Got to find a way

Revered soul daddy Curtis Mayfield was left a quadriplegic when a freak storm hit in 1990. He can no longer play guitar, but he's back with a new album.
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The phone line from Atlanta, Georgia, isn't the best, and we have a time delay, and the guy on the other end is speaking in a whisper, very slowly, and pausing for breath in between takes of five words or so. This is costing him something, for sure. Nevertheless, what he whispers sounds sane. "I believe it's important to be optimistic, not just think for the better, but live for the better. One shouldn't get locked in on all the terrible, negative things that happen in the world. They're gonna be here. And yet that's why we're civilised, we're capable of balancing things out and will always reach for the higher goal. Keep balanced, and lean toward the sun."

For some reason - who knows what it is - there are people who expect life to be absolutely fair. And when it isn't, and those expectations get spited, it seems reasonable to lose your sense of optimism and motivation and to pitch back with an attitude that's altogether nastier. Curtis Mayfield is someone you might expect to be a little bitter. Born in 1942 into the Chicago projects, with a father who walked out and left his family to struggle in what they later realised had been a good definition of poverty, Curtis roped himself out of the slums by sheer musical ability, singing at the age of seven, kick-starting a number of bands until, with The Impressions, he began to turn out a stream of hot soul anthems. As much as Marvin Gaye's, Mayfield's sensuous, butterfly croon rising to a sweet falsetto was the voice of the late-Sixties and Seventies, hitching gospel to pop and a sense of the black struggle to deliver hits like "Move On Up", "People Get Ready" and "Keep On Pushing". His lyrics took in drug abuse, unemployment, Vietnam, and it all came together tightest on his 1972 soundtrack for the blaxploitation movie Superfly, the heavy, dread-laden funk of "Pusherman" and "Freddie's Dead", hard and pitiless hymns of frustration about the splintering of black politics, though if you heard "Pusherman" now - "I'm your momma / I'm your daddy / I'm that nigger in the alley / I'm yo' pusherman..." - you'd think it had just been put together, it's so freshly terrifying (dealing death never sounded so simultaneously evil and groovy).

Mayfield spent the Eighties touring, worked on the soundtrack for I'm Gonna Get You, Sucka, worked with the Blow Monkeys, became a revered soul daddy. On August 14, 1990, tuning his guitar, he walked out on to an open- air stage in Brooklyn to play for about 10,000 people. A freak, 40mph gust of wind eased loose a speaker stack and lighting rig, toppling them down on him ("Show boss senator Marty Marowitz said: 'We rushed over. Curtis looked pretty bad...'" wrote the Daily Mirror); the damage to his spine left him a quadriplegic.

And that, as you might expect, was really pretty much that until, a few months ago, a new Curtis Mayfield LP was announced. New World Order, released on 3 February, is a powerful mix, taking in sly, streetwise hustle, sexy love songs and redemptive consciousness-raising, an uplifting thing reminiscent of the man at his best. How? He can no longer play guitar, two years ago he was still unable to sing ("I don't have a diaphragm any more... so when I sit up, I lose my voice"). He relies on his wife and kids to feed him and move his limbs. What he does have is a towering spiritual strength, which, together with contributing friends like Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin, computer technology and the determination to record each song line by line, lying on his back, has proved Mayfield, when the chips are down, to be an inspiration of a wild kind, someone who lives by the creed he preaches.

It was his grandmother, the Reverend Annabelle Mayfield, who first got Curtis singing with her Travelling Soul Spiritualist Church. "If anybody wanted to join up and sing, they could sing. However, we found we had a little bit of talent, so we formed this group called the Northern Jubilees. That's where I got my start."

He didn't so much find a guitar as have one find him. It belonged to the bass singer of the Northern Jubilees, Curtis's cousin Buddy. "Or Patty Foot. Well, you know, when we all sang back then, there was no instruments and of course we would sing a cappella. Everybody would pat their foot and clap their hands and slap their thigh just to get the rhythm going. That's how most quartets would sing. Patty Foot - well, he was a very tall black man. I think his feet were heard the strongest...

"But Buddy joined the army when he got around 18, and when he came back, he brought a guitar. Only I never saw him play it, nobody ever played it, it just sat in the kitchen corner. But, being that I was capable of using and picking up any instrument - I played piano whenever I saw one - well, I took it up and found myself retuning it to the key of F sharp, for the black keys on the piano."

That F sharp open tuning was something Mayfield only found to be unusual when The Impressions first appeared at the Harlem Apollo and he tried playing with the house orchestra, but he used it throughout his career. The man and the instrument were melded; he must miss playing it?

"Oh, very much so. I mean, I guess my guitar was for me what Lucille was for BB King. We were just inseparable, and it was almost like another person. Your guitar never lets you down." Enthusiasm, gives way to regret. "And the way it was... it's just a lost tuning, a lost art that no one will probably pick up again, you know?"

Mayfield's output was prolific. He wrote from his own and others' experiences - "with every feeling, every conversation, there was a song" - and read widely. Before long, the boy from the ghetto had sculpted "Isle of Sirens", setting bits of Homer amid a walking blues. It was some imagination. "Oh, but I still have my dreams. And I come up with ideas - sometimes even in my sleep, I'll dream a song. However, it's a little tougher now trying to get it on to paper and all the way to music itself."

The day one life stopped and another started still isn't entirely clear to Mayfield, though he'll reason through it. "I was to close the show, but it was running a little late, so I sent my band out and they hit the opening number - "Superfly". All I can recall, actually, is getting up these sort of ladder stairs and then taking about three steps toward centre stage. An' I never saw what was comin'. It was just a bit of fate, and it just had me there. It wasn't even time for me to go on but, of course, as one would always think, that was my profession, and it has always been the most comfortable and safest place in my life."

It's a platitude, but an accident can happen at any time...

"Oh, I used to be scared of going on a plane, thinkin' the thing was gonna fall."

Since it's hard to know what to say here, I mumble that we miss countless accidents, maybe, that we might have had earlier in life. In a sense, we're all living on borrowed time. There's a silence, just a clicking over the wire, and then, faintly: "That is true. You dance out of the way of it - it could be that you're dead then, but you move along. You have to take risks to live."

One risk has been the new disc, "and that started out with finding a label that would take on the challenge and invest money in a quadriplegic, with no guarantee that there would really be an outcome. Warners took me on. Of course, at any time, because of one's health, things could've very well gone the other way. But I had no plans for lettin' them down."

New World Order was co-produced by Organized Noise, Narada Michael Walden, Roger Troutman and Mayfield himself, and much was co-written with Rosmary Woods. Who's Rosmary? "Well, she sings in her own manner, but mainly she does very well with the computers, puttin' sounds together. Often she'd bring pieces in, and I'd get fired up to write." Not just for this reason, the LP has much to say about women - not only lovers, but single mothers, solitary wives.

"Well, I was raised by women - my mother, grandmother, my great-grandmothers, they were the masters of their own homes. While there were some men around, I never had my own father in my house. There was great strength in women."

The various unfairnesses of Mayfield's youth haven't gone away. Are his hopes the same as they ever were? "Oh yeah, that people would be valued on a more equal level, women and men, all colours and walks of life, irrespective of their beliefs, so long as those beliefs do not harm another person." The operator cuts in: "You have one more minute, madam. Please wind up the interview."

Curtis is flagging now, but he's not about to be deflected from what he has to say. "The optimistic viewpoint is still the better way. That doesn't mean you don't have to be strong, but if you must fight, fight for righteousness. I mean, there's still light in the world." Curtis sounds happy, and he has a right to. "And so, y'know, rejoice"n