Amen brother! Well said. I clapped and looked around. Here I was at the Waldorf-Astoria, watching Puff Daddy make a speech about Curtis. Puff Daddy! Doesn’t that just beat all. At the next table was Paul McCartney, at another Bruce Springsteen. And me, a 42 year old veteran at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction ceremony. I looked at Curtis, part of the class of 1999, and couldn’t help but think back on how we met and the part I played in his being here.
It started way back in ’72. My folks didn’t have much money, and there wasn’t much luxury where I grew up, in a two room apartment on 149th Street. I used to sneak into the movies as much as I could to escape our rundown building and stay off the streets. They were too dangerous, man, a lot of drugs, a lot of guns. I loved those black flicks like Shaft and Slaughter. But Superfly was number one for me.
Superfly was the real deal. Those were my streets, the gritty, dirty neighborhood that I lived in every day. On every corner a dealer pushing his product, the smooth kingpins sitting in diners, watching their empires through pane glass windows, tugging their fedoras over their eyes if they didn’t want to be seen.
That was the first time I heard Curtis Mayfield. The movie was great, but Curtis’ songs, hey, they were better than the movie itself. I really dug his music, it really got to me. He was talking about some serious shit, really telling it like it was in the ghetto. “Pusherman,” “Freddie’s Dead,” “Superfly” – I knew those guys. I don’t know; it was like Curtis knew me. That was my life. I was 15, with no future, surrounded by bad men.
I ripped off a copy of the album and listened to it over and over again. It spoke to me, made me sad. But there was something in Curtis’ voice, that high crystalline tone, so beautiful, that gave me hope. I felt connected to this man and, even though I didn’t write well, I found a scrap of paper and wrote him a letter, telling him how much his songs meant to me. I sent it off to Curtom, the record label Curtis owned, and that was it.
A few months later Curtis wrote me back. I was knocked out. I never thought he’d have time for me, but he did. I remember it word for word, even now.
Wow. That was something, man. For a little child, running wild in the streets, a message from Curtis Mayfield meant something. I taped it on the cracked plaster wall next to my bed and read it every night before I went to sleep. I checked out his older stuff with The Impressions. Those early records were great, though not as funky. I loved the covers, little Curtis with a big ol’ toothy grin, or the three of them pushing a fine sports car.
When I was 18 I joined the Marines and, with a real future ahead of me, I felt the need to write Curtis again, just to tell him what was happening with me and how he was my inspiration. He wrote back again, telling me how proud he was and asked me to stay in touch. I did and we’d write each other every few months, even as his career faded with the rise of disco and MTV. I bought all his new records and, when The Impressions toured in ’83, I was in Lebanon, seeing the heaviest stuff I’d seen since my days living in Harlem.
When Curtis moved to Atlanta he dropped me a note with his new address. We kept writing, but still never met. I left the military, settled back in New York, Brooklyn this time, and by 1990, was pretty settled. Curtis wrote me that he was playing an outdoor show in Wingate Field, over in East Flatbush, on August 13. He asked if I could come, now that I was nearby, and invited me backstage as his guest.
It started off as a nice day, but the sky was getting pretty dark when I arrived around 5:30. I told the guard who I was, that I was a guest of Curtis Mayfield’s and, after checking his pad, he waved me in. I wandered around and spotted Curtis talking to a group of guys that, it turned out, were Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes. They were on before Curtis.
“Umm, excuse me, Curtis, I’m…” I didn’t have a chance to say another word before he grabbed me and squeezed me in a big bear hug. He was tinier than I pictured, but he was a giant to me. His tight afro was flecked with grey and he wore some funky tinted glasses.
“Oh man, it’s so good to meet you at last. Hey Harold, I gotta tell you, this dude wrote me a letter when he was 15 years old, and we’ve been pen pals ever since! Can you beat that!” I couldn’t believe how excited Curtis was to see me. “He went into the Marines, did us all proud and, here he is!” He was bragging on me like he I was his son.
His voice was deeper than his singing voice. That surprised me. He was soft, gentle, caring, everything I hoped he’d be. The show began and the two of us stayed backstage, talking through the whole set.
The wind was kicking up a bit, rain was clearly coming. We talked about life, about music. I couldn’t believe Curtis liked rap, especially Public Enemy. He explained to me his views of music, using it to spread the truth. “Everything’s changed, but ain’t nothin’ changed too much.” He laughed; so did I.
The weather was getting worse and, though Curtis had some time before his set, the promoters were nervously circling around us, hoping to get a word with him.
“Curtis, can you go on early? We’re worried about this rain cancelling the show.”
“No, man, I’m talking to my friend here.” His friend, he called me his friend. I had to smile over that.
They wouldn’t let up. Every minute or two they would ask Curtis if he would go on and Curtis kept telling them no.
I asked him if he thought the weather would be a problem. He wasn’t worried, the show would go on. We kept on talking, when, suddenly, a thunderous crash, a blast from the heavens, jolted us out of our conversation. I figured it was the beginning of the storm, the wind was fierce, but Curtis turned quickly to the stage and said “What the fuck was that?”
He made a step forward and I followed. There, where he would have been standing had he gone on instead of talking, was a 500 pound lighting scaffold which had been blown off its tower and onto the stage. We looked at each other in disbelief.
As Curtis walked onto the stage after Puffy’s speech and began to speak, I thought back on the day we finally met, the day I saved Curtis Mayfield’s life.
On August 13, 1990, a freakish onstage accident left Curtis Mayfield paralyzed from the neck down. Under pressure from promoters to start early to avoid the rain, Mayfield was walking on stage as the band played the intro to “Superfly.” As 10,000 watched, a lighting scaffold was blown off its tower and crushed the singer.
On March 15, 1999, Curtis Mayfield was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, along with Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Del Shannon, Dusty Springfield and Bruce Springsteen. Befitting his positive post- accident attitude, Curtis planned to attend the ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in Manhattan. It was only his steadily deteriorating health that prevented him from appearing. Curtis Mayfield died on December 26, 1999 in Roswell, Georgia, at the age of 57.