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

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.

Mayfield, who was 10 when he got his first guitar, says he loved the instrument so much he used to sleep with it. He grew up admiring Muddy Waters and Andres Segovia, but ascribes his unorthodox guitar technique to the fact that he was self-taught.

"Imagine if a baby never had the benefit of seeing other people walking on their feet--they might think what they were supposed to do is walk on their hands," Mayfield said. "Well, I had a guitar and I didn't know which way to do it.

"As a child, I heard all these melodic ideas floating around in my head. I guess that's where the gift lies. No one taught me, I just found my own way."

He was just 14 when he joined forces with fellow choir member Jerry Butler and Sam Gooden and Fred Cash to form the Impressions, whose first hit, "For Your Precious Love," came two years later.

After lead singer Jerry Butler embarked on a solo career, Mayfield took over as chief vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, shaping the sound of the Impressions on such hits as "I'm So Proud" and "It's Alright."

By the end of the '60s, Mayfield had pumped out a string of anti-discrimination anthems for the Impressions and opened his own record label, Curtom Records. He quit the Impressions in 1970 and wrote the music for "Superfly" two years later. The soundtrack for the black exploitation film sold more than 12 million copies.

" 'Superfly' did have its positive side," Mayfield said. "It was the first movie where a black dude actually got over. He had a mind and he didn't end shot or killed--he got away. That's why so many black people flocked to see it."

Throughout the '70s, Mayfield continued to score films and release solo projects. In 1982, he moved his studio and Curtom Records from Chicago to Atlanta, where he currently resides with his wife and six children.

Mayfield said technology has changed the music scene and he's comfortable with the direction things are heading.

"Rock 'n' roll will never be what it was when it was just three simple chords. Those days are over. Children have a wider scope now," Mayfield said. "Thanks to drum machines and synthesizers, even kids who don't know how to sing can bring something new to the industry."

He admires the contributions of positive rappers the most--hip hop acts like Boogie Down Productions and the Jungle Brothers, who not only sample riffs from old '60s soul classics, but rap about black consciousness too.

Looking forward to the release of the "Superfly '90" album, Mayfield said he'd like to hear his music regularly again on the radio. But he was worried about whether his new material would be accepted by radio programmers.

"Unfortunately, some people in the industry tend to view artists like myself as old-timers rather than treasures," Mayfield said. "In America, it doesn't matter who you are or how many hits you've had, everybody is subjected to the same old 'What have you done for me lately?' syndrome."

But Mayfield admitted that his low profile in recent years wasn't due just to a fickle music industry. Mayfield made a conscious decision after the initial "Superfly" success to spend more time at home with his family.

"Music is a big part of my personality, but for me, the master plan covers a whole lot more ground than that," Mayfield said. "It's about fulfillment. You see, I have wonderful children. I believe in being involved with my family and the surroundings I have been allotted. I lead a full life."

Instead of making final preparations for the European tour, Mayfield remained last week in the Brooklyn hospital room, in critical but stable condition. Mayfield, who is conscious but only allowed visits from his family, was scheduled at press time to undergo corrective surgery.

The family said that they are hopeful he will eventually be able to regain movement in his body. There's talk about a bi-coastal concert to raise funds to help pay medical costs, Mayfield's agent said. Meanwhile, a Capitol Records spokesman said early radio response to the "Superfly '90" single is encouraging: "It's starting to develop in the clubs and on the rap shows of urban stations. It looks like we might have a major hit."

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