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A talk with Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield

Thirty years ago, on September 13, 1990, during an open-air concert at Wingate Field in Brooklyn, Curtis Mayfield suffered the accident that left him paralysed from the neck down. Just over three years later I went to his home in Atlanta, Georgia to conduct an interview that I’ll never forget. Here it is.

“There’s not really much to talk about,” Curtis Mayfield said. “It happened, and it happened fast. I never even saw it coming.” And then, gathering momentum, he started to describe the events of a late-summer day in 1990.

“It was the 13th of September,” he began. “I think it was a Monday. I flew into New York from Long Beach, California. I had my driver come and meet us at La Guardia. Everybody was in good shape. We went over to New Jersey. I had decided to stay in a hotel over there — it was a little cheaper. I got on the phone, called my promoter at about eleven o’clock to tell him we were here. He told me he’d call me back, which he did a little later, and he gave me directions to come out to Queens.

“We arrived there at about eight-thirty or nine. It was bigger than I thought — about 10,000 people right out in the park. We pulled up behind the stage. I met a few people, shook a few hands, got my money — my balance in advance. All the normal things. I’m in the safest place in my life, doing my work.

“I was to close the show, but it was running a little late, and I was asked to go on stage a little early so people who were there to see me wouldn’t be disappointed. No problem. I was happy to do that. I tuned my guitar and jumped into my stage clothes. The promoter’s son came out and said, ‘We’re ready for you.’ I sent my band out and they hit the opening number. It was ‘Superfly’.

“I had my guitar on and I’m walking up these sort of ladder steps, a little bit steep but not so steep you couldn’t walk up them. I get to the top of the back of the stage, I take two or three steps, and… I don’t remember anything. I don’t even remember falling.

“The next thing I know, I was lying on my back. So I must have went out for a moment. And then I discovered that neither my hands nor my arms were where I thought they were, and I couldn’t move. I looked about me lying there. I saw myself totally splattered all over the stage.

“Then it began to rain. Big drops. I could hear people screaming and hollering. From what I could observe, all of everything above us had come out of the sky. I chose not to shut my eyes, for fear of dying. The rain was falling. Some of the fellows found me and saw that I was paralysed, so they went and found a big piece of plastic sheeting to protect me in the rain until the paramedics arrived. Luckily, the hospital was right around the corner. Everything else is history.”

And then, lying in the large bed in the front room of his house, Curtis Mayfield fell silent. His brown eyes peered over the top of the white sheet. The tape recorder, propped on the pillow case close to his mouth, turned noiselessly. Nothing else moved. For Mayfield, nothing had moved since that humid night three and a half years earlier when he took the stage, just as he had done countless times throughout a thirty-year performing career, and a lighting rig toppled, paralysing him from the neck down and silencing one of the great poetic voices of post-war America.

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He was born in 1942 and grew up in the Cabrini-Green housing projects on Chicago’s Near North Side. His father left home when he was four years old and he was raised by his mother. But when he talked about where he had acquired his view of the world, and his means of expressing that view, he kept returning to memories of his grandmother.

“I used to be back and forth between my mother and my grandmother,” he said. “She was the Reverend Annie Bell Mayfield, and she had a little storefront church — the Traveling Soul Spiritualist Church. We’d have Bible classes there early on Sunday mornings before my grandmother’s sermons, which would go on from nine o’clock in the morning until noon.” Annie Bell Mayfield died some years ago, leaving no evidence of her prowess as a preacher, but it’s easy to believe that, if we were somehow able to retrieve an replay her Sunday morning marathons, we would hear the distinctive patterns that distinguish not only her grandson’s lyrics but also, from time to time, his conversation, in which ghetto vernacular is articulated with a graceful formality that can only have come from early and prolonged exposure to the King James Bible.

He began to sing, too, in her church, where he also heard many styles of gospel music performed by visiting choirs, an experience that augmented a fondness for the recordings of the Sensational Nightingales and the Original Five Blind Boys of Alabama — “on that black and white Specialty label, in the days when I had to stand on tiptoe to reach the Victrola.” At home, where his mother kept the family together through welfare payments, there was always a record on the Victrola or something playing on the radio, and he quickly learned to love the grown-up popular music of Billie Holiday as well as the teenage doo-wop of the Spaniels, the Cadillacs and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers.

