Remembering Curtis Mayfield

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Remembering Curtis Mayfield 1
© Words - Nick Churchill

Is it just me, or is optimism back in the air again? Maybe it’s the spring sunshine, perhaps it’s the promise of a short-sleeved summer, it could simply be the music choice lately – Richie Havens, Curtis, Nina – but there’s a feeling that something’s gotta give. And soon.

All of which means this is a fine time to this fantastic photo. I wish I knew who took it and why (not least so due credit could be given) but it was ripped from a magazine and given to me years ago and it never fails to make me feel better.It is, of course, the one and only Curtis Mayfield and dates from the mid-1990s, around the time of his final album, New World Order (released January 1997). It shows him in a wheelchair during some moments of relief from being laid on his back, which is how he had recorded most of that relentlessly positive album. In fact it’s how he spent most of his time after being paralyzed from the neck down when a lighting rig fell on him during a charity concert for the homeless in Brooklyn on 131 August 1990.

/Remembering Curtis Mayfield 2.Most of all though, it shows him laughing, really laughing. I was lucky enough to encounter that laugh first hand, just once, but it will live with me forever.It was 31 July 1988 at the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Frith Street, Soho. Curtis was playing that night and the show was recorded for a video release and subsequent live album called, of course Live At Ronnie Scott’s. That summer I had been working at Rough Trade, hearing stacks of early acid house cuts on white label, trying desperately to blag a pre-release copy of The Smiths’ Rank album, meeting Bill Drummond and Yazz, generally having a ball.

But the crowning event of that revelatory summer for me was getting tickets for the invite-only Curtis gig.His performance was flawless, heartfelt, generous and completely inclusive. The place was full of music industry liggers, a few movers and shakers, some famous faces – not the most obviously receptive crowd.  But it took Curtis about three bars of the opening Little Child Runnin’ Wild and they were in the palm of his hand. It’s All Right, People Get Ready, Pusherman, Freddie’s Dead, I’m So Proud, Billy Jack and a party-hard We Gotta Have Peace followed before he brought the house down with Move On Up and a closing To Be Invisible that brought tears to the eyes.

Just a few weeks after the poorly-received release of The Style Council’s Confessions of a Pop Group album, a noticeably nervy Paul Weller was there (he interviewed Curtis for the VHS release) with then wife Dee C Lee and Dr Robert of Blow Monkeys fame, but why the hell would anyone want to look at them, when Curtis was among us? Afterwards I was introduced to Curtis, shook his hand, told him he was wonderful and he looked up, smiled, laughed and said: “Love and peace, man”.
What a moment – a beatific little Buddah figure with the heart of a lion, the voice of a siren and the soul of a man. There was something divine in those few words, the like of which I doubt I’ll hear again.

Curtis Mayfield died on 26 December 1999.

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