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American anthem 'We're a Winner' was one of the first hits centered on Black pride

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

By the mid-'60s, Curtis Mayfield was already a star.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE GET READY")

CURTIS MAYFIELD: (Singing) People get ready. There's a train a-coming. You don't need no baggage. You just get on board.

DETROW: He had been in The Impressions for years, and with songs like "People Get Ready," his work was beginning to get more political. But it wasn't until the 1967 hit "We're A Winner" that Mayfield sang directly about Black pride. All this week, to mark the Fourth of July holiday, we've been revisiting some of the songs that have become different sorts of American anthems. NPR's Eric Deggans has this dispatch from 2019, when he went to Chicago to track down the story behind "We're A Winner."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ERIC DEGGANS: It sounds like Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions recorded it during a party, but "We're A Winner" had a message as serious as death and taxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE A WINNER")

MAYFIELD: (Singing) We're a winner. And never let anybody say, well, you can't make it 'cause a feeble mind is in your way...

DEGGANS: I was 2 years old when "We're A Winner" was first released, but I grew up in a home filled with Mayfield and The Impressions, thanks to my record-buying mother. And even as a young Black child in Gary, Ind., I felt a dose of hope and pride from hearing lyrics like, never let anybody say, boy, you can't make it 'cause a feeble mind is in your way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE A WINNER")

MAYFIELD: (Singing) We're moving on up, moving on up. Lord have mercy, we're moving on up, moving on up.

DEGGANS: I didn't know it then, but before "We're A Winner," there weren't many hit songs by Black artists telling Black people to be proud. It meant something to hear a melody pouring out of the radio, telling me equality was just around the corner. So it was a treat to ask Sam Gooden, who sang alongside Mayfield and The Impressions, what inspired the song. He said Mayfield wrote "We're A Winner" to help civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. because the group was working too much to actually march with them.

SAM GOODEN: He said, this particular song is a song that I think we should use to spread some of Dr. King's messages across the country. We felt that it would uplift not only our people but all people.

DEGGANS: Turns out "We're A Winner" was third in a progression of hit songs for Mayfield, with each tune talking more explicitly about the fight for equality. First came "Keep On Pushing" in 1964.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KEEP ON PUSHING")

THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) Keep on pushing. I've got to keep on pushing.

DEGGANS: "Keep On Pushing" delivered a general message of encouragement. A year later, the hit "People Get Ready" said justice was coming soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE GET READY")

THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) People, get ready. There's a train a-coming...

DEGGANS: "We're A Winner" arrived in 1967. Fred Cash, who also sang with Mayfield and Gooden in The Impressions, said Mayfield worked as a one-man hit machine, writing the music and lyrics for songs by himself, often when they were touring.

FRED CASH: He would write 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning, sitting on the side of the bed with his guitar and his robe on. And if he felt like he had something that he wanted us to hear, he would knock on the door - wouldn't care if we were asleep or what.

DEGGANS: Sam Gooden says by then, Mayfield was irritated by criticism The Impressions' messages were too vague.

GOODEN: I think he got a bit angry. And he said, why beat around the bush? Why not just walk right straight up and just say what you're going to say? And they like it, or they don't like it.

DEGGANS: Now, as a kid, I assumed "We're A Winner's" lyrics always included in-your-face references to Martin Luther King Jr. and the stereotype of an Uncle Tom. But it turns out he only sang those lyrics in a 1971 concert recording from the album, "Curtis/Live!"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE A WINNER")

MAYFIELD: (Singing) There'll be no more Uncle Tom. At last, that blessed day has come, and we're a winner. And everybody knows it, too. We'll just keep on pushing, like Martin Luther told you to...

DEGGANS: According to Cash and Gooden, producer Johnny Pate said there was no way those lyrics could go in the studio version in 1967. Pate, now age 95, doesn't remember that. But as a jazz musician who could read and write music, he does remember having a certain attitude about self-taught R&B players like Mayfield.

