By Chris M. Junior
While giving his 3-year-old child a bath last September, David Peck says the thought to make a documentary DVD about Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions just popped into his head.
The progression from concept to finished product happened relatively fast, as well. “Movin’ on Up: The Music and Message of Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions,” a two-DVD set, was released in May by Peck’s Reelin’ in the Years Productions (www.reelinintheyears.com) and Universal Music Group International.
Like other Reelin’ in the Years Productions DVDs, Peck says the foundation for “Movin’ on Up” was to include as many complete performances of songs from as close to when they were hits as possible.
“Movin’ on Up,” which Peck co-directed, certainly has its share — more than 20 complete TV performances by The Impressions and Mayfield as a solo artist that were filmed between 1965 and 1973.
But all documentaries need a unifying theme, and Peck’s belief that Mayfield was “way beyond the music” is the core of the project.
“They weren’t merely great songs — there was something a lot deeper going on,” says Peck, the president and founder of Reelin’ in the Years Productions. “Those Impressions songs were really part of the movement.”
Peck is referring to the 1960s civil rights movement, and he’s quick to point out that The Impressions — much like the activists who strived for equality during that era — were pioneers.
“At the time they did these songs, nobody else was singing protest songs in the soul/R&B field,” he says. “And here you had The Impressions in 1964 with ‘Keep on Pushing.’ Then in ’65, they do ‘People Get Ready.’ Then they come back with ‘Meeting Over Yonder.’ Then in ’67, they come back with ‘We’re a Winner.’ I defy anybody to show me a Motown artist, and one that remotely charted, who in that time period did a protest song.”
As a white kid growing up in Toronto during the late 1960s, DVD co-producer Rob Bowman credits Impressions songs with sensitizing him to issues of race and the civil rights movement.
“I bought my first Impressions record probably when I was 11 years old,” says Bowman, who penned the liner notes for “Movin’ on Up.” “I remember we had a project to do at school. We had to choose a topic and pick two poems, two magazine articles and two books that somehow addressed that topic. I chose [racism as my topic and] ‘Choice of Colors’ by The Impressions as one of my poems — I sort of stretched it, thinking a song lyric would function as a poem.”
When Peck’s company decided it wanted to interview a civil rights leader for “Movin’ on Up,” the first choice was activist/politician John Lewis, but by October he already was hard at work on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Peck then reached out to Andrew Young, a longtime activist and politician who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and later served as an ambassador to the United Nations.
“I think he gave some of the most powerful stuff in the film,” Peck says.
During his research for “Movin’ on Up,” Bowman was surprised to learn from his interview with Young that some of the people who gathered in the late 1960s at churches for pre-march rallies would sing Impressions songs.
“I had no firm inkling that The Impressions’ music was used in the context of the movement that way,” Bowman adds.
Young is just one of the notables who was interviewed for “Movin’ on Up.” Carlos Santana and Public Enemy’s Chuck D provide insight and perspective, as does Mayfield’s widow, Altheida. Impressions mainstays Fred Cash and Sam Gooden, plus producer/arranger Johnny Pate, delve into the history of the group and the making of the music.
“Movin’ on Up” doesn’t contain any recent or archival footage of early member Jerry Butler. Peck has taken some heat about this, but he has his reasons. “There is no [existing] footage of Jerry Butler with The Impressions in the 1950s doing ‘For Your Precious Love,’ ” says Peck, referring to the group’s first big hit. “I didn’t want to show footage of them from their early 1980s tour with gray hair — that’s not what we’re about.
“The Impressions existed for a very short time with Jerry Butler,” he adds. “They had one hit . . . and then Jerry Butler was gone.”
As for what “Movin’ on Up” does include, Peck received positive feedback from Mayfield’s eldest son during its April premiere in Chicago. “The show ended, and he was there with his children,” Peck recalls. “I asked him, ‘Be honest — did I get it right? Is that your father?’ And he said, ‘That is absolutely my father. You nailed it.’ He was so thankful and pleased, and that meant so much to me. If the son says you got it right, then you got it right.”