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Curtis Mayfield to get Lincoln Center tribute

NATIVE SON: Born Chicago Curtis Mayfield would have turned 70 June 3.

NATIVE SON: Born in Chicago, Curtis Mayfield would have turned 70 on June 3.

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Updated: August 16, 2012 6:11AM

Like cool water over blazing sand, the songs of Curtis Mayfield washed over America.

They are the voice of a country that was struggling to put its best foot forward.

The Chicago-born Mayfield wrote “Keep on Pushing,” recorded in 1964 and regarded as a rallying call for the civil rights movement, and the 1968 anthem “This Is My Country.” Mayfield’s 1965 tune “People Get Ready,” which he wrote for his fellow Impressions, was chosen as one of the “Top 10 Best Songs of All Time” by a panel of 20 industry songwriters and producers. Mayfield also went knee-deep funk into the black urban experience with his 1970s hits “Superfly” and “Freddie’s Dead.”

Because of his timeless influence, Mayfield will be honored July 20 at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City as part of the prestigious Lincoln Center Festival. The tribute concert features Sinead O’Connor, The Roots, Meshell Ndegeocello, Memphis soul singer William Bell and others. Chicago will be represented by Staples and Mayfield’s compadres the Impressions. A 14-piece house band will be led by music director Binky Griptite of the Dap-Kings.

“When we found out 2012 would have been the 70th birthday year of Curtis, and it didn’t seem anything was happening across the country, we got in touch with the family,” said Erica D. Zielinski, general manager of the Lincoln Center Festival. “We’re excited about having a tribute to Curtis in a way that hasn’t been done before. Sinead O’Connor told me that Curtis Mayfield is more important to her than Bob Dylan. She canceled all of her performances and made a very personal statement this was the one she wanted to do because it was so important to her. And the Mayfield family was very positive about the concert.”

Over its 17-year history, the Lincoln Center Festival has honored artists with dedicated concerts celebrating their life and work. Featured artists have included Ornette Coleman in 1997 and Philip Glass in 2001.

Mayfield would have turned 70 on June 3. He died on Dec. 26, 1999, from complications from diabetes. Mayfield had been confined to his home in suburban Atlanta since 1990, when he was paralyzed from the neck down after a lighting rig fell on him on an outdoor stage in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Mayfield was born in Cook County Hospital and lived in the Cabrini Homes on the Near North Side until his mid-20s, when he moved to Atlanta.

Matriarch Altheida Mayfield was with her husband for 28 years. She met Mayfield when she was 11 years old.

“He was romantic,” she said in a conversation during a visit to New York. “We spent lots of time on the beach. Curtis loved water. He loved nature, really. We would head to the 39th or 63rd Street beach. It was early in the morning and nobody would be there. It was safe in those days. He woke me up early in the morning just to make me notice the dew that was on the grass.”

She laughed and continued: “Curtis often took pictures. He knew about lighting. He thought it would be so great to go out when the sun came up and take shots of the dew on the grass. They came out to be beautiful pictures. You had all the colors of the rainbow right into this little drop of water.”

This was a metaphor for his music.

Jazz, gospel and love ­— that is the sound of soul.

Mayfield wrote all his songs from the tender vibrato of his guitar ­— “We People (Who Are Darker Than Blue”) and the saucy Aretha Franklin hit “Something He Can Feel” from the soundtrack to “Sparkle.” He never took guitar lessons, but by the time he was a teenager, he became fond of Spanish tuning. “That guitar was the other me,” Mayfield told me in a 1993 bedside interview in the den of his home in Dunwoody, Ga. “That was my partner. That’s the instrument I slept with for many, many years. And I miss it so.”

In the same conversation Mayfield said his lyrical sensibilities were shaped by the late 1800s dialect poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss?

“Of course,” he said. “I learned differences in timing with Dr. Seuss and limericks. Those influences made me able to change tempos. It gave me the ability to write.”

The tribute concert also celebrates the launch of the Curtis Mayfield Foundation, created by the Mayfield family as a way to help disadvantaged youth realize their musical dreams. Mayfield was always a force for developing young talent. He guided the careers of Donny Hathaway, Major Lance and others.

He was a pioneer in the business world. Mayfield started his own Curtom publishing company in 1963 and launched the Curtom record label in 1968. The name came from “Curtis” and his then-partner Eddie Thomas. Stax Records perused the Curtom catalog, and Otis Redding wound up recording ex-Impressions’ Jerry Butler’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long.” The ballad was also popularized by the Rolling Stones in 1965 and later Ike and Tina Turner.

Butler and Mayfield sang in the same Chicago church choir and joined the Roosters in 1957, the precursor to the Impressions. Butler sang with the group from 1958-60 before embarking on a successful solo career. “Curtis told me, ‘We have to try to own as much of ourselves as possible,’ ” Butler recalled. “We both set out to accomplish that goal. One of the reasons he bought me out of Curtom is that he wanted all his songs completely under his control. That was very unique in that way. We modeled our business acumen after Sam Cooke. At the time, Sam was the only one who had his own label, his own publishing house, which was pretty sporty considering he was about 20 years old.”

The Curtom label was to Chicago soul what Chess was to Chicago blues. Mayfield signed the duet June & Donnie. Hathaway went on to commercial success with Roberta Flack and was a major influence on R. Kelly. The little-known Baby Huey and the Babysitters recorded for Curtom. The Five Stairsteps recorded for Curtom, although their biggest hit “Ooh Child” was released for Buddah (Curtom was a division of Buddah). Warner Brothers leased the Staple Singers to Curtom to record the 1975 soundtrack “Let’s Do It Again,” which was scored by Mayfield. Even popular WLS-AM disc jockey Larry Lujack got in on the Curtom action. In 1974, he recorded “The Ballad of the Mad Streaker” for Curtom.

Altheida Mayfield will attend the concert with her entire family. She was with her partner for her blues and his highs. But what did she learn about herself during the ordeal?

“I had a lot of strength I didn’t think I had,” she answered. “Curtis was my life. I had six kids with him. It hurt an awful lot to see him go down, but I was still able to make him laugh here and there. That was 9 years four months I was with Curtis while he was injured. He was injured, but me feeling as a woman, I still felt safe. Can you understand? I felt peacefulness in me even though he was quadriplegic. There was nothing else to do but sit and talk. We would talk late in the night. Sometimes he was in such pain but as long as somebody was there with him, you saw the entertainer in him. You saw it. When that foot would leave that door, I would hear him scream out. He never allowed anybody to notice that pain.

“And that’s what you call a trouper.”


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