At eight or nine he was singing alongside a young friend, Jerry Butler, in a gospel group called the Northern Jubilees. In his early teens, having picked up a rudimentary knowledge of the piano, he started fooling around a guitar that a friend had left at his grandmother’s house. Knowing nothing, he tuned it to the black keys of the piano. The result was an F-sharp open tuning which he discovered was incorrect, or at least unorthodox, when he and the Impressions made their first visit to the Apollo in Harlem and he tried playing along with the house orchestra. “No one else tunes that way,” he said with sadness, the arms that had cradled that guitar lying immobile under the bedsheet. “So it’s a lost art now, a lost tuning.” At eleven or twelve he was singing with schoolboy doo-wop quartets, using housing-project stairwells as echo chambers, and before long he was writing songs for them to sing. His guitar was the vehicle, and his imagination provided the material.

“Everything was a song,” he said. “Every conversation, every personal hurt, every observance of people in stress, happiness and love. If you could feel it, I could feel it. And if I could feel it, I could write a song about it. If you have a good imagination, you can go quite far.”

His mother encouraged him to read widely, and introduced him to the work of the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. “My teacher told me I’d never amount to anything,” he said. “I left high school at fifteen, after just one year. But my real teachers were the people around me. And I was a good listener. I used to love to sit and listen to the old people talk about yesterday. There’s a lot of good information there.”

The sharp awareness of social problems came, he said, simply from looking at the world around him. “I was a young black kid. One of the first things I remember, in the early ’50s, was the boy from the north who went to Mississippi to visit and happened to say something or whistle to a white woman. They came and got him out of the night and destroyed him.” He was referring to fourteen-year-old Emmett Till, murdered in 1955 by white racists for his alleged effrontery. “All of these things come into your head. And of course the popularity of the Reverend Martin Luther King instilled in me the need to join in, to speak in terms of we as a minority finding ways to be a bit more equal in this country.”

The record industry wasn’t exactly thrilled by the notion of a black entertainer trying to say something serious in songs with the Impressions like “We’re a Winner”, “Choice of Colours” and “Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey)”. “No, no. But I didn’t care. I couldn’t help myself for it. And it was also my own teachings, me talking to myself about my own moral standards. As a kid, sometimes you have nobody to turn to. I could always go back to some of the sermons and talk to myself in a righteous manner and put that in a song.”

I asked him where “People Get Ready” had come from, because it seemed to be one of those songs that had sprung not from a writer’s pen but from the collective unconsciousness. “I don’t know. I just wrote it. Lyrically you could tell it’s from parts of the Bible. ‘There’s no room for the hopeless sinner who would hurt all mankind just to save his own / Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner, for there’s no hiding place against the Kingdom’s throne.’ It’s an ideal. There’s a message there.”

Mayfield had hardly begun writing songs before he realised the value of owning the title to his own work. “My family had been quite poor. We had nothing, really, although I didn’t realise it when I was small. But once I came of an age to understand how little we had, it made me want to own as much of myself as possible.” And at the age of seventeen this Chicago ghetto child wrote off to the Library of Congress in Washington DC, asking how he could protect the rights to his own songs. Form a publishing company, they told him, and this is how you do it. So he did.

“During that time,” he said, “record companies were used to taking people off the street and giving them twenty five bucks for a song. Many a hit came off the street like that. But I was too stubborn, too strong-willed, which they didn’t care for. However, I also understood early on that it’s better to have fifty per cent of something than a hundred per cent of nothing. And at least I had it to bargain with.”

The business side didn’t come naturally to him. “I’m a creative person. And I was just too young. I didn’t have the knowledge. I’m sure that for every dollar I’ve earned, I’ve probably earned someone else ten or twenty dollars.”

The Impressions recorded first for the local Vee Jay label and then for the giant ABC corporation, where their hits ran from “Gypsy Woman” and “It’s All Right” through “I’m So Proud”, “Amen, “Keep on Pushing”, “Meeting over Yonder”, “You’ve Been Cheating” and “I Need You”. But in the late ’60s, inspired by Berry Gordy’s Motown enterprise, he and a partner, Eddie Thomas, who had been Jerry Butler’s chauffeur, formed their own label. Like the Isley Brothers’ T-Neck or James Brown’s People label, Mayfield’s Curtom Records never quite managed to outgrow its primary function as a vehicle for the founder’s musical output.

