His voice was unlike any other I have ever heard. My grandparents, aunts and uncles played his music regularly and his songs are recognized as part of the soundtrack to the continuing movement for equality carried on through Black Americans. His hits We’re A Winner and Keep on Pushing are some of most iconic songs from that era and a testament to the skill and passion of the late Curtis Lee Mayfield (1942-1999). Along with his group, the Impressions, Mayfield helped redefine music as we have come to know it. His soundtrack for Super Fly is legendary and next to Isaac Hayes, the music therein was the cream of the crop for the Blaxploitation films that became the norm for African-American stars. And although he has been gone for nearly nineteen years, his music sounds as if it were recorded yesterday. On the surface, the beard, eccentric clothing, glasses and guitar tuned to F sharp gave the image of a musician larger than life. But how much of his personal life do we, his fans, know? And what was the real Curtis Mayfield like?
Todd Mayfield is one of the late star’s ten children and together with Travis Atria, he tells the story of his father’s life. Early in the book, Mayfield points out that to date, there is no biography that captures the full story. Well that is until now. Drawing on family history, music records, interviews with those who knew his father and his own recollections of his time with his dad, Mayfield has written the definitive biography of his father’s life that ended at only fifty-seven years of age. I am sure that many rarely known facts are revealed in the book and the information about Curtom records and Curtis’ working relationships with other stars of that era are great material for music fans with a thirst for knowledge. On a personal note, I wonder what would have happened if Donny Hathaway had worked more with him but both are no longer around to give their thoughts. The book is also a look back at the racial climate that blanketed the United States during the era of Jim Crow and even after the Civil Rights Movement and the later Civil Rights Act of 1964. These events weighed heavily on Curtis and throughout the book we see how he deals with the injustice he witnesses while making hit music that would outlive him and nearly all of the greatest leaders during that time.
Although the biography is written by Curtis’ son, there is no strong bias either for or against him. In fact, Todd does a remarkable job of pointing out his father’s flaws and the times where he took the wrong path in life. The love he had for his father is undeniable but as he points out in the book, Curtis could charm anyone but at the same time be one of the coldest people you could meet. And like all musical genius, there is that fine line between genius and insanity. As a songwriter, Curtis composed some of music’s biggest hits, many of which are still in rotation today. I think that if people knew just how many songs he wrote during his career, they would be speechless. But for all of his highs, there also lows, some of which are regrettable.
I imagine that for Todd, it must have been difficult to reveal some of his father’s worst traits that remained hidden behind a carefully molded public facade. But I believe that in order to write the story of his father’s life as it should be told, he could not have done it any other way. Drugs, domestic violence, infidelity, paranoia and selfishness were some of the many parts of Curtis, a multi-dimensional figure whose genius at music was at odds with his aloofness and vindictiveness as a husband and father. But like all great stars, the world sometimes appears through a different lens revealing a lifestyle that is foreign to the average person. Tours, albums, studio sessions, family demands and personal insecurities are the staples of every great artist’s life and Mayfield was no different.
Interestingly, as I made my way through the book, at times I loved Curtis and at other times was scratching my head in disbelief. I was shocked at some of the antics he pulled and the violence that took place. But regardless, I never lost my fondness for the man whose music I play when I am in the need for some good music that reaches deep down into the soul. And while I wish some parts of the story did not exist, it was imperative to remember that underneath everything, he was a human being with his flaws. As the story moves to Wingate Field in Brooklyn, there is bad omen that hangs over the book. By this point his life, Curtis had slowly begun his downward spiral and the freak accident that took place on August 13, 1990, changed his life and music forever. The remaining years of his time on earth as told here by Todd, was heartbreaking to read. However, in spite of everything that happened to him, Curtis never lost his spirit and his positive outlook was nothing short of inspiring. Sadly, he did not live to see his children move up in the world and keep on pushing or his grandchildren, but he left a legacy that will remain with his family and fans for life. This is the story of the life of Curtis Lee Mayfield.