25 Years Ago: Curtis Mayfield Paralyzed in Stage Accident
Curtis Mayfield had settled into life as a legacy artist by the late '80s, but he continued to write and record new music -- and he was performing behind a successful new album, Take It to the Streets -- when a horrific stage accident irrevocably changed his life on Aug. 13, 1990.
According to reports, Mayfield was getting ready to perform at Windgate Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., when a gust of wind from a fast-moving storm sent a lighting rig tumbling down onto him, breaking his neck and paralyzing him from the neck down.
"I don't remember anything. I don't even remember falling," Mayfield told the Independent in 1994. "The next thing I knew I was lying on my back. So I must have went out for a moment. And then I discovered that neither my hands nor my arms were where I thought they were, and I couldn't move. ... Then it began to rain. Big drops. I could hear people screaming and hollering. From what I could observe, all of everything above us had come out of the sky. I chose not to shut my eyes for fear of dying. The rain was falling. Some of the fellows found me and saw that I was paralysed [sic] so they went and found a big piece of plastic sheeting to protect me in the rain until the paramedics arrived. Luckily, the hospital was right around the corner."
Being near to the hospital may have saved Mayfield's life, but surgeries failed to restore his mobility, and the accident left him unable to play guitar, write down musical ideas or even sing the way he once had, bringing one of the most remarkable careers in modern American music to what seemed like a tragically premature conclusion.
Mayfield rose to prominence in the early '60s, after taking over his vocal group, the Impressions, following the departure of co-founder Jerry Butler. With Mayfield at the helm, the Impressions notched a handful of early hits that included "Gypsy Woman" and "It's All Right." As the '60s wore on, Mayfield's socially conscious streak fueled a shift in focus that brought the group even greater success, with singles like "Keep on Pushing," "People Get Ready" and "Choice of Colors" acting as anthems for the racial justice movement.
Throughout his years with the Impressions, Mayfield wrote songs that were either commissioned or covered by other artists, and by the end of the '60s, he'd amassed an incredibly impressive string of hits, all of which led into the start of his solo career with 1970's Curtis. A Billboard No. 1 R&B hit, it started a massively successful decade that included no fewer than a dozen Top 40 R&B albums, including the classic Super Fly soundtrack, and a host of hit singles on the pop and R&B charts.
By the late '70s, the hits started drying up for Mayfield, who found his brand of soul bumped aside by emerging trends, but he remained an active artist even as his legacy started to loom over a new generation of artists -- including the generations of hip-hop stars who opened up a new line of income for him by continually sampling his earlier work. Those royalties, as well as the security he afforded himself by insisting on owning much of his own publishing and master recordings, helped secure Mayfield's financial well-being even after the mounting medical expenses left in the accident's wake.
And Mayfield's gentle spirit, which tempered the frustration that powered some of his most meaningful work, remained unbowed. "I think my spirits are maybe even higher," he told Goldmine. "It’s like I died and woke up to see this wave of love from so many people I knew and people I didn’t know. Of course it doesn’t mean you don’t every once in a while find a tear in your eye. Your body does not allow you to do many things that your mind says. Your mind always says 'I’m ready, let’s go.’ You have to deal with it; you have to learn patience. It’s tough being a person who totally has to rely on someone else when you’ve been independent all your life."
That inner strength helped Mayfield complete one final album, 1997's Grammy-nominated New World Order, which he finished through a long series of painstaking sessions by lying on his back and singing the songs a line at a time. Perhaps understanding he was nearing the end of his life, Mayfield -- who died Dec. 26, 1999, at the age of 57 -- spent his final years surveying his circumstances, and his legacy, with the same clear eye that helped make him such a brilliantly indispensable songwriter.
"Life will never be the same. But then -- that's not what you expect," he pointed out in a 1996 interview with Vibe. "When old folks are debating with young folks about what was and what is ... I hope someone pulls out a Curtis Mayfield record."
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