Curtis Mayfield’s tragic accident couldn’t stop his artistry
In 1990, Curtis Mayfield was paralyzed onstage at a concert in Brooklyn. Though he could no longer play guitar—let alone move his body below the neck—he refused to give up, recording his final album, New World Order, in a wheelchair.
The following excerpt is from Traveling Soul, the first comprehensive biography of Mayfield, written by his son Todd and Wax Poetics contributor Travis Atria. The book was released October 1, 2016—the twentieth anniversary of Mayfield’s final album.
After years of adjusting to life as a quadriplegic, Dad set his mind on making a new album. “I always said I would not be singing till my sixties or seventies, not unless I really wanted to,” he told the press. “Now I feel like I want to.”
To make the album, he worked with other musicians and producers who sent tracks and sat at his bedside discussing what he wanted to add to their ideas. The first song he worked on this way was “Back to Living Again,” written with gospel singer Rosmary Woods. “It’s not about dying,” Dad said. “It’s about living again . . . I always need a good challenge to push me or dare me.”
Here was something more than a good challenge, though. For one thing, he couldn’t use a tape recorder to save his ideas, making the creative process exasperating. “I have ideas,” he said, “but if you can’t jot them down or get them to music they fade like dreams.” He also missed his guitar dearly. “For expression and harmony, my guitar was like another brother to me,” he said. “I mourn my guitar to this day. I used to sleep with my guitar. I’d write five songs a night—a day. When I couldn’t find answers, I would write songs. When I was heartbroken, I would write songs. It was my own way of teaching myself.”
His problems were just beginning, though. He had difficulty speaking loudly as a result of the paralysis, and singing was nearly impossible. He found a way around this too, singing while lying down at a slant or sometimes flat on his back, using gravity to help his diaphragm and lungs work. He could only sing a few lines at a time, which the producers spliced together to form a complete take.
Dad didn’t write any of the songs on the album by himself—a first in his entire career. Rather, he relied on producers. He contributed lyrics, verses, hooks, and other snippets, but he needed them to form the ideas into songs.
A production team called Organized Noize came to assist. The trio of Sleepy Brown, Rico Wade, and Ray Murray was famous for working with Atlanta hip-hop superstars OutKast and had just produced “Waterfalls,” a number-one hit for TLC. They helped produce some of the best music my father had made in more than a decade. For a time, they also leased the Curtom Atlanta studio in the house on Austin Road before building their own facility. “Curtis worked so long and hard on that project,” Brown said. “Sometimes he was in obvious pain, but he just worked through it. He was always asking us to criticize the work, so we could make it better.”
Roger Troutman of the 1980s funk band Zapp also helped. Troutman brought a recording console and hard drive to the house, ran some speakers into my father’s room, and put a microphone in front of him. Dad cut two tracks from bed, including a remake of his classic, “We the People Who Are Darker Than Blue.”
The loss of both voice and guitar—the two things that defined Curtis Mayfield—left him frustrated and depressed. “[I can’t sing] in the manner as you once knew me,” he said. “I’m strongest lying down. I don’t have a diaphragm anymore, so when I sit up I lose my voice. I have no strength, no volume, no falsetto range, and I tire very fast. I’m sorry to say that my style of playing is probably gone forever—the tuning—I can’t play it and there’s no one to teach it.” But he felt proud of the album. “It took all of my know how,” he said, “and we got it done.”
Then, my father’s long time bass player Lucky Scott died. Dad had known Lucky since he toddled around in diapers. After the Impressions’ road band died in a tragic car accident in 1968, Lucky became a fixture in Dad’s life—as a musical director, bass player, creative companion, and friend. He died of a blood clot to his lungs, a sudden and unexpected end.
Despite that hard blow, when New World Order came out on October 1, 1996, it strengthened my father. He proved to himself that he could still create and take care of his family. “My particular thing is how, within my limits, to still find ways to earn a decent living, just prove to myself that I’m doing the best that I can do,” he said.
How many fifty-four-year-old quadriplegics are putting albums out? You just have to deal with what you got and try to sustain yourself as best you can and look to the things that you can do, so that’s how I’m looking at things. I’m devoting what time I have to my children. I’m trying to get the rest of them out of here to college. I’ve got a very strong woman. You never know who’s going to take that stand and say, “Hey, I’ll do it.” Nobody wants to do it, but she’s been around all these years.
Like most albums during the last twenty years of his career, New World Order is uneven—and like most of the work during that period, it contains flashes of brilliance. The title track and superb cuts like “Ms. Martha” and “Back to Living Again” show just how sharp my father’s creative mind was, even if his body no longer cooperated in the songwriting process. He also remade one of the most underrated songs from the Impressions catalogue, “The Girl I Find,” and he cut a first-rate ballad with “No One Knows About a Good Thing (You Don’t Have to Cry).” The album’s crowning moment is “Here But I’m Gone,” a haunting, hypnotic song that is as good musically, lyrically, and melodically as anything he’d ever done.
New World Order put him in the context of mid-’90s R&B and hip-hop, which suited him better than any style since pre-disco days. Dad said,
Fusing elements of hip-hop on this CD was not so much a concession to the times, as much as it was a connection to the times. We all have to grow. You have to stay true to yourself while recognizing and acknowledging what’s going on now. Fortunately we had a lot of the young people who always admired my work so they could put music together that was of the Nineties and all I needed to do was just lay my signature down. They’re all great producers and have great ideas but they were all very kind and always left the parts for Curtis.
The album went to number twenty-four R&B, his best showing in nearly twenty years. It brought a rare moment of happiness to a man who hadn’t experienced many in recent memory, and the renewed focus made him feel vital again. Interview requests came pouring in, as did two Grammy nominations. The Soul Train Music Awards honored him with the Heritage Award. He was back in the game.
Though he’d never record again, his music still lives. Hip-hop and R&B stars still sample him, eager to connect to his branch on music’s evolutionary tree. That branch gets stronger with time, putting forth countless flowers—from Erykah Badu to Kanye West, Jay Z, Eminem, Ludacris, Rick Ross, Drake, and dozens more.
Sadly, the problems he sang about still live too. Poverty rates for most minorities in America remain more than double that of whites, the U.S. Supreme Court has hampered the legislative gains of the movement, and racial violence remains an ever-present danger for those who are darker than blue. From the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Florida teenager, in 2012, to an instance of police brutality that ignited riots in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, to the recent slayings of Terrence Crutcher and Keith L. Scott—and far too many others—America’s problem with race continues to rear its ugly head. A new generation must now deal with the same old issues, ask the same old questions, and fight to find new answers.
Though he isn’t here, my father is still part of that fight. His music speaks as powerfully to the times we live in as it did to his own. His songs remain vital, uncompromising, and true. His message endures—a message he refused to abandon even in the darkest of times. If he were alive today, he’d urge us to keep on pushing, to never give up, to get ready for something better. He wouldn’t be able to help himself.
After all, as the man himself once sang:
Pardon me, brother,
I know we’ve come a long, long way
But let us not be so self satisfied
For tomorrow can be an even brighter day.
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