“It isn’t every day a 54-year-old quadriplegic records a record….”
There are comeback stories.
And then there’s Curtis Mayfield’s comeback story.
In mid-August, 1990, he was about to perform at an outdoor concert at an athletic field in Brooklyn. The opening act, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, had finished their set. Mayfield, guitar strapped around his neck, started up the steps to the stage. A freakishly powerful gust of wind swept past, toppling a lighting rig, which fell on Mayfield, knocking him to the ground and breaking his neck.
In an instant, his performing career was over. Or so it seemed.
I first interviewed Curtis Mayfield in 1994 on the occasion of the release of the second of two tribute albums. The first, Shanachie Records’ “People Get Ready,” came out the year before with a grab bag of participants including soul veterans (Jerry Butler, Don Covay, Steve Cropper), Texas bluesters (Kim Wilson, Angela Strehli, Delbert McClinton) and Bunny Wailer. Warner Brothers followed with “A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield,” featuring a cast of superstars (Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood. B.B. King, Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, the Isley Brothers, etc.) galvanized by Mayfield’s situation to put exceptional heart and soul into their performances. But it was Mayfield himself who delivered the most unexpected performance, managing to sing despite being paralyzed from the shoulders down.
I figured that if he could sing he could talk to me on the phone. Mayfield was happy to do so, his speaking voice nearly as sweet, sincere and uplifting as his singing voice.
“After I came out of the hospital,” he told me, “I was anxious to go to the studio and try to sing. I found it quite frustrating. I had no diaphragm. My lungs were quite weak. It takes quite a bit of effort to belt out a song and I just did not have it. I left the studio and did not want to go back until this project came up…I took the tape they sent me to the studio where I had to lie down on the floor to sing.”
Near the end of the interview, he expressed the hope that he would record more in the future. “I could never pretend to be my old self,” he said, “but understanding my limitations, I wouldn’t mind taking another shot. It would be a challenge.” He laughed. “There’s a lot that’s possible as long as I’m a living legend.”
Two-and-a-half years later, he released one final album of inspiring new music, “New World Order.”
Weakened from his paralysis and diabetes, Mayfield died on December 26, 1999. He was 57.
October 10, 1996
From Mayfield’s home in Dunwoody, Georgia, an Atlanta suburb, by phone
I have to tell you that I was really knocked out by the new album. It’s great.
Thank you so much. You don’t how much it means to me after all these years.
Did you make a lot of progress physically in the past few years to allow you to make the album?
Well, it’s not so much that I’ve made a lot of progress with my paralyzation and what have you. It is possible that my lungs are stronger than they were when I first came out of the spinal clinic. And probably shouting and yelling around the house at my children has built them up [laughs]. Of course I am still quite weak with my speaking capacity. I tire out fairly fast when talking. If I’m in a room full of people, you would barely be able to hear me at all. But I think it was understanding, finally, my limitations, and knowing how to get around them [in order] to work. Having been a professional these many years, I found that I could lie back. I was stronger, simply because I had the help of gravity pulling at my diaphragm, which is weak, if it’s there at all. And I had gravity pulling on my chest, which probably puts pressure on my lungs to allow me to get through, if not a total sentence or verse, at least half of it. And then I knew when to cut out and how to get back in. And punch in, which is something ordinary people use when recording. It was important for it to sound very fresh to the listener. It was important that it was honest and it was true and the listener would feel the honesty and love we put into this music.
So, as with the song you sang with the Repercussions on the tribute album [“Let’s Do It Again” on “A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield”], you needed to sing a line and then stop and rest and then do the next line?
Yes, though it didn’t take so much rest. I would punch out and punch in before I ran out of breath. When you’re singing, it takes a little more breath to deliver than it does just talking. What I would do, if it was a long line or verse, I would find that come the latter part of it, my air was running out and of course it would sound weak. So I would just sing a part of it with all my strength and then I would punch out. Then I would punch in and sing the rest of it with most of my strength. That way, my delivery would never fade on you. And of course, I laid down most of the time doing this stuff. Not totally down, but I would have to lay back in my chair for the best strength, to get the best out of me. And we managed to make it work.
[“Let’s Do It Again” with the Repercussions. The original version, written by Mayfield for the Staple Singers, went to No. 1 on the pop and r&b charts in 1975. It was the title track of a movie with a soundtrack composed by Mayfield that starred Sidney Poitier (who also directed), Bill Cosby and Jimmy Walker.
Did doing that one track on the Warner Bros. tribute album give you the idea you could go on to do a whole album?
Well, I needed the challenge. Of course I was so much in a survival mood at first it was hard to know whether I would or not. Under the circumstances, I knew I would never be a performer again on stage as you’ve known me. But Warners, with the help of my friend Marv Stewart, and Ron Weisner, he went out and got the deal. And I’m so appreciative of Warners because at any time – I just as well couldn’t have done it as I would have done it. After I got started, they were going to have to eat it one way or another if it couldn’t be done for health reasons or whatever. They just took a gamble with me and, gosh, I’m not a quitter no ways. So once I got started I was feeling better. I was getting up. We were using three different studios. My own Kurtom Studios, we went to Doppler Studios and the Purple Dragon. Anyway, we went to several. I found it quite good to work with the different producers: Organized Noize, Daryl Simmons, Narada Michael Walden, all these guys were so great. And of course I had my own little crew. It just made me feel once again like the old Curtis Mayfield. And once the vocals started coming back, they didn’t sound so bad. I surprised myself. I was very pleased with the work.
