Curtis Mayfield: His Legacy Will Live On


Most people who are into soul music and R&B, now in their 40s and older, remember Curtis Mayfield, a two-time inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Perhaps even some younger R&B and pop fans, or “blaxploitation” movie aficionados are hip to him.

Mayfield inspired three generations of musicians to infuse their work with his idea of the meaning of soul. His music and lyrics are a blend of melodic funk and social commentary. Though sometimes bleak, his lyrics always contained the message of hope.

He was born June 3, 1942, in Chicago, and as a boy went on to sing gospel and teach himself guitar. His death, on Dec. 26, at 57, was attributed to complications related to diabetes as a result of an accident. Curtis had been a quadriplegic since 1990, when felled by a lighting rig which collapsed on him at an outdoor concert in New York, crushing his spine.

Mayfield was an inspiration not only to Blacks but to the disabled as well. After his accident, he found he could still sing, using gravity’s pull on his chest and lungs as he lay flat. He released his final album, “New World Order,” in 1996.

His passing marks an end of an era that began with the Black civil rights movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. He once said that his song “We’re a Winner” was “locked in with Martin Luther King” and that later songs, such as “Check Out Your Mind” and “(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going To Go,” were reality checks for a country divided by Vietnam, racial strife, and political upheaval.

Mayfield’s musical/political turning point hinged on a song he wrote in 1964, “Keep On Pushing” (see box). The tune became a Top 10 R&B and pop hit, and was regarded as the first top-ranked rhythm and blues song to inspire Black people to push for civil rights.

Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, classics such as “People Get Ready” and “Freddie’s Dead,” from the movie “Superfly,” placed the Black liberation movement in the foreground of soul music when love songs and dance tunes commanded Black radio. Mayfield’s other songs reflecting the Black movement include “Move On Up.” and “It’s All Right.”

The latter recording was an early indication of the young songwriter’s natural talent as a healer. He wrote and composed with the aim toward getting people to think about themselves in relation to the world around them, to make this planet a better place for everyone.

Mayfield’s socially conscious lyrics about pride and perseverance cleared the path for rappers concerned more with raw, inner-city action than romance. His music is probably the most sampled by contemporary rappers and DJs today.

“You don’t have to break anything over anybody’s head, no matter what you’re trying to say. It doesn’t have to be preached,” Mayfield told the Associated Press in a 1996 interview. “What’s important for me is that it’s said in a manner where it gives food for thought.”

The Rev. Fred Taylor of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference said, “Curtis Mayfield’s music told us that despite all odds, we are here and we will continue to fight until we become equal partners in the social fabric of this country.” Mayfield’s widow added, “Thank God his music and his legacy will live far beyond today.”

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