“We were all trying to survive in a big world of business and loopholes and record companies that weren’t giving you all you felt you’d earned,” he said. “I just admired what Berry was doing at Motown. I always had that dream. But it just never happened for me in that manner.” Why not? “I wore too many hats, for one thing. And my face during those days would not allow doors to open for me. As a black man, you don’t get an invitation.”

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Mayfield was in his prime in 1972, aged thirty, when he used the soundtrack to Superfly — one of a series of “blaxpolitation” movies — to deliver a warning against the increasingly violent drug culture of the projects in which he had grown up. I wondered whether it saddened him that although the songs were big hits, the warnings of “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusherman” — like those contained in James Brown’s “King Heroin” or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On — had been so totally ignored by the people at whom they were aimed, even though they were also often the people who bought and danced to them.

“In some ways. Not really, because although sometimes all the bad things seem to be in a majority, it’s still really a small minority. The majority still has high hopes and reasons, and wants to do the right things and be about success stories. The poverty may hold them back, but the dreams are still there. People have reasons to be pessimistic, but this world is still of value.”

But wasn’t he nevertheless glad that he had grown up in the Chicago of the ’40s and ’50s, where black people were still streaming in from the South, fleeing the plantations in the hope of a better life, rather than the crack-culture Chicago of the ’90s, where the only solution to the hopelessness of the Cabrini-Green projects was to raze them to the ground? Weren’t things just getting worse?

“It’s hard to say who lived the better life. However, those who live today would probably prefer today’s life, and tomorrow’s beginning. We laid the ground, our sacrifices were big. But prior to that it was even worse. And look at the people who laid a platform for us. I understand what you’re saying. It seems that it’s not respected or appreciated by many of the young. But I still say it’s a minority of a minority. It’s not the majority.”

Mayfield has eleven children. Six of them were living with him and his wife, Altheida, in the big house in the Atlanta suburbs that he bought in 1980. What did he think of the music that had soundtracked the growing years of his own kids — the brutal frankness of hip-hop and gangsta rap?

“I listen to it, and it hurts me. A lot of the stuff, as a grown adult and a father… well, you do have to lay down your own laws and not allow too much of it to infiltrate the home and family.” Is it really corrupting? “Oh yeah. Children are very impressionable. You do have to set standards and lay a foundation of rights and wrongs, and then live a certain way so that they can see that what you say is also what you do. And if your children have any strength and an admiration for their parents, and if you teach them to be strong-willed, then maybe — just maybe — you have a chance. That is still not to say that as they leave this home and go out into the world they may not be smothered with all the negatives — knowing that black boys especially have less than a fighting chance to learn the things they need to make a livelihood. All that’s out there for them is jail.”

Lying there in his enforced silence, would he like to be writing about those matters today?

“No. It’s all been said. And I don’t like to repeat myself.”

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He had surgery straight after the accident, and again once he was back home in Atlanta. But nothing had improved his condition, which appeared like to be unchanged for the rest of his life. He relied on his wife and children to feed him, to fetch for him, and for every movement of his limbs. All he had left were his eyes, his speech, his brain, and his enormous spiritual and philosophical resources.

“We’re taught to keep high hopes,” he said when I asked him about a prognosis. “Which I have. But I must deal with the realities of today, and let tomorrow take care of itself. I’m lucky to still have my mind. Many things are possible. But if I have a thought, I can’t write it down. I even have a computer over there. But I can’t get up to use it. So there are those frustrations.”

Could he still sing? “Not in the manner as you once knew me. I’m strongest lying down like this. I don’t have a diaphragm any more. So when I sit up, I lose my voice. I have no strength, no volume, no falsetto voice, and I tire very fast.”

But did he still sing inside his own head? “Yes, I do. I still come up with ideas and melodies. But they’re like dreams. If you can’t jot them down immediately, they vanish.”