How long did it take to make the album?
I think it took us maybe six months. That was simply because we were not only writing and preparing songs, but we had to work in and out of the schedules of all these fantastic producers. Roger Troutman was one of them. It happened the way I like to see things happen. There was nuthin’ prepared until it was time to do it. It was like baking bread, it was fresh out of the oven. I always felt good about that. because I’m a believer in that no matter what you said yesterday, if you do it today you’ll probably do it a little different. I like to be right up to date with my writing and music so it comes out as fresh as possible when it hits the street.
So you wrote the songs while you were in the process of making the album?
Yes, with the exception of “The Girl I Find Stays on My Mind.” I put that in sort of just as a comparison. I love the song, but this is a song I did before I went down. I actually played all the music on it with the exception of the jazz piano and the bass. I played guitar and all the different modules. That’s the only one that was not a part of what we put together. I loved that tune personally.
You work with a bunch of different collaborators on the album. After spending so many years writing and producing your own records, what was your approach in songwriting with other people?
You’re right. I still mourn my guitar so much, and my own ways of voicing chords and what have you. But I found it to be quite easy, if there was music worth writing lyrics and putting melodies to. It was as simple as that. I never would try to write against something I didn’t like and didn’t feel good to me. It had to have, not so much a Mayfield feel, because I knew my singing would lend its signature, but it had to have a feel to it that I could write something to my liking. And that’s what happened with songs like “Back to Living Again” and “I Believe in You.” But my producers were so respectful, all of them, would lock in their feels. Because they’re the ones making the hits today. They would outline and lock it in and maybe they’d just put in one part of the music. Or they’d start off with a lyric they’d want to repeat. Then they’d give it to me and let me write the rest of it and carry my melody. They wanted it to be Curtis. So my hat’s off to all those gentlemen who were so highly concerned and respectful.
So you would work off the ideas they came up with first?
Daryl, he would put all the music together basically, and then he had an idea for a song. He just left it right there for me, knowing I could take it and finish the song and even, if necessary, add other things to deliver it. We worked very well like that. The same with Organized Noize. They would have a basic groove pattern they wanted to lock into and of course they’d have me write my lyrics to it. With everybody, it sort of worked that way. So I was very pleased with that. Because it helped prove to me that I could still do these things. I guess after being in the business 36 years, why not?
The spirit of these new songs is inspirational and upbeat. But after all that’s happened to you, did you go through a period of depression?
Well, no sir. I’ve talked with my wife and she’s talked with other people and I hear that it’s the norm to go through hard times and ask yourself why me and be very, very angry. If it happened, I missed it. It just never happened like that for me. That doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t wake up even now with a tear in my eye. I wake up a little bit more tense sometimes than other times. I just can’t move. The worst thing in the world for anyone, other than a young child, is to have to be dependent on anybody and everybody. That in itself can, if you lay with it too long, bring you down. However, I’ve been blessed in that I still have my mind. To me, that’s where it all started in the first place.
Are you interested in doing more musically, like produce other artists?
Those things have come up. Before I jump in I’m trying to make sure I can truly do it in a professional manner in the way I was always able to. It’s something I’m eager to try. But first I want to feel totally right, because I’ll need to work with other people. [He turns from the phone and yells at his kids:] Quiet! Quiet! [Laughs] That’s where I get my lungs! I wanna just know for sure that I’ve got the right people to work with, because I’m from the old school. I like it to be just right when I get to the studio. I must have key people in my predicament to depend on. I just haven’t put that together yet. I’m so excited about just having a record out.
Are you surprised that given all the challenges you were able to make such a good album?
Well, yes, it’s interesting. Even I’m sitting back looking at it. It isn’t every day a 54-year-old quadriplegic records a record and gets positive feedback. So I’m hoping it will prove itself out.
A lot of your music has been re-released recently, with a box set on Rhino and another one with your work with the Impressions on MCA.
Yes, I was quite pleased with both of them.They took my music back to almost day one and I was very pleased. I think they’re worth listening to, especially the Rhino. There are 51 songs in there and they’re not too bad [chuckles].
And they just put out a book of your lyrics and poetry, right [“Poetic License,” Dove Books]?
They did. It is out, but gosh, I don’t think they know how to promote it. If I had released it on my own and dealt with it the way I deal with my records, more people would know about it. I’m very pleased with how they put it together, but I’m just as displeased as to how….I guess it’s been out six months or more and nobody knows about it.
“Movin’ On Up,” a two-hour biography of Curtis Mayfield. If you’ve got the time, well-worth watching.
Gritty live performance of “Move On Up” near the end of Mayfield’s performing career.