The poetry and music of Curtis Mayfield shed light on the darkest days of the civil rights struggle.
And now, the late Chicago born singer-songwriter has a new day in his honor.
Gov. Pat Quinn has declared Sept. 29 as Curtis Mayfield Day in Illinois.
On that day Mayfield’s sisters, brothers and other relatives will be in the audience of the Black Ensemble Theater (BET) production of “It’s All-Right To Have a Good TIme” (The Story of Curtis Mayfield)” which opens Sept. 22 at the BET cultural center, 4450 N. Clark St.
Mayfield was paralyzed from the neck down in 1990 after a lighting scaffold hit him on a rainy evening before an outdoor concert in Brooklyn, N.Y. He could no longer move, except for minimal motion in his left bicep.
Mayfield died of complications from the injury on Dec. 26, 1999.
He was born June 3, 1942 in Cook County Hospital. Mayfield spent his early years living with his mother and grandmother, first at 18th and Cottage Grove. Mayfield attended at least nine grammar schools in Chicago.
When he was 12, the Mayfield family moved into the tiny row houses of the Cabrini Homes, where he lived until l his mid-20s. His grandmother, the Rev. A.B. Mayfield, left a sincere impression and she is not ignored in “It’s All-Right.”
“I found myself in the church,” Mayfield told me in a 1992 bedside interview in his home outside of Atlanta, Ga. “You hear all kinds of voicings. Along with the gift or music I inherited, I also learned a lot from the introductions of my mother, [late 1800s dialect poet] Laurence Dunbar, Dr. Seuss and limericks.”
“Of course,” Mayfield answered in gentle tones. “I learned differences in timing with Dr. Seuss and limericks. Those influences made me able to change tempos. It gave me the ability to write.”
Mayfield’s clever wordplay, layered over choppy guitar riffs, inspiring hooks and defined rhythm patterns ignited hits such as “If There’s a Hell Below We’re All Going to Go,” his smash “Superfly” the 1964 civil rights anthem “Keep On Pushing” and “He’s a Fly Guy”(which Mayfield recorded with the ska band Fishbone).
His widow Althedia Mayfield watches over her husband’s legacy. She gave her blessings to Jackie Taylor and BET for “It’s All-Right To Have a Good Time” and a Curtis Mayfield movie is in the works.
“I was hesitant at first,” Mayfield said in a Tuesday interview from Atlanta. “I’ve just done a movie script and treatment on Curtis. I didn’t want the two to correspond. But then when I realized it was only being done in Chicago, it wouldn’t be any harm. I’m quite happy with Jackie. And everybody is happy with the (film) treatment. Curtis has such a unique story. He didn’t get a lot of recognition for things he did. Curtis was humble.”
Mayfield said the proposed movie will not examine her husband’s life past 1977, at the fault line of the disco era. Mayfield enjoyed a 1977 funk-disco-early rap hit “Do Do Wap is Strong in Here.”
“I’m going to need somebody that looks young because we’re only taking him up to the age of 33,” she said. “I’ll need a child too. We will have him singing at 5 or 6 years old. I want to do it like Curtis: find somebody who doesn’t have a big name and give them that break. Curtis never looked for anybody who had fame. He would try to reach down and give someone that opportunity. But I’m just the one putting the movie script together. Whenever it goes to a producer, I’ll probably have to fight–and I won’t win everything.”
Curtis Mayfield’s resume as a talent scout is staggering. Besides mentoring the late Donny Hathaway, he defined Chicago soul by writing and producing for Billy Butler and the Enchanters (Jerry Butler’s brother), songbird Walter Jackson and the late great Major Lance.
Curtis Mayfield wrote this dance hit for Chicago’s Major Lance:
Mayfield asked “How do you put it? Everybody always wants it to be real exciting. I didn’t see that excitement. We had a lot of dates cooking in the kitchen. We liked doing that. I didn’t see people wanting to see me and him in the kitchen with seven babies running around.”
The promising sound of soul can be heard in the voices of the future.