What happened to Curtis Mayfield? Inside his life-changing accident and final album

20 November 2023, 16:25

Curtis Mayfield was one of the most vital musical voices during the civil rights movement.
Curtis Mayfield was one of the most vital musical voices during the civil rights movement. Picture: Getty

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

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"Move on up".

The lyrics sung by soul revolutionary Curtis Mayfield had a greater meaning than simply remaining upbeat and optimistic.

Mayfield was a significant voice within the civil rights movement long before he became a solo musician, with the release of his debut solo album Curtis in 1970, which featured the hits 'Move On Up' and '(Don't Worry) If There's a Hell Below, We're All Going to Go'.

A member of The Impressionists since his teenage years, Curtis wrote one of the movement's most meaningful anthems in 'People Get Ready', introducing a social consciousness in African-American music at the time.

In immensely influential artist throughout the 60s and early 70s, Mayfield's popularity tailed off throughout the following decade, notably in the UK, not achieving a charting single since 1978 with 'No Goodbyes'.

Chart success may've evaded him, but Mayfield was still widely adored for his silky soulful tones, despite his brand of retro psychedelic-tinged R&B being out of vogue during the 1980s.

He did end up headlining Glastonbury Festival in 1983, funnily enough, and by 1990 was preparing for a serious stab at a mainstream comeback, releasing two albums that year alone.

However, tragedy struck which would leave Curtis Mayfield paralysed from the neck down, in an accident on-stage that was entirely avoidable.

Here's all you need to know about Mayfield's life-changing accident, and how he still made a musical comeback:

How did Curtis Mayfield become paralysed?

Curtis Mayfield in 1990. (Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns)
Curtis Mayfield in 1990. (Photo by Frans Schellekens/Redferns). Picture: Getty

Elevated by the positive response to his two 1990 albums, Take It To The Streets and the soundtrack to The Return of Superfly, Curtis Mayfield was booked to perform at Wingate Field in Brooklyn on 13th August.

New York state Senator Martin Markowitz frequently sponsored such events as a thank you to his constituents, and after seeing 10,000 attend was reluctant to cancel the concert despite the ominously looming bad weather.

Instead, he squeezed Mayfield's performance in before the heavens opened, though as the soul singer waited to come on stage, disaster struck.

Markowitz introduced Mayfield as his band began playing, saying: "Ladies and gentlemen, we've decided that we're going to bring up Curtis Mayfield. I'm thrilled ... " just as a shockingly strong gust of wind blew through the arena.

The Senator kept going, adding: Ladies and gentlemen, Curtis Mayfield", even though the concerned audience began to scatter.

Just as Mayfield was about to take to the stage, a second gust of wind blew - as high as 54 mph according to United Press International - which shook the hefty metal rig above, disturbing the lights which fell down, with one striking Mayfield on the back of the neck.

"As Mayfield was ready to come onstage," Markowitz told UPI, "an overwhelming wind hit us and blew the speakers off the stage and the lighting trusses down. Some of it hit Mr. Mayfield."

Though his life was saved by the drum kit, the lighting rig had broken the third, fourth and fifth vertebrae in his neck, leaving Curtis Mayfield paralysed as he lay waiting for an ambulance to arrive as torrential rain poured down.

Was there any chance of a full recovery?

Mayfield started out in R&B group The Impressions before pursuing a solo career. (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns)
Mayfield started out in R&B group The Impressions before pursuing a solo career. (Photo by Gilles Petard/Redferns). Picture: Getty

After Curtis Mayfield's life-changing accident, his son Todd Mayfield attributes the disaster to "gross negligence" on the concert organiser's behalf.

"It's so tragic," he told The Los Angeles Times the day after the incident. "I still can't believe this has happened. We are at a loss for words."

Rushed into surgery, there were hopes that the paralysis would only be temporary, with Curtis potentially making a full recovery.

"Right now he is paralysed from the neck down, but we're hoping that when the swelling goes down he'll be able to regain some movement in his body," Todd said of his father. Sadly, that wasn't the case.

Did he keep making music?

Curtis Mayfield - New World Order (Official Music Video)

Curtis Mayfield was just 48 years old when he was paralysed, but the road to a full recovery was unlikely, especially as he was dogged by various other health issues too.

He battled diabetes, urinary tract infections, atrophy, and the hellish syndrome called "phantom hands", while his feet curved downward from lack of use.

"I think overall I'm dealing with it pretty good," Curtis said at the time "but you can't help but wake up every once in a while with a tear in your eye."

As his health declined, his career took an upturn after The Impressions were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1991.

After years in the wilderness, Mayfield started to earn his rightful place in the pantheon of music legends, earning a Grammy Legend Award in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award the year after.

Buoyed by the accolades, Mayfield decided to return to the studio for one final album, titled New World Order.

Though the recording process was a struggle, with Curtis having to record his entire vocals lying down, the 1996 album was a major comeback success for the soul icon, scoring three Grammy nominations, including Best R&B Album.

Did Curtis Mayfield ever perform again after the accident?

Curtis Mayfield's Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award

Sadly, Curtis Mayfield never performed live after his life-altering accident, though he did make several public appearances.

After winning the Grammy Legend Award in 1994, Mayfield made a surprise appearance on stage alongside the chorus of the Impressions' 1964 number 'Amen'.

What was the cause of Curtis Mayfield’s death?

Curtis Mayfield lived as a quadriplegic for nearly a decade before his death. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Curtis Mayfield lived as a quadriplegic for nearly a decade before his death. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images). Picture: Getty

After the release of his final album New World Order in 1996, Curtis Mayfield's health declined rapidly.

Complications with diabetes led to his leg being amputated in 1998, and he was unable to attend his solo induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 due to his poor health.

On Sunday 26th December 1999, Curtis Mayfield died in Georgia due to his ongoing issues with diabetes, and was surrounded by his entire family.

What is Curtis Mayfield's musical legacy?

Move on Up (Extended Version)

A wealth of African-American artists have cited Curtis Mayfield as a vital influence on their music, due to his injection of social commentary about the black experience.

The likes of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Tracy Chapman, Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder have all been vocal admirers of the "message music" icon.

In 1994, an all-star album titled All Men Are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield was released, featuring cover versions from fellow music luminaries like Aretha Franklin, Eric Clapton, Elton John, the Isley Brothers, Phil Collins, and Whitney Houston.

According to reports, Lionel Richie secured the rights to make a biopic about Mayfield, saying in 2017: "I'm so grateful to be working closely with [Mayfield's widow] Altheida Mayfield, [son] Cheaa Mayfield and the Curtis Mayfield Estate and couldn't be happier to be moving forward on this amazing project about a one-of-a-kind music genius."

An artist who effortlessly blended soul, funk, and psychedelia for a generation that required such figures, Curtis Mayfield was a totemic voice whose tragic accident still couldn't repress his singular talent.

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