A series of avoidable blunders obstructed the forward march of one of Soul’s most skilled and socially conscious artists. Curtis Mayfield could do dance music and love songs as well as the others, but what set him apart was his keen interest in addressing civil rights issues, inner city poverty, drug use and abuse facing the black community.
On August 13, 1990, Senator Martin Markowitz had booked an outdoor show with Curtis Mayfield as headliner, part of his yearly summer event for his constituents. This time around, however, nature stood in the way.
Ten thousand people had already made their way into the park and taken seats at the Wingate Field in Brooklyn. Although Markowitz was informed a rainstorm was on its way, he failed to cancel the show. Rather he decided that Mayfield performs first.
According to Mayfield’s son Todd, his father’s band, Ice-9, hustled on stage and began playing but as Mayfield took hold of the mic and said, “I’m thrilled …” the fans sitting in the first two rows were jolted to the ground.
In a matter of seconds, the gust of wind had also razed the speakers and toppled the cymbals on the drum riser. “Drummer Lee Goodness leaned back and caught them with his left arm, keeping the beat with his right. One of those falling raindrop lights cracked Curtis on the back of the neck and crumpled him to the ground. Then the falling truss pulverized the tom drums with a mighty crash. If Lee hadn’t leaned back to catch the cymbals, it would have severed his arms, maybe worse. His bass drum stopped the truss before it could squash my father like a bug,” Todd Mayfield recounts in his co-authored book about his father’s ordeal in Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield by Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria.
Mayfield was rushed to the Kings County Hospital, which saved his life but the impact had taken its toll. Doctors told him the stage light had crushed several vertebrae leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, such that he would never walk, nor play guitar again. He was just 48 years old.
The grim reality of no more performing, traveling, nor writing set in. He asked to be transferred home where he stayed in bed all day and night with the TV on.
His wife, Altheida Mayfield was his primary care giver whom he called out to several times, especially at night to help with an itch or such duty but the stress took its toll.
One night, exhausted, she put a candle near the wall and forgot it. The wallpaper ignited setting the second floor of the house on fire. Had no one been around to wheel Mayfield, he would have been burned to death.
After such a freak accident, Mayfield watched as his home also burn. More trouble brewed when master tapes of some of his most famous recordings went up in flames.
In a matter of weeks, Mayfield had lost the use of his body and much of his life’s work, in addition to evacuating his home but “he broke his back but not his spirit,” his widow Altheida Mayfield submitted.
Mayfield from Cabrini Green Housing Projects made his first recordings in 1958 as a member of the Chicago Soul/R & B group, The Impressions. He started out as a 16-year-old backup singer.
Born in 1942, Mayfield discovered the guitar at age seven and although he played the piano first, the guitar would become his closest ally, developing a unique sound on the guitar. He also became proficient on bass, drums and saxophones.
When Jerry Butler left the The Impressions who went by The Roosters name early on, Mayfield seized the opportunity to lead, produce and write. The Impressions and Curtis Mayfield thus became pioneers of Chicago Soul which emerged in the late fifties.
In 1961, The Impressions with Mayfield landed their first hit, “Gypsy Woman.” “For the rest of the decade the group remained hot with 14 Top 10 hits including an amazing run of five Top 20 songs in 1964 alone.”
In 1964, The Impressions had its biggest hit to date with the Mayfield song, “Keep on Pushing” which established him as one of the first R & B singer-songwriters to bring social commentary to the pop charts. Other “anthems” followed: “People Get Ready,” and “We’re A Winner.”
Martin Luther King Jr. made “Ready” and “Pushing” unofficial anthems for the Movement. “People Get Ready” has been recorded by over 100 artists, bringing royalties to the composer.
In 1968, Mayfield started Curtom Records. He was in control of his recording, song publishing and recording studio showing that successful Black Capitalism was possible and necessary. He is said to have shown the way for African American recording stars in charge of business enterprises such as Dr. Dre, P. Diddy, Russell Simmons Jay Z and Kanye West.
In the 1970s, Mayfield played a part in the “Blaxploitation” era where he wrote film music. The Impressions’ “Super Fly” album became an instant classic of 1970s soul and funk, with the soundtrack outselling the movie.
Mayfield’s last recording, “New World Order (1995),” required courage and will. He recorded one line of a song at a time, lying on his back to allow his diaphragm to work and breathe to get into his lungs.
In 1991, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted The Impressions. The City of Chicago also renamed Hudson Avenue “Honorary Curtis Mayfield Avenue.” He also earned a Grammy Legend Award. Mayfield died on December 26, 1999.