Before the recent tribute concert to her late husband, Curtis Mayfield, at Lincoln Center, Altheida Mayfield sat down with the AmNews to talk about his music, his legacy and life with a musical genius.
The show, put together in honor of what would have been Curtis Mayfield’s 70th birthday and to officially launch the Curtis Mayfield Foundation, featured over 10 artists. Sinead O’Connor, the Impressions, Mavis Staples, Bilal, Meshell Ndegeocello, the Roots and William Bell belted out two dozen Mayfield hits to a packed house of all ages.
Mayfield began writing hit songs as a teenage addition to the group the Impressions in the 1960s. For years during and after his Impressions years, Mayfield wrote and composed hit songs such as “Amen,” “Keep on Pushing,” “Move on Up” and, perhaps most famously, the “Superfly” soundtrack, with songs like “Pusherman” and “Freddie’s Dead.”
The Chicago-bred falsetto soul singer was raised amongst strong Black women, primarily his grandmother. When asked about how the young Mayfield wrote such complicated love and political songs that were far beyond his personal experiences, Altheida Mayfield credited the presence of those women in her late husband’s life.
“His grandmother supported the whole family. She was a spiritual woman. People came from all over to a back room where she burned candles. She would do spiritual readings,” she explained. “It was in his DNA. Some people are sent here with a purpose to change the world.”
No matter when inspiration struck, Curtis Mayfield would heed the call. “He would sit there and it would just flow. He wrote ‘Let’s Do It Again’ on a piece of toilet paper–he went in the bathroom and grabbed a sheet, wrote down that song, tore it off, put it in his pocket and went off