Curtis Mayfield, Curtom Records, and the Legacy of Artist-Run Labels

Curtis Mayfield, Curtom Records, and the Legacy of Artist-Run Labels

Story By Andy Beta
Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer / Getty Images.

As a young teenager from the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, Curtis Mayfield worshipped at the altar of Sam Cooke, which comes as no surprise—generations of future artists would venerate the King of Soul. In the early 1950s, Cooke was the divine voice fronting the Soul Stirrers, the mighty gospel quartet whose harmonies influenced everything from doo-wop to Motown. The young Mayfield followed in his footsteps with his first group, Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers.

And when Cooke pivoted from the church to pop, Mayfield also took note. He too would transition from sacred music to secular stardom, becoming one of soul music’s enduring icons, but Mayfield made sure to safeguard his legacy early on in his career. “When my father started recording in 1958, no Negro artist [owned their work],” his son Todd Mayfield wrote in Traveling Soul, his biography of his father, but Curtis looked to the example of Sam Cooke’s SAR Records, which the singer started in 1961. “Already one of Dad’s heroes in music, Cooke became his hero in business, too. Dad followed in Cooke’s footsteps and founded his own publishing company. He called it Curtom.”

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