Twenty-three years ago today I saw Curtis Mayfield at the Town and Country Club in North London. It was the third and final time and I saw him there, having been to shows in 1986 and 1988. Five months later a gust of wind blew a lighting rig down on Curtis at an outdoor show commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King, paralyzing him from the neck down. After an imperious run of singles with The Impressions from 1958 to 1970, then all those brilliant solo albums, plus the countless records and soundtracks he wrote and produced for other artists, he was 48 when the incident rendered him a quadriplegic. Nine years later, on Boxing Day 1999, he died. Even after all this time I still find the whole tragic episode deeply upsetting.
Time as eroded most old gig memories but parts of those Curtis ones thankfully remain. I was just seventeen the first time and mainly knew his most famous songs plus some extra Impressions ones from various Kent albums but, thanks to The Jam introducing him via “Move On Up”, even to my generation (to say nothing of the original mods and northern soulies) he was soul royalty. Being independent from Motown, Stax and Atlantic gave him a special kudos; he stood alone, less recognisable, infinitely hipper. The reception he got at those gigs was something else. You couldn’t help but love him: humble, kind eyes twinkling behind his round glasses, salt and pepper beard, shoulders gently rocking from side to side, serene smile. He was, dare I say, beatific.
It wasn’t easy or cheap getting hold of his old albums back then so I got them in a strange order. For example, I had 1982’s Honesty yet never heard Back To The World or Sweet Exorcist until long after those gigs, I’m not even sure I had the classic Roots. Discovering back catalogues was a slow process then. As handy as it is nowadays to click and hear nearly any song that comes to mind it isn’t anything like as rewarding as slowly piecing together parts of a musical jigsaw. Also, it meant records would be listened to until it they’d been fully absorbed, leaving a longer lasting impression. There’s a lovely song on Honesty called “Dirty Laundry” which I remember him playing and he’d always introduce “Billy Jack” with a speech about guns and “midnight specials” in Chicago. By the time of the third gig it was apparent all his ad-libs were well rehearsed. “Move On Up” would’ve have been the big moment, “People Get Ready” something special, but it’s “We’ve Gotta Have Peace” which sticks in my mind the most with hundreds chanting “Peace! Peace! Peace!” and raising peace signs in the air. It sounds naff but I’d do it all over in an instant. Listening now to the 1988 Live In Europe album is bringing it all back. The keyboard is of its time in places but Curtis was in fine voice and Master Henry Gibson’s played percussion exactly as the same as he did on those early 70s albums. I feel fortunate I have spent those evenings in his company.
That final time I saw him, Saturday 17th March 1990, was a perfect day. In the morning he was interviewed on the wireless by Paul Jones (I still have the tape somewhere); that afternoon I went to Loftus Road to see QPR beat Spurs 3-1; on to the Town and Country Club before (I’m pretty sure) heading to the 6T’s Rhythm & Soul Allnighter at the 100 Club where they're were – not surprisingly - a couple of people wearing Curtis t-shirts.
I bought a t-shirt at all three gigs which I proudly wore throughout the year, teamed with turned up white 501s and tasselled Bass Weejuns (Burlington socks or sock-less dependent on season). The design in 1988 used a garish illustration of Curtis with some giant flies. Quite whose idea it was to interrupt Superfly as three-inch long bluebottles I’ll never know. After an argument with my girlfriend she attacked it with a pair of scissors in the style of the Psycho shower scene causing irreparable lacerations. We spilt up. When I got married over twenty years later the last song I heard as I stood as a single man in the Town Hall waiting for Mrs Monkey’s entrance was from Curtis, moving me on towards my destination.
In the days after the accident his son Todd called it an act of gross negligence on the part of the promoters. I’ve not been able to discover what happened at any trial although there appears to have been one against Coca-Cola. Whatever compensation was awarded it could never be adequate. That Curtis still managed to painstakingly record one further album, New World Order, laying on his back to allow enough oxygen into his lungs, recording one line at a time, says much about his spirit. We lose our soul idols at an increasing rate these days. In the last couple of weeks alone Cleotha Staples and Bobby Rogers have gone but to lose a man as prolific and with still so much to give as Curtis was especially cruel. The 1980s were a tough time for soul men and women but Curtis stuck at it, ending the decade with high profile collaborations with artists as diverse as Ice-T and the Blow Monkeys (I always thought Dr. Robert put one over on Weller by having Curtis on his Thatcher-bashing “Celebrate The Day After You”). I often imagine the albums he would’ve made in his later years: striped down like those early Impressions records, his falsetto accompanied only by his simple guitar style of brushing the strings with his thumb.
But let’s not dwell on what might’ve been and be thankful for we have: the music and the memories.