“We met Leroy while we were working at The Howard Theatre in Washington, DC. He and Donny Hathaway were both attending Howard University at the time, and they both came by to see the show because they were starting a group too. So, with us knowing that they were majoring in music, we started speaking openly to them about Curtis getting ready to go solo. Then from that Leroy sent us some stuff, he auditioned... And we basically decided that he’d be the right man for what we needed, because he did sound very close to the way Curtis was singing at the time. So he came back to Chicago, we rehearsed... And hey man, it proved to be a WINNER! You know, it was a real nice situation - because we also then for a while had Donny Hathaway going out on the road with us as our keyboard-player.”

The Impressions becoming a quartet in 1973, when Leroy Hutson was replaced by both Reggie Torian and Ralph Johnson and a new string of US hits began - beginning with the 1974 US R&B Number One ‘Finally Got Myself Together’

“We basically changed over to becoming a four-man group simply because we felt we needed to try something new. I mean, at the time we needed a hit real, real bad. So they brought in Ed Townsend to write and produce for us, as well as Chuck Jackson - the guy that had previously been in The Independents - and with them we had about four or five hits. We had three consecutive Top Three records with ‘Finally Got Myself Together’; ‘Sooner Or Later’; ‘Same Thing It Took’; we had a moderate hit with our cover of The O’Jays’ Sunshine’... I mean, it was funny - because, when we first recorded ‘Finally Got Myself Together’ with Ed Townsend out in Los Angeles, we kinda sat back and were like ‘Hmm, we might HAVE something’… But then the time we REALLY knew we had something was when we did it on Don Cornelius’ ‘Soul Train’ TV show! When, after we performed, he called me over to the side and said ‘You go back and tell your people to release this song - because I believe that’ll be a big hit for y’all’... And he was definitely RIGHT! We went back to the record company, told them we’d spoken to Don; they released it... And it became a Number One RECORD for us, and began a whole new era of hits for The Impressions!”

The various, relatively-unsuccessful label-deals and numerous line-up changes that followed the group leaving Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom label in 1976

“Because Curtis was kinda concentrating on himself at that time - as far as his music was concerned - we just kinda felt ‘Hey, maybe we need a new START!’... And so that’s when we went to various other labels like 20th Century Records, where we cut an album (1981’s ‘Fan The Fire’) which - though it did get some play - didn’t get what I thought we COULD have got... But, you know, that’s what we chose to DO. We decided to try other labels to see what would happen - and unfortunately things didn’t happen the way we WANTED them to happen! And so at that point we were definitely struggling, trying to get back into the thick of things - and it just wasn’t HAPPENING! None of the people we worked with proved to be as good for The Impressions as Curtis, or people like Ed Townsend, had been for us. You know, we just couldn’t find the right producers - and from that point things just started sliding.”

The Impressions’ now-legendary Silver Anniversary reunion tour of 1983, which saw the group being reunited with original members Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield

“Oh, that was a great experience! You know, Curtis, Jerry and ourselves went out for about 30 days on a Budweiser tour across America. And it was just really wonderful to see all the people coming out to support us - I enjoyed it IMMENSELY! And what’s interesting is that I’m actually the only person who has a live tape of the SHOW! In fact, I just happened to be playing it the other night, just to give it a listen and see what it sounds like... So yeah, what I’m actually looking to do right now is find a label to RELEASE it. Because that combination of Curtis, Jerry and ourselves really did make for a very, very good show.”

A couple of Fred’s personal highlights out of the numerous accolades and acknowledgements that have been bestowed up on The Impressions over the last two decades

“Two experiences I’d mention in particular are the time when we worked with Eric Clapton and of course the time that we were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame - because to me you can’t GET any higher than being inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame! You know, being voted in by our peers to us was like putting the icing on the cake... Then with Eric we actually met up with him while we were singing at a memorial for Curtis out in California. We sang ‘I’ve Been Trying’ together and, once we’d finished, Eric kinda pulled me to the side and was like ‘I’m going in to record over the next few weeks. I was wondering if you’d like to come in and do something with me’ - which we thought was great! And, though we only went in with him to do one tune - ‘I’ve Been Trying’ - we actually ended up cutting about 12 with him! So in the end I think there was only track on the ‘Reptile’ album - which he released in 2001 - that we weren’t FEATURED on! And the whole experience was great! You know, Eric’s just got a lotta class; he treated the group so well... And we just had a great TIME together!”

The Impressions perform at The Barbican, London on June 10 08444 771000 and Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on June 11

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