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The Impressions keep on pushing

Greg Kot

10:58 AM CDT, June 28, 2012

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Fred Cash remembers the day he joined the Impressions in 1958, a mere teenager starting what would be a five-decade ride in one of the great vocal groups of all time.

He had been singing on street-corners in Chattanooga, Tenn., and in church with his friends Sam Gooden and the Brooks brothers, Richard and Arthur. “There was not a whole lot to do in Chattanooga except play baseball and harmonize,” Cash says. “Our families sang and played music. My mother played piano for several churches. My brothers sang in quartet gospel groups. It was in our blood. We wanted to take it further. But there were no record labels here. We had to leave for Chicago, Detroit, New York or California to take the next step.”

But when the Roosters, the fledgling group the Brooks brothers formed with Gooden and Cash, was invited to Chicago in 1957 to join Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield in the Impressions, Cash had to stay home because his mother thought he was too young. The group enjoyed immediate success with a huge 1958 hit, the secular hymn “For Your Precious Love,” with Butler on lead vocals.

Butler quit soon after for a solo career, and the Impressions’ last concert with their original lineup happened to be in Chattanooga. Immediately afterward, Cash’s old childhood friends drove to his house and made another attempt to persuade him and, more importantly, Cash’s mother that joining the Impressions was the right move.

“I knew they were successful, but to get my attention one of the guys in the group pulled out a big wad of money,” Cash says with a laugh. “My mom saw that and said, ‘You can go.’ I found out later it was a wad of one-dollar bills, but I left for Chicago and was in the group.”

The group struggled to follow up “For Your Precious Love” at first, grinding out shows on the chitlin’ circuit in the Deep South for a few years. But Mayfield’s gift for songwriting and production eventually caught on, and the hits began to flow: “Gypsy Woman,” “Keep on Pushing,” “People Get Ready,” “Amen,” “I’m So Proud,” “Woman’s Got Soul.”

Along with the Staple Singers, the Impressions provided a soundtrack for the civil-rights movement in the ‘60s. Mayfield’s affinity for lyrics and melodies melded brilliantly with the vocal harmonies of Gooden and Cash (the Brooks brothers left the group in 1961).

“We rehearsed at my home (on the South Side) or at Sam’s house,” Cash says. “Curtis lived in the suburbs and he’d come into the city. He’d pick out the parts on his guitar that we needed to sing. I was singing bass, tenor, baritone, and lead. Curtis sang high tenor. Art was basically a bass singer and baritone, but on some songs he had to come up a couple of steps and do some tenor-ing. We didn’t have training. It was all instinct. Curtis would ask me all the time whether he should go to school to learn some more about music. But he didn’t need to. He wrote a lot of our early hits, like ‘Gypsy Woman,’ when he was just a kid, and we had material for years. He was a genius with a gift for putting words together that would inspire.”

At the time, Cash acknowledges he didn’t fully appreciate the group’s role as part of a historic movement that changed the world.

“We were young and didn’t know these songs would have that effect,” he says. “We sold 60, 70 million records. We just came back from Madrid, and we were seeing kids 17 and 18 singing our songs. I couldn’t believe that. You realize that songs like ‘Keep on Pushing,’ ‘We’re a Winner’ and ‘Choice of Colors’ inspired people, even today. I was talking to Andy Young (civil rights activist and former congressman and U.S. ambassador Andrew Young) and he told me how they would sing ‘Amen’ and ‘Keep on Pushing’ during the freedom marches. It gave them inspiration to keep on doing what they were doing. It’s great to know we had a role in that.”

Mayfield left the group in 1970 for a solo career, cementing his reputation as one of the great artists of the 20th Century. Cash and Gooden carried on in the Impressions with a variety of singers, continuing to score hits into the ‘70s.

In 2000, Eric Clapton recruited the group to record vocals on his “Reptile” album. “We sang with him at a memorial service for Curtis (who died in 1999),” Cash says. “Afterward, everybody gathered out back of the church and Eric came up to me and said, ‘Fred, would you like to record with me?’ I had no idea he was a fan, but he really knew our music and we ended up doing most of the album and then touring with him for a month. He treated us like we were kings.”

Reggie Torrian, who recorded with the Impressions in the ‘70s, returned to the group as lead vocalist a few years ago. The trio is recording what Cash hopes will be a new album, with the Dap Kings’ Binky Griptite producing.

“When I went to visit Curtis before he died, he showed me a tape with a song he had written called ‘Homeless,’ and he told us to record it,” Cash says. “We didn’t have a label at time, so I forgot about it. But I was cleaning out my office earlier this year, found this bag of tapes, and the ‘Homeless’ tape fell to the floor. It was like a message. We got our old arranger Johnny Pate back and put together ‘Homeless’ and some other new songs. Binky produced the session in New York. Hopefully, we’ll have some new Impressions music coming out in the fall.”

greg@gregkot.com

The Impressions with Aretha Franklin at the 17th annual N’Digo Gala: 7 p.m. Saturday at the Arie Crown Theatre, 2301 S. Lake Shore Drive, $45, $75, $90; ticketmaster.com.