Back to Living: Curtis Mayfield and the Making of ‘New World Order’

Curtis Mayfield
New World Order
Warner Bros.

The weather wasn’t kind to Atlanta, Georgia during the winter of 1995. Tornadoes, high winds and torrential rain beat down on the home of Curtis Mayfield as he lay flat on the floor of his built-in recording studio. Paralysed from the neck down, for the recording of his final album New World Order he purposefully positioned his broken body on its back to help fill his lungs with the necessary oxygen to sing, which he painstakingly did one line at a time — all the gentle genius could muster. “Summer, winter or just cold,” he sang before being forced to pause for the air to re-enter his body. “Through the rain and through the snow… Let’s get on back to living again, right on.”

Hearing Mayfield sing in such good voice on New World Order, one wonders where his mind wandered between vocal takes as he lay flat on the floor, detached from the team of producers he had hired to do the physical work of which he was no longer capable. He might well have pondered on a career spanning 40 years, releasing almost as many albums and an influence that cannot be gauged by simple numbers. An adept pop songwriter, he sacrificed the fame and fortune enjoyed by his peers on the Motown label to make music about racial consciousness and social inequality, penning many songs that would become anthems of the civil rights movement. How sad that a man who spent his career fighting injustice would face a different plight in his final years.

Curtis Mayfield was born June 3, 1942 in Chicago and become one of the pioneers of the city’s unique brand of gospel-tinged melodic soul. He began his musical career at age seven, learning to sing and teaching himself guitar. But gospel became his first calling and he performed in many choirs before meeting Jerry Butler in a church group. Butler convinced the 14-year-old Mayfield to join his soul band, The Roosters. Two years later, after renaming themselves the Impressions, the group scored a No. 11 hit with “For Your Precious Love”, released on Vee Jay Records.

Butler would move on and achieved significant success in his solo career, but it was under Mayfield’s guidance that the Impressions became one of the most successful R&B groups of the ’60s. Among their most lasting works were “Keep on Pushing”, “We’re a Winner” and, most famously, “People Get Ready”. At a time when the soul and R&B world rarely strayed away from the common love song, Mayfield’s music channelled the spirit of change that was gathering steam, writing a soundtrack that would underscore the black pride movement. Musically too, he was an innovator, utilizing his gospel roots and effectively blending them with Latin-influenced rhythms, wicked horns and melodic guitars.

The end of the ’60s neatly bookended Mayfield’s time in the Impressions. By that time, he had hit somewhat of a creative ceiling in the band, even rehashing the melody to “People Get Ready” a couple of times on later songs. Mayfield’s solo career, though, took a sharp turn away from the toffee R&B and bright messages of the Impressions. His ’70s output utilised stronger beats, brawny strings and plenty of wah-wah guitars. The message too became darker and less optimistic, as Mayfield now told tales from America’s drugged-out seventies ghettos. It was these observations that helped create what would prove to be his quintessential work.

Superfly was Mayfield at the peak of his powers. While the film was criticized for its glamorization of cocaine dealing, Curtis’ soundtrack is a firm social commentary condemning all aspects of the drug lifestyle. Songs like “Little Child Running Wild”, “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusherman” were full, three-dimensional glimpses into the life, Mayfield effectively playing cautionary storyteller while avoiding being overly preachy. As he would say in a 1997 interview “With all respect, I’m sure that we have enough preachers in the world. Through my way of writing I was capable of being able to say these things and yet not make a person feel as though they’re being preached at.”

The rise of disco damaged Mayfield commercially, but he spent the rest of the seventies steadily touring and recording new albums, including the classic There’s No Place Like America Today, an unflinching attack on social injustices, particularly the gulf he saw between the “American Dream” and the status of lower class blacks. During the ’80s, however, his star continued to dip, along with the quality of his output.

At the start of the ’90s Mayfield’s relevance had flickered away, but he was still a major live draw and was asked to headline an R&B concert in Wingate Field, Brooklyn on August 13, 1990. On his arrival, Mayfield was surprised at the scale of the event, expecting to be playing to a far smaller crowd. Among the other acts were the Delfonics and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, who were playing their set as Curtis watched in the wings, waiting to go on. Wind began to swirl, and it was clear that the storm that had been forecast would not miss the gig. Rather than disappoint the 10,000 fans who came to see top-of-the-bill act Curtis, event promoter Martin Markowitz rushed him and the band on stage before rain stopped the event altogether.

Mayfield’s band hurried through their sound check, and began playing the opening notes to “Superfly”, Curtis’ signal to enter the stage. As Mayfield walked on, poised to take the microphone from Markowitz hand, a huge gust of wind blew and the lighting tower came crashing on to the stage, narrowly missing percussionist Lee Goodness, but destroying his drum kit as it toppled towards Curtis.