JOHNNY PATE: I kind of looked down upon them because these guys can't even write the music, you know? And then one day it hit me because of Curtis. Here's a guy who's writing what he feels. No, he can't put it down on paper, but this is what he's - definitely feels in his heart and his soul.

DEGGANS: According to Cash and Gooden, despite the toned-down lyrics, some radio stations still wouldn't play "We're A Winner," something Mayfield mentioned on the "Curtis/Live!" album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYFIELD: Whole lot of stations didn't want to play that particular recording, "We're A Winner." I would say, the way I'm sure most of you would say, we don't give a damn. We're a winner anyway. Right on.

(APPLAUSE)

DEGGANS: WLS was a powerful Top 40 radio station in Chicago. Fred Cash and Sam Gooden say the white, pop oriented WLS wouldn't play "We're A Winner" because it sounded too militant. But Clark Weber, who was program director at the 50,000-watt station back then, says it just didn't have the right sound.

CLARK WEBER: The R&B sound was enough for most white stations to say, I'm sorry, we can't. My audience would respond saying, what are you doing playing that? And sponsors would call and say, that market is not the market I'm going after. I'm looking for an affluent white market, and you're not giving me that kind of audience.

DEGGANS: Still, "We're A Winner" became a No. 1 R&B hit and Top 20 pop hit. The song seemed to strike a nerve. A year later, in 1968, Sly and the Family Stone released their hit plea for equality, "Everyday People." And James Brown crafted his classic Black pride anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD, I'M BLACK & I'M PROUD")

JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Say it loud.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I'm Black, and I'm proud.

DEGGANS: Addressing civil rights could become a hit-making strategy. The Reverend Jesse Jackson says Mayfield had a talent for reaching the marketplace. The civil rights leader was a longtime friend of Mayfield's, who performed at one of the legendary expos held by Jackson's Operation PUSH in Chicago during the early 1970s. When I asked about Mayfield's impact, Jackson talked about how music could sway people when protests didn't.

JESSE JACKSON: It's all about struggle. Chris could put that to music. I can say that in a speech or a sermon. Chris could exact from that rhythm and music. Music is the medium for the message. And so "We're A Winner" is a part of that legacy.

DEGGANS: Mayfield left The Impressions in 1970 for a solo career. In 1990, he was paralyzed after a piece of scaffolding fell on him at a concert. He died in 1999. I talked to Aaron Cohen, author of "Move On Up: Chicago Soul Music And Black Cultural Power." He says Mayfield's accident came just as journalists began writing more about his influence.

AARON COHEN: I remember this in the late 1980s, when Public Enemy and Ice-T were coming out with their, you know, very outspoken raps, people started to realize that Curtis Mayfield was the forefather of a lot of that. And the tragedy is that was just before the accident in Brooklyn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE A WINNER")

MAYFIELD: (Singing) 'Cause we're a winner, and everybody knows it too...

DEGGANS: For me, more than 50 years later, "We're A Winner's" upbeat, smooth appeal certifies Mayfield's legacy as a smartly subversive activist, inspiring other artists to blend potent social commentary with an irresistible beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE A WINNER")

MAYFIELD: (Singing) Lord, have mercy. We're movin' on up.

DEGGANS: I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE A WINNER")

THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) Movin' on up.

MAYFIELD: (Singing) Lord, have mercy. We're movin' on up.

THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) Movin' on up.

DETROW: That story was part of our American Anthem series, and it originally aired in 2019. Tune in tomorrow for another installment as we revisit Antonin Dvorak's "New World Symphony."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE'RE A WINNER")

MAYFIELD: (Singing) Everybody knows it, too. We'll just keep on pushing, like your leaders tell you to. At last, that blessed day has come, and I don't care where you come from. We're all movin' on up.

THE IMPRESSIONS: (Singing) Movin' on up.

MAYFIELD: (Singing) Lord, have mercy. We're movin' on up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.