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Cruel Twist to a Comeback Dream : Veteran R&B hero Curtis Mayfield was poised for a Roy Orbison-like return when a freak accident intervened

August 26, 1990|CHUCK PHILIPS

This was supposed to be the week that was for Curtis Mayfield.

After more than a decade of near anonymity, the soul singer-composer seemed positioned for the kind of dramatic comeback experienced by such '60s pop-rock figures as Roy Orbison and Tina Turner in recent years.

Capitol Records has just released "The Return of Superfly," a sequel to Mayfield's 1972 multi-million selling "Superfly" soundtrack.

If the album (which combines four Mayfield tunes with rap tracks by such artists as Tone Loc and N.W.A.'s Eazy-E) catches on, it could mean Mayfield's first stab at the Top 50 since 1979.

Mayfield was scheduled to do extensive media promotion for the album before leaving next month on a tour of Europe and Japan. While on that tour, he was also to learn whether he and his former group, the Impressions, had been elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Given the scope of his influence, one of the key questions facing the Hall of Fame directors is who would give the induction speech for Mayfield.

Among the artists who have either performed his songs or acknowledged a musical debt: Bob Dylan, U2, Van Morrison, Prince, Rod Stewart and Ry Cooder.

But on the eve of all this, the 48-year-old Mayfield was hurt Aug. 14 in a freak accident in Brooklyn and was lying this week in a hospital, paralyzed from the neck down. He was injured when a scaffold--toppled by a strong gust of wind at an outdoor concert--struck Mayfield from behind and broke the third, fourth and fifth vertebrae in his neck.

The night before the accident, Mayfield was in an optimistic mood as he performed a free outdoor concert at Martin Luther King Park in Long Beach.

Dressed in a black T-shirt and stone-washed jeans, the singer-guitarist performed several of his celebrated songs--from the socially conscious "Freddie's Dead" to the gospel-tinged "People Get Ready" to the sensuous "Gypsy Woman."

Before the concert, Mayfield spoke eagerly about the current revival of interest in his music.

"The future looks good," the quiet, unassuming soul star said, seated at a kitchen table in a makeshift dressing room behind the stage. "Working on the new 'Superfly' project was exciting. I'm very curious to see how it will be accepted."

Despite having more Top 10 singles (13) than either Orbison (10) or Turner (2) in the '60s and '70s, Mayfield is arguably less known by mainstream pop fans today than Orbison or Turner were before their comebacks in the '80s.

For a wide range of pop, rock and soul musicians, however, Mayfield is a treasured name and he, no doubt, could have looked forward to much of the same support from current hitmakers that Orbison and Turner received during their revivals. Mayfield is widely admired by members of both the current rap crowd and the rock world.

Many guitar aficionados believe Mayfield's riffs are to modern R&B what Chuck Berry's licks are to rock. Mayfield's style has been heralded over the years by such varied musicians as Jimi Hendrix, Robbie Robertson, Jeff Beck and Ry Cooder.

"What Curtis invented was this warm caressing wash of sound," Cooder said in a recent interview. "It's like stepping into a Jacuzzi."

But guitar innovation is merely one aspect of Mayfield's contribution to modern pop music.

His pristine, falsetto vocal style has been a source of inspiration for pop figures from Van Morrison to Prince. Plus, the three-part harmony of the Impressions was a model for a generation of reggae trios, including Bob Marley & the Wailers.

But probably Mayfield's most profound gift to pop music lies in his ability to infuse simple pop melodies with socially relevant, inspirational messages.

Along with James Brown, he was one of the first R&B composers to address the civil rights struggle of the '60s, integrating dance floors across America with soul-stirring tunes such as "We're a Winner" and "Keep on Pushing."

This musical vision played a significant role in opening up mainstream pop music to embracing the idea of black consciousness, a concept currently being resurrected by black rappers and rockers.

"My music is the kind you can sing in a church or a tavern or on the street," Mayfield said during the Long Beach interview, staring out the window of the dressing room as the crowd assembled. "My songs are of life, of love, of observance.

"The way I feel is that everyone shares the same sensitivities. We all laugh and we all cry. No matter what race or economic level you are part of, the music I try to compose touches people because it speaks on being human."

Mayfield was born on June 3, 1942 and raised on the North Side of Chicago, where he developed a flair for high-tenor singing in the choir of his grandmother's Traveling Soul Spiritualists' Church. He would later be one of the few artists ever to make it onto the pop charts with gospel-oriented compositions.

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