Soul & Jazz Greats Mayfield, Washington, & Earland Die

The month of December was particularly hard on the music world, which lost three of its greatest talents within a few days of each other: Curtis Mayfield, Grover Washington, Jr., and Charles Earland. All were in their late 50s.

Perhaps the best known of the three, soul singer and songwriter Curtis Mayfield, died on Sunday morning of the 26th at North Fulton Regional Hospital, outside Atlanta. He was 57.

The decade had been a rough one for the trailblazing musician, who was paralyzed from the neck down by a freak accident at a 1990 outdoor concert, in which a lighting rig fell on him as he was taking the stage. Mayfield had suffered complications from diabetes in recent years, and had lost a leg as a result. Despite all the difficulties, he managed to maintain a sunny outlook on life. His last album, New World Order, was released to critical acclaim in 1996 and won a Grammy nomination. Breathing problems prevented him from singing in an upright position, but he found he could sing by lying on his back. "Making music keeps my soul working even when my body doesn't want to," he said in one of his last interviews.

The Chicago-born Mayfield was a member of the R&B/pop act The Impressions in the 1950s and '60s, with Jerry Butler. "For Your Precious Love" went to the top of the charts, as did another Mayfield-penned Butler hit, "He Will Break Your Heart." One of Mayfield’s most popular hits was "Gypsy Woman," which has been covered by innumerable performers.

Mayfield launched his solo career in the '70s, during the great upswelling of black pride; his "People Get Ready" was one of the most inspirational songs of the era. He addressed the issues of racial equality and self-determination in ways that were musically infectious and emotionally uplifting. "He imbued his songs with messages of love, optimism, unity, faith, and self-awareness. He stood out from his contemporaries by bravely, intelligently, and passionately delving into racial and political issues . . . " wrote Neil Strauss of the New York Times.

Jazz saxophonist Grover Washington, Jr. died earlier in the month in New York of an apparent heart attack, after collapsing at a taping of the CBS television program The Saturday Morning Show. He was 56.

A resident of Philadelphia for almost all of his life, Washington was the son of a saxophonist and one of the pioneers of jazz funk, a blend of jazz and soul music. He joined his first band—The Four Clefs—as a teenager in 1959, and was discovered in the early 1960s by organist Charles Earland, who encouraged him to join his group.

Washington's solo career took off in the late 1970s and early '80s, after signing with Elektra. His Winelight went to No.5 on the US record charts, and a single from the album, "Just the Two of Us," with vocal by Bill Withers, hit No.2 on the American charts in 1981.

Washington played a concert celebrating President Clinton's 50th birthday in 1996 at Radio City Music Hall, and took part in what the Associated Press called "a jazz and blues jam" with Clinton, Herbie Hancock, and Wynton Marsalis in 1993. Washington's influences were everywhere, he said. "I'm listening to everything . . . There's a record player playing in here all the time," he told an interviewer.

Washington's mentor, Charles Earland, was found dead---also of an apparent heart attack---in a hotel room in Kansas City on Saturday, December 11, just a few hours after finishing a gig at the Blue Room, one of the city's jazz clubs. Earland was 58.

A Philadelphia native and multi-instrumentalist, Earland played soprano saxophone, synthesizer, and electric piano, but was best known as a virtuoso on the Hammond B-3 organ. He was instrumental in launching the careers of Grover Washington, Jr., guitarist Pat Martino, saxophonist Lew Tabackin, and singer Frankie Avalon, who was a trumpeter during his stint as a member of Earland's band.

In 1997, Los Angeles Times jazz critic Don Heckman described Earland's playing as "driving, take-no-prisoners blitzkriegs of sound." Earland achieved his greatest commercial success with his album Black Talk!, released in the late 1970s. In recent years, he had been studying for the ministry.