His medical bills had been horrendous. To help defray them, a tribute album featured performances of his songs by singers from Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen and Gladys Knight to Elton John, Rod Stewart, B. B. King and the Isley Brothers. He expressed gratitude to BMI, one of the two big US royalty-collection agencies, which helped out by paying him an advance against each year’s earnings. Surely, I suggested, they must have done pretty well out of him over the years? “I hope so. But, you know, people don’t have to. In my case lots of people have in their own ways been ready to come to my aid. I try not to ask. I don’t wish for charity. But I must still realise that I’m in need of everybody.”

A young man came into the room: Todd Mayfield, aged twenty seven, his second son, wanting to see if his father needed anything.

“My family has been fantastic,” said the quiet voice from the bed. “My son here is my legs and my arms and part of my mind as well.” A pause. “So… so far, so good.”

* Curtis Mayfield died on December 29, 1999, aged fifty seven. Three years earlier, helped by various musicians and producers, he had made one last album, the superb New World Order, released by Warner Brothers, from which the portrait photograph by Dana Lixenburg is borrowed. Traveling Soul, Todd Mayfield’s excellent biography of his father, was published in 2017 by the Chicago Review Press. My piece originally appeared in the Independent on Sunday and is slightly abridged from the version included in Long Distance Call, a collection of my music pieces, published in 2000 by Aurum Press.

33 Comments Post a comment
  1. Peter Smith #

    I had the pleasure to meet him in 1989. To say that he was a fine man would be an underestimation. Respected by musicians and his influence continues. Responsible for some of the most significant songs from the 50s onwards and humble, so humble. If a person were to be looking for a role model, then CM would be the place to start your search. We are going through tough times at the moment and I would like to think that he would have brought some sanity to this mess. RIP Curtis

    September 12, 2020
  2. John De la Cruz #

    A marvellous piece about a marvellous talent-thank you Richard.

    September 12, 2020
  3. Diana #

    Another beautifully written article by Mr. Williams about one of the most beautiful voices in music.

    September 12, 2020
  4. Sid Griffin #

    A wonderful read. Ten out of ten from me but then I am a huge Impressions’ fan.

    September 12, 2020
  5. Thanks so much for posting this. As a disabled person, his lyrics raise me up and keep me going. I imagine if he was alive today he’d be so proud of BLM and how young ppl in all their diversity have united to fight oppression and campaign for human rights.

    September 12, 2020
  6. Adam #

    A beautiful piece Richard about a beautiful soul. Thank you for sharing this today. 🙏🏻

    September 12, 2020
  7. JohnR #

    Remarkably, despite his traumatic injuries,Curtis completed a final majestic album ‘New World Order’ in 1996. Assisted by friends and family, and delivering his vocals from his sick-bed he somehow managed to produce a record which stands alongside all of his earlier work.Thank-you Richard for sharing this piece today…..I feel a CurtisM session coming on.RIP

    September 12, 2020
  8. John Rudd #

    Thank you for reminding us what a diamond of a human being Curtis Mayfield was. We need people like him today. He was a politically and socially aware proponent of equality and racial harmony. When I was a teenager The Impressions were soul icons to me. Then he went solo and I became aware Curtis himself. Over the decades I find myself returning more and more to his 70s and 80s albums many of which weren’t released in the UK. His message of positive action, love and humaneness is what our troubled world needs now

    September 12, 2020
  9. Lovely read RW.

    September 12, 2020
  10. Stuart Bradshaw #

    He was also a terrific guitarist. I remember Charlie Gillett once saying that Ry Cooder had mentioned that he was influenced by Curtis.

    September 12, 2020
  11. Stanley E. Royal, Sr. #

    An artist that I admired. His music and lyrics influenced my life and motivated me to have a positive thoughts to make that which seem impossible possible and that which was hidden in knowledge I would seek to learn in order to cope with being a black man who understood as a minority following the American dream owned by an unsharing majority. Thank to Mr. Mayfield I “keep on pushing” in order to “move on up” RIP. C.M. the greatest lyricist of our time.

    September 12, 2020
  12. Sharon G. #

    My Man..I shake my head back and forth, trying to come up with something befitting to say about one of the most truthful, real and humblest persons that I’ve had the privilege to listen to, identify with and absolutely respect. There, I said it.

