After the freak accident that paralyzed him in 1990, the great Curtis Mayfield recorded his last album, 1997's New World Order, with heroic effort: by singing one line at a time while lying on his back.
"You think of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel," TV on the Radio's Tunde Adebimpe tell Rolling Stone of the endeavor. "That person is an evolved human being."
Adebimpe will take part the all-star "Here But I'm Gone: A 70th Birthday Tribute to Curtis Mayfield" on Friday alongside the Roots, Aloe Blacc, Sinead O'Connor, Mavis Staples and Mayfield's former band the Impressions at New York's Lincoln Center. The evening marks what would have been the soul king's 70th birthday this June, though Mayfield died in 1999. The event will cover Mayfield's prolific catalog: best known for the classic Super Fly soundtrack (though he wasn't thrilled about working on a "blaxploitation" project), he was an equal master of social awareness ("People Get Ready," "Choice of Colors") and one-on-one sensitivity ("The Makings of You," "Gypsy Woman").
Curtis Mayfield "was an inspiration to me," says TV on the Radio's Kyp Malone, who with his bandmate Adebimpe will perform Mayfield's "Kung Fu" and back O'Connor on her version of "Jesus." He continues, "It's a complicated world, and I don't always want to write about shit that bums me out, but when I do, I don't want to sacrifice musicality." It was Mayfield's gift, he says, to write beautiful songs about hard truths that sometimes aren't pretty.
At Lincoln Center, Aloe Blacc will sing "The Makings of You" and "Back to the World," a message song about the disillusionment of Vietnam-era soldiers coming back to a cold reception in America. "I feel like he was a voice of inspiration to people who didn't feel valued in society with songs like ‘Move On Up,' and he also gave a voice to romance," says the singer.
The house band for the show will be directed by Binky Griptite, who leads Sharon Jones' backing band, the Dap-Kings. After starting out as a funk band, the Dap-Kings became collectively obsessed with Mayfield's lushly orchestrated brand of soul music, which he developed for his first group, the Impressions.
"We'd listen to the Impressions 24 hours a day, the entire catalog," says Griptite, who plays in Mayfield's unorthodox, open F-sharp tuning, which Mayfield taught himself as a boy by tuning to the black keys of a piano. "Those records are just solid tens across the board – incredible songwriting, incredible vocal and band performances. The arrangements are incredible, the recordings are incredible. There's no weakness."
Griptite recently began recording with the surviving Impressions – including longtime members Sam Gooden and Fred Cash, both in their seventies. At a show he arranged for them at the now-defunct Brooklyn club Southpaw, he met a producer for the proposed Lincoln Center tribute, who mentioned that they had a few "missing pieces." "The Impressions and myself turned out to be the missing pieces," he says.
Proceeds from "Here But I'm Gone" will benefit the Curtis Mayfield Foundation, which plans to establish scholarships in the singer's name for Tri-Cities High School, an arts-oriented institution in Atlanta, where the Chicago native and his family made their home in the last years of his life. It is a fitting organization to be connected to the late singer, as his widow, Altheida, tells Rolling Stone. "Curtis never really had that opportunity," she says. "He was literally on his own, kicked out of school in seventh grade and on the road about 11. He always tried to reach back into the inner cities. He went way out of his way to give help."
Mrs. Mayfield says she often meets contemporary artists who tell her how much they admire her husband's music. Kanye West, who has used several of Mayfield's songs as samples, stopped her on the street. She met Andre 3000 in an airport, "and he almost literally got on his knees."
As she reflects, "Curtis was a very humble person. I kind of gathered the impact he was making on the world, but I don't think it ever really hit him that he was touching hearts."