Curtis Mayfield was in the midst of reviving his career in 1990, after dealing with his record label going bankrupt and a stale reception for his 1985 album, We Come in Peace With a Message of Love. He put out two LPs Take It to the Streets and The Return of Superfly, embracing younger artists like Lenny Kravitz and Ice-T who cited him as an influence. That summer, he played an outdoor concert in Brooklyn where he suffered a freak accident that all but ended his career.
The singer’s son, Todd Mayfield, recently released a biography of his father, Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield, with coauthor Travis Atria. The section of the book reprinted below recounts the fateful event, showing the struggle Mayfield faced, living as a quadriplegic, in the years leading up to his death in 1999.
Wingate Field, Brooklyn, August 13, 1990 — A heavy storm slithered across the Empire State, menacing Senator Martin Markowitz. He’d booked an outdoor show with Curtis Mayfield as headliner, and he didn’t want to cancel it. He put on shows like this every summer as a gift to his constituents. Ten thousand people had already shuffled into the park and taken seats or splayed on blankets in the grass. Markowitz hounded his weather contacts, hungry for updates. As show time approached, he got word that grim weather rumbled an hour away. He decided to put Curtis on early, thinking even if they had to cancel, the band might at least get off one song.
After Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes performed a truncated opening set, my father’s band, Ice-9, hustled on stage and exploded into the opening strains of “Superfly,” drums thump-thump-thumping, bass pulse-pulse-pulsing. Markowitz ascended the stairs on back of the stage, pausing to give a quick greeting to Curtis, who hung out waiting for his cue. It was the first and last time they would ever speak.
Markowitz stepped to the microphone, front and center. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve decided that we’re going to bring up Curtis Mayfield,” he said. “I’m thrilled …” and as soon as he hit the word “thrilled,” something wrenched the first two rows of spectators from their seats and dumped them on the ground like several hundred discarded dolls.
Markowitz was confused. Then he felt it — a hurricane-force blast of wind. Stacks of speakers on the front of the stage — big mothers, heavy and stout — fell off like they were committing suicide. Trees thrashed above the panicking crowd. Markowitz didn’t know what to do. He was in the middle of an introduction. The band was playing. Composing himself, he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Curtis Mayfield,” and turned to hand over the microphone. My father strode toward Markowitz, axe slung across his body. Halfway there, Hell paid him a visit.
It happened in a matter of seconds, starting with the wind that had thrown the first two rows from their seats and razed the speakers. The gust also toppled the cymbals on the drum riser. Drummer Lee Goodness leaned back and caught them with his left arm, keeping the beat with his right. As Markowitz turned with the microphone, another gust heaved the front lighting truss off the ground and sent it tumbling, knocking the back truss off the stage as it fell. Markowitz collapsed in fear, lying on his stomach. The front truss plunged down, down, down, like a freight train dropped from the sky. As it plummeted, stage lights fell from it like raindrops.
One of those falling raindrop lights cracked Curtis on the back of the neck and crumpled him to the ground. Then the falling truss pulverized the tom drums with a mighty crash. If Lee hadn’t leaned back to catch the cymbals, it would have severed his arms, maybe worse. His bass drum stopped the truss before it could squash my father like a bug.
Dad blacked out, came to, and discovered neither his hands nor arms were where he thought they were. He lay splattered on the stage, helpless as an infant. Then it rained. Big drops. Torrents poured from the sky; thunder exploded like shrapnel. Goodness rushed over to his bandleader. “Are you all right?” he yelled into the rain. “I think so, but I can’t move,” my father groaned, sodden in the squall, powerless to take cover. He kept his eyes open, afraid that if he closed them he’d die. Someone covered him with a plastic sheet, and everyone waited without breath until an ambulance arrived.
The ambulance rushed him to Kings County Hospital. In the only stroke of luck that day, the hospital stood right next to the field. Paramedics saved his life, but not his body. After stabilizing him in traction, doctors told him the brutal truth — the stage light had crushed several vertebrae. Paralyzed from the neck down, he would never walk, let alone play guitar, again.
He was forty-eight years old.
I flew to New York as soon as I could, and when I arrived at the hospital, my father’s body was wracked with pneumonia. His system couldn’t fight the sickness after enduring such trauma. He was stretched out in traction and hooked to a ventilator. Tears welled in his eyes. I’d never seen him cry before. He couldn’t speak, but he mouthed the words, “Take care of the finances.”
In the hardest of circumstances, we show our true selves. Even at death’s door, my father’s first thought ran to finances. It was never money he cared about. It was always what money represented — the ability to take care of his family and ensure his children would never suffer the way he had growing up in the slums of Chicago. Without a working body, he couldn’t guarantee that anymore.