    September 12, 2020
  13. Bernard #

    I can still see Curtis and Impressions leaning up against that Stingray Corvette I’m 70 years old and Curtis Mayfield was our black God in Chicago most of us all living in the projects back then but that such a story of such a great person those were the days

    September 12, 2020
  14. Charles Terry #

    Regarding one of them about all time favorites Mr Curtis Mayfield it was truly sad and tragedy his accident He bought so much to us and a variety of ways pending on your point of view He was a legend in his own time today I listened to him each and every morning after prayer It’s a ritual now I actually believe if everyone on this planet would listen to his words and music the world would truly be a better place The man spoke of love for one another…… I Miss You My Friend, My Brother 🙏🙏🙏 1LUV FAMILY ALWAYS BLKMAN

    September 13, 2020
  15. Teronia B Larrieu #

    Thank-you so much for sharing your precious moments with and knowledge of the true master of soul. He reigns at the top in so many ways…as a man….as a musician…as a poet…as a preacher and a teacher…as a healer…as an art form never to be duplicated. Curtis Mayfield’s work continues to bring light in this world. Though I continue to mourn his passing, I thank GOD for giving the world his soul.

    September 13, 2020
  16. This man uninspired me thru his music i grew up on his music in the 70’s and just to here his voice on a record makes me feel better rest in Heaven my friend see you i come home

    September 13, 2020
  17. gilles peterson #

    Thanks so much for these posts Richard Hope all is well Gilles

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    September 13, 2020
  18. Al. Ford #

    Mr.Curtis Mayfield impacted the lives of my generation inspiring 🙌 the youth of color too seek education and just keep on pushing, move on up yes indeed. God’s love 💘 and blessings 🙏 always 🙏 to this profound man of God.

    September 13, 2020
  19. markswill #

    Another great piece Richard, and subtly moving.

    September 13, 2020
  20. John Willis #

    Love what I just read, I remember Curtis M. Very well, alot I didn’t know. But I listen to his songs today as I have always do. Those songs tell the story of what is going on still to this day. History I will not let go.

    September 13, 2020
  21. John A. Lovings #

    One of my favorite people

    September 13, 2020
  22. GuitarSlinger #

    Two thumbs up ( with a bullet ) for both the article and the comments

    Nuff said 😎

    September 13, 2020
  23. Thank you

    September 13, 2020
  24. Jamal Shabazz #

    I will always love you Chris Mayfield rest in peace.. your lyrics and your music I will always love.. thank you Mr Mayfield.

    September 13, 2020
  25. What an intelligent and powerful man. Curtis lives on forever!!!

    September 13, 2020
  26. Milton Brown #

    Great tribute to the Great One..from a 70 year old music dude from Houston,Tx

    September 14, 2020
  27. BC mashiane #

    Boy oh boy may ur soul be in peace ur music made my lyf easier well in my country south Africa few knows about you but I always said to buddies Curtis Mayfield is artist to go for when ever you down n stressed

    September 14, 2020
  28. Julius Andreas #

    At age 67 and I had to admit that this is a great read of my hero Richard …thank you. I’m in Johannesburg and had a privilege to meet him in the 80’s with his show at the Collosium during apartheid in SA…having hope for a better Mzansi in Africa after 1994….still listening to CM’s tunes and lyrics in tears to gain strength reminiscing of peace and love. Thank you!!!

    September 14, 2020
  29. Ernest McHenry #

    The struggle is real yesterday and today. May God have mercy on his and ours souls

    September 14, 2020
  30. This commentary was absolutely amazing. It was the most educational script I have ever read. My admiration for Curtis Mayfield exceeds any and all about about greatness of anyone. His contribution to the world is him him himself and the knowledge he presents through song music and writings thank you Curtis I love you I always have and I always will.

    September 14, 2020
  31. Paul Crowe #

    What an article about a wonderful human being. Thanks, Richard.

    September 15, 2020
  32. Kevshock #

    Beautiful interview

    September 16, 2020
  33. Ed Grummitt #

    Excellent Richard, thanks. I wish I could thank Mr. Mayfield, because “People Get Ready” has been playing in the back of my brain since the Sixties. I don’t think it’s the Impressions’ version, and definitely not Rod and Jeff’s. There might be a bit of Davy Graham in there, certainly Aretha Franklin, maybe some Great Awakening music (strangely) and chords with which I struggle on our piano. Whatever, it’s cool AND says something important, not necessarily easy to combine.

    September 17, 2020

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