1990 was a prolific year for Curtis Mayfield having released two records and organised a string of shows. While his chart success might have dwindled from his Super Fly heyday’s of the early 1970s, he was still adored by millions the world over for the sonic spiritual honey that he continually dished out with his silken vocals and sunshine summoning songwriting skills. It would seem that he was about to break into the mainstream once more when he was tragically paralysed in a highly avoidable accident.
On August 13th, at Wingate Field in Brooklyn, the soul star was set to at an outdoor concert organised by then-New York state Senator Martin Markowitz. The former Senator frequently organised such shows as a show of thanks for his constituent’s contributions.
This particular year it was clear that a storm was brewing. Winds were whipping up and a downpour seemed imminent. Markowitz, however, was determined that the concert go ahead and that Mayfield, being the star attraction took the stage as soon as possible. Fearing the downpour was imminent and that the crowd would scatter thereafter, Markowitz took to the stage during Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ set and made an impromptu announcement.
Witness reports from the time say that Markowitz announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve decided that we’re going to bring up Curtis Mayfield”. Adding, “I’m thrilled,” before he was cut short as a rapid gust of wind cause the speaker-row to creak. He continued with the introduction and, as Curtis Mayfield gingerly stepped out onto the stage a second gust of wind – stated in reports as being 54mph – rattled the lighting trusses loose.
One of the lighting rigs struck Mayfield forcefully on the back of the neck knocking him to the floor and a further six others were injured by toppling equipment, including a 12-year-old girl. It is believed that Mayfield’s life was saved by his bandmate Lee Goodness’ bass drum which took the brunt of the blow.
The 48-year-old soul star was taken to Kings County Hospital in a critical but stable condition, having suffered head and neck injuries. The Times contacted Mayfield’s son, Todd Mayfield, shortly after the incident and he attributed the accident to “gross negligence”.
“It’s so tragic. I still can’t believe this has happened,” he told The Times, “We are at a loss for words.” Adding, “Right now he is paralyzed from the neck down, but we’re hoping that when the swelling goes down he’ll be able to regain some movement in his body.”
Markowitz made a statement of his own via United Press International, announcing: “As Mayfield was ready to come on stage, an overwhelming wind hit us and blew the speakers off the stage and the lighting trusses down. Some of it hit Mr. Mayfield. Mr. Mayfield looked pretty bad. We hope he will be fine. This was supposed to have been a comeback concert for him.”
Shortly afterwards, however, doctors at the Kings County Hospital confirmed that his back had been broken in three places and he would not be able to walk or play the guitar ever again. While his recovery was a treacherous one, he still managed to craft one last masterpiece and his monolithic struggles towards it typified his approach to music.
In the interim years, Mayfield suffered through diabetes which eventually led to having a leg amputation in 1998, he struggled with muscular atrophy and urinary tract infections and he was plagued by a rare condition known as ‘phantom limb’ whereby he would feel sensations such as itching and pain where there was actually no sensation possible. As if to compound the disaster, while building work converted his house, a fire broke out and destroyed a priceless collection catalogue of songs housed in the star’s basement.
Despite all of this suffering, Mayfield lived with the same sanguine energy that his music basked audiences with throughout his gilded career. On September 27th, having been forced to record his vocal takes lying down, he released his final masterpiece, New World Order. The record transfigured his pain into a profound elucidation of the importance of finding salvation in darkness. It was a poignant soul classic that simultaneously offers escapism and realism in equal measure. In short, it did what Mayfield always set out to do – offer up some painless preaching.