After more than two months at Shepherd, Dad grew tired of life in a hospital bed. There was only so much rehab he could do, and even that wouldn’t bring his body back. He began lobbying for release, and when his doctors finally assented, he called me to pick him up immediately. I said I’d have to arrange for a van to help transport him, but he shot back, “No, come get me now.” I raced over in my two-door Mazda, and the staff helped me use a lift to get him into the front seat. They gave me a huge strap, which I wrapped across his chest, under his arms, and around the back of the car seat to secure him. Slowly, cautiously, I drove him home. It was close to Thanksgiving.
Returning home from the hospital, he faced the greatest challenge of his life — learning to live without a body. It forced him to give up all control. In addition, there was the pain. He suffered from phantom hands — an agonizing sensation he compared to thrusting his arms in a bucket of writhing snakes. Atrophy set upon his muscles, and his feet began to curve downward from lack of use. Diabetes became a serious problem too, and the fingers that once effused elegant guitar licks now served solely as pincushions, caked in dried blood and wrapped in bandages from constant blood-sugar tests. On top of that, he suffered perennial urinary-tract infections as a result of his ever-present catheter.
His life crashed to a halt. No more performing, no more traveling, no more writing. At home, he stayed stuck in bed all day and night with the TV on. The first-floor library became his bedroom, and he sat there passively observing life go on around him. Interview requests flooded in, which gave him something to think about, and he did have days when the darkness lifted a bit, but just as often, his mood turned despondent. Always a man of capricious mood swings, he struggled to maintain a sense of hope and happiness while adjusting to a living nightmare.
Dad never succumbed to self-pity, though he suffered mightily. Every night, he lay trapped as the snakes slithered around his arms and a simple itch could drive him to insanity. He’d call out in the darkness, begging for someone to come ease his pain. My sister Sharon recalls: “When I would go to visit, I would hear him in the middle of the night calling out for [his wife] Altheida. And I just felt such hopelessness. He would just call for her, and call for her, and call for her incessantly through the night.”
Altheida bore much of the brunt of caring for my father. Home healthcare workers came to ease her burden, but she still worked herself to the bone. One night, exhausted, she put a candle near the wall and forgot it. The wallpaper ignited. Soon, flames engulfed the second floor of the house. They had to evacuate fast, wheeling Dad beneath billows of black smoke and deadly fire. He watched his home burn, knowing if no one had been there to save him, he would’ve burned with it.
Dad kept his old master tapes in the basement, and when the fire-hoses extinguished the blaze, they also doused some of the most famous recordings in soul music history. I went back and salvaged everything I could. Some tapes survived, and I began the process of digitally remastering them, culminating in more than fifteen reissues from the Curtom catalog on compact disc. Many tapes, however, we lost forever.
For Dad, life had become apocalyptic. In a matter of weeks, he lost the use of his body and much of his life’s work, and he had to evacuate his home. We kept trying to take his mind off of his trouble, but his life had become an endless combination of medications and physical hardships. At one point he had some fifteen prescriptions for various ailments. “I think overall I’m dealing with it pretty good,” he said to an inquiring interviewer, “but you can’t help but wake up every once in a while with a tear in your eye.”
The next few years were a battle against atrophy — both of his spirit and body. Sometimes his sense of humor shined through. “I’m a fifty-four-year-old quadriplegic, and there’s not too much demand for that these days,” he said wryly. But no amount of humor could mask the intense physical and spiritual pain he confronted all day, every day.
The outside world gave him few reasons for hope. Race relations in America seemed worse than at any point since King’s death. Reagan’s successor, George H. W. Bush, presided over a deeply conservative country and a new generation that had little sympathy for civil rights. A study concluded nearly half of African American children lived in poverty, and a national poll showed only 15 percent of white men (and 16 percent of white women) felt the government was obligated to do anything about it. In 1991, Los Angeles police beat Rodney King, an African American man, within inches of his life. Even though there was gruesome video evidence of the crime, the following year the jury acquitted all officers involved.
The resulting L.A. riots painted a heartbreaking, frustrating picture of how little had changed since a similar police incident had set off the Watts riots almost thirty years before.
Dad was keenly aware of these events. He couldn’t avoid them as he sat stuck in front of the TV all day and night. He didn’t want to avoid them, either—one of his favorite programs was the nightly national news. It frustrated him that he couldn’t counter these issues with music anymore, but that didn’t mean his music career was over. In 1991, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Impressions, and late the next year an all-star cast of musicians recorded a tribute album featuring selections from Dad’s entire body of work. Around the same time, the City of Chicago renamed Hudson Avenue “Honorary Curtis Mayfield Avenue,” and even today, the street sign stands outside the Cabrini row house where he once lived. These events flattered and revitalized him.
Then, he learned the Grammys would honor him with a Legend Award. At the Grammy ceremony, Jerry, Fred, and Sam wheeled him onstage where he gave a short speech. They ended with a chorus of the Impressions’ 1964 hit “Amen.”
It was the last time Curtis Mayfield sang in front of an audience.
From the Book: Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield by Todd Mayfield and Travis Atria Copyright © 2016 by Todd Mayfield, Published by Independent Publishers Group