Reginald Torian Sr. is committed to singing Mayfield's story

Reginald Torian Sr. hopes his new Curtis Mayfield revue, All Things Mayfield, can be a worldwide phenomenon.

Reginald Torian Sr., who has had a very good career and fine life singing songs on stages across the world, could be found last Wednesday sitting inside the beautiful and new nightclub and restaurant called The Promontory in Hyde Park.

He was, as usual, dressed as if for a fashion spread — mostly in leather of fine grain and color — and was, as usual, thoughtful and passionate.

He had just seen the film "Selma," the film dramatization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1965 nonviolent voting rights demonstrations — which, perhaps more fitting than coincidental, was still playing at the Harper movie theater a couple of blocks west — and he was saying: "I remember as a child watching the events of that movie on television and I did not feel connected to it at all. I just sensed man's inhumanity to man. Later ... I marched with Dr. King, and so I went to the movie when it opened and from its first scene I was crying."

The Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park Ave. West, is where Torian will star in the world premiere of his "All Things Mayfield," a musical-theatrical production featuring a 12-piece orchestra and a number of actors from the Black Ensemble Theater, all under the musical direction of Syd Brown.

A few of the 30 songs performed will be Torian's — including a stunning "Please Don't Give Up On Your Dream," written for the Back To Class project, with 50 percent of profits benefiting music programs of the Chicago Public Schools — but the majority of the tunes will be from the pen and heart and soul of the genius (not a word used lightly) named Curtis Mayfield.

When Torian says, "Nobody feels Curtis like I feel Curtis," there is nobody who can argue.

He has been feeling that for more than 40 years, on and off but mostly on, as a member of the Impressions, that durable gang of singers formed in the late 1950s in Chicago.

Mayfield was born in Cook County Hospital in 1942. He and his family (his father split when he was 5), moved all over the city. He attended more than eight different grammar schools before he was 12, and he moved to a tiny row house in the vast, ever-expanding and eventually dangerous and notorious Cabrini-Green housing project. That was where he would start the Impressions with teenage neighbor Jerry Butler.

Their first hit was "For Your Precious Love" in 1958 and, after Butler left for a solo career (and later a life in politics; since 1985 he has been a Cook County Board commissioner), the hits kept coming: "Gypsy Woman," "It's Alright," "I'm So Proud," and a couple of tunes, "Keep on Pushing" and "People Get Ready," that became anthems for the civil rights movement.

Mayfield wrote all those songs and hundreds more, later embarking on a successful solo career that included soundtracks for films such as 1972's "Super Fly" and starting his own record label.

In August 1990 he was paralyzed from the neck down after stage lighting equipment fell on him. He hung on, releasing a final album in 1996, but was too ill to attend his March 1999 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He died in December of that year.

Torian's relationship with and reverence for Mayfield has always run deep, and it reached a new level of intensity in the fall of 2013 when he starred in the Black Ensemble Theater's production of "It's All-Right to Have A Good Time: The Story of Curtis Mayfield."

The show was Torian's idea.

"For 41 years I had been performing the music and singing in the falsetto voice of Mayfield," he says. "We had done tribute shows to Curtis in Europe and Atlanta. After I saw (the 2012 BET) production of the 'Jackie Wilson Story' I talked to Jackie (Taylor, the founder and executive director of BET) about Curtis. She explained to me the rigors of the stage and then she taught me so much, how to be in the moment and how to effectively access the character."

Taylor wrote the show, which starred Torian, lying prone in bed to represent Mayfield in his later years (Cecil Jones played Mayfield as a young man and is part of this upcoming show).

Torian had developed a close relationship with Mayfield's surviving family members. Indeed, the singer's widow, Altheida Mayfield, was in the opening night audience of "It's All-Right," as were two of Mayfield's children, Kirk and Todd, who thanked the audience for "honoring the music."

All of which brings us back to The Promontory, where Torian was saying Wednesday, "All I ever wanted to do was tell Curtis' story, let people get the richness out of what his music is about and the pain that he went through. I want people to experience his emotions and talent."

Torian was born in Chicago Heights to a mother, Rheda, who was a registered nurse and sang in a gospel choir, and a father, Virgil "V.J." Torian Jr., who played for the Harlem Globetrotters. He started singing when he was 5 and the family was living in Hopkinsville, Ky.

As a tyke he performed Elvis Presley impersonations at local schools and then became a member of the Enchanters, four vocalists backed by a horn-driven rhythm and blues band. He met and was asked to join the Impressions when his group performed on the same bill at the bygone High Chaparral on Stony Island Avenue near 77th Street.

This was in 1972, after Mayfield had left the group. Torian was 22.

"And I had never been on an airplane before," he said. "I was initially signed to join for a six-month tour, and that has lasted my lifetime."

A full-scale production such as "All Things Mayfield" is shadowed by expectations and hopes. Rehearsals for the show have been, Torian was saying, "magnificent, and I get to stand up this time. And I am feeling it, feeling that this might become a …" He stops talking and flashes a wide grin of serious intent, "a worldwide phenomenon." He will be singing and also providing some stories between songs to give the show a narrative drive.

At the other side of the room, Jake Austen, The Promontory's talented and wise manager and talent buyer, said, "I am really excited about this show." He had seen Torian perform only once, at a tribute to a deceased friend. "He is a great singer and a really great storyteller."

Torian heard that, smiled and said, "I am just playing a character in the story of my life."

"After Hours With Rick Kogan" airs 9-11 p.m. Sundays on WGN-AM 720.

rkogan@tribpub.com

 

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