Recalling Curtis Mayfield, Soul’s ‘Genius of Gentleness’

July 20th, 2012

THE 70th birthday tribute to the singer-songwriter Curtis Mayfield scheduled for Friday night at the Lincoln Center Festival is called “Here but I’m Gone,” the title of one of his songs. But in view of the continuing influence and popularity that Mayfield’s deeply soulful music enjoys a dozen years after his death, it could just as easily have been called “Gone but I’m Here.”

Paralyzed when scaffolding fell on him during a show in Brooklyn in August 1990, Mayfield lingered for nine years — long enough to be honored by both the Rock and Roll and Grammy Halls of Fame — before succumbing, at the age of 57. Yet his songs may now be more a presence than at his death, embedded as samples in rap tracks, played at campaign rallies, featured in television commercials and broadcast in cover versions on radio.

Born and raised here, Mayfield was only 15 when his group, the Impressions, recorded its first hit with “For Your Precious Love,” subsequently covered by Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones. But his years of greatest acclaim were the 1960s and ’70s, when he wrote a remarkable string of hits that became anthems of the civil rights and black power movements: “People Get Ready,” “Move On Up,” “Keep On Pushing,” “It’s All Right,” “Choice of Colors” and “I’m So Proud” among them. “If James Brown was soul brother No. 1, then Curtis Mayfield was soul brother No. 2,” said the singer Jerry Butler, a childhood friend of Mayfield’s who performed with him in the Impressions and is now a Cook County commissioner.

But in contrast to Brown and some other stars of the era, like Wilson Pickett, Mayfield worked to remain low-key and understated, both in his lyrics and his singing style. The Irish singer Sinead O’Connor, who will be performing at the tribute show along with Mavis Staples, Aloe Blacc, the Roots and others, calls him “a genius of gentleness” who used “love and encouragement, not anger, to say important things.”

Mayfield’s vocal trademark was a high tenor that blended into falsetto. That not only gave him an air of vulnerability that greatly appealed to the women in his audience but also cushioned the sting of his pointed social and political commentary in songs like “We People Who Are Darker Than Blue” and “Pusherman.”

“The beauty of the vocal style is that the voice is tender and approachable, not aggressive or threatening, but at the same time the lyrics are powerful and politically charged,” said Aloe Blacc, a retro-soul singer who confesses to having studied Mayfield’s songwriting and singing in preparation for his own CDs. “It’s a very effective way to juxtapose content and texture. You’ve got a hooky, catchy pop sound, but by the time you absorb the lyrics and get to the chorus, you realize you have been baited and switched.”

In view of that trajectory it seems incongruous that younger pop music fans probably know Mayfield best for the soundtrack he wrote for the 1972 blaxploitation film “Superfly,” a template for that entire genre. (A stage musical is in the works.) Hip-hop artists have repeatedly sampled songs like “Freddie’s Dead” and “Superfly” and also enthusiastically adopted the whole cult of swagger and bling they saw on the screen — which, in the opinion of those who were close to Mayfield, constitutes a fundamental misreading of his intent in writing those songs.

When he first read the script, “Curtis felt ‘Superfly’ was a commercial to sell cocaine, and he wanted to turn that around,” Mayfield’s widow, Altheida, said in an interview. “That was his main purpose there, to say, ‘This is nothing pretty.’ You have to remember this man was raised poor, and that’s what he saw on the streets every day and could express in song.”

Even after he was disabled, Mayfield summoned the strength to record one final CD, “New World Order,” released in 1996, which contained the last of his great songs, “Here but I’m Gone.” That composition, frequently covered, is another chilling antidrug message song, wrapped in a hazy, dreamy wall of sound.

“By that point Curtis could only sing laying flat down” on his back, Mrs. Mayfield recalled, because only in that position did his diaphragm have sufficient flexibility and air. “He made a great effort, because he felt he was here to make a difference” and had to endure the pain.

“Curtis Mayfield had a long history of writing wonderful love songs, songs that you’d want to dance slow to in the basement, before he went off in that other direction,” Ms. Staples added, breaking into “Gypsy Woman” as an example. “And then all of a sudden he went and wrote some of the best message songs that could be out there. Curtis was a poet, his lyrics came straight from the heart and make me shiver.”

Among guitarists Mayfield, who also played bass, keyboards, drums and saxophone, continues to enjoy similarly high esteem. He never was one for pyrotechnics, but his light touch, airy sound and unusual chord choices gave him great stature among his peers, whom he further mystified by choosing an exotic-sounding open F-sharp tuning for his guitar instead of the standard E-A-D-G-B-E tuning.

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