Mayfield was stuck on the neck, shattering the third, fourth and fifth vertebrae in his spine. He lay still on the stage, drifting in and out of consciousness as the rain beat down hard, thunder crashing and objects flying off stage into the panicked audience. Several people were hurt, but none worse than Mayfield, who would be paralysed from the neck down for the remainder of his life. “This accident, or incident, happened in the most secure place I could have felt I was in: Walking onstage with my guitar, you know?,” Mayfield told journalist David Mills some years later.

Tributes to the fallen star poured out instantly. In 1994 he was named a Grammy Legend and was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement in 1995. The years following the accident were filled with intense physiotherapy. He would tell Mills “Sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down. I think overall, though, I’m dealing with it pretty good. But you can’t help waking up every once in a while with a tear in your eye. But through my fans and my children, my wife, just good people, I’m coping.”

But despite the tough schedule of rehabilitation, the idea of working again never really left Mayfield. In an interview with The Face in 1995 he spoke about the difficulties of writing music when paralysed. After watching The Shawshank Redemption on TV, he saw a parallel with his own situation, hoping he could liberate his spirit that was imprisoned in his paralysed body. He began working with other writers who would sit at his bedside and exchange ideas with him. The first song written in this way was “Back to Livin’ Again”, which Curtis co-wrote with gospel singer Rosemary Woods.

Writing was one thing, but creating a new record would be a stern test for Mayfield. Throughout his career he had used his own guitar to lead his band. Now, he was completely reliant on session musicians. He also found singing to be tough, and was disappointed by the initial vocals he recorded. He soon developed a technique which involved lying flat or at a slant on the studio floor and singing a couple of lines at a time. He recorded his voice slower and lower than ever before and results were sped up for the falsetto sections. “How many 54-year-old quadriplegics are putting albums out? You just have to deal with what you got, try to sustain yourself as best you can, and look to the things that you can do,” he said in an interview at the time.

Recoding began in late 1995 in Mayfield’s home studio with Woods and producer Joy Bailey drafted in to help co-ordinate the sessions. It was a slow process due to the fractured nature of the vocals. Curtis also would often need time to rest, finding the process physically demanding. “Curtis worked so long and hard on that project,” said Sleepy Brown in a recent interview with Michael A. Gonzales. With his crew Organized Noise, Sleepy Brown worked on New World Order, producing “Ms Martha” and “Here but I’m Gone”. “Sometimes he was in obvious pain, but he just worked through it. He was always asking us to criticize the work, so we could make it better.”

Despite his condition, Curtis looked outward, not inward, to find inspiration for the album. Even the title New World Order suggests his gaze was firmly fixed on the bigger picture. Rather than a full-blown revolution, though, Mayfield was only interested in positive social change. The album opens with the title track, and with its sombre wah-wah guitars, a high tenor vocal and lyrics that provide a stinging social commentary, Mayfield rolls back the years. “Another victim born out here in the hood. And based on statistics it really ain’t all good,” he sings in fine voice.

After “Ms. Martha”, a touching tale of an elderly woman’s struggle, Curtis finally looks at himself on “Back to Livin’ Again”. Rather than crying tears of sadness over his condition, it’s an optimistic, up-tempo jam. “Whenever life pulls you down,” Mayfield sings, “you just get back up and hold your ground. Let’s get back to living again.” He even sneaks in a joyous “right on”. A dated statement, but one that tellingly reveals Curtis has lost none of the spirit that had inspired some of the most lasting songs from the ’60s and ’70s.

Elsewhere, famed producer Daryl Simmons provides ballad “No One Knows About a Good Thing”. It’s a typical mid-’90s slow jam, and Mayfield delivers a touching vocal performance. Producer Roger Troutman was also a contributor. Red hot at the time for providing the chorus to 2pac’s “California Love”, he scored a string of hits himself in the eighties as a solo artist and with his group Zapp. Pioneering the talkbox sound effect on songs like “More Bounce to the Ounce” and “So Ruff, So Tuff”, Troutman was already considered one of the forefathers of G-Funk and West Coast hip-hop that had exploded in popularity when he approached Mayfield about remaking his classic “We People Who are Darker Than Blue”. Originally recorded on his 1970 solo debut Curtis, the idea appealed to Mayfield who felt the song’s racial equality message was worth reiterating. What emerges is distinctly Troutman, reimagining the song with keyboards, drum machines and the prominent talkbox.

New World Order was released in America on 20 September 1996 to acclaim, and received three Grammy nominations. Life though, would not get easier for its creator. In February 1998, his right leg was amputated due to complications with diabetes. Curtis Mayfield died on December 26th 1999 after nearly a decade of ill health at age 57. “Never forget the life we live is oh so beautiful,” he says in the touching monologue that completes New World Order‘s closing track “Oh So Beautiful”. This almost superhuman optimism in the face of such adversity proving to be the final lesson from a career that continues to teach, entertain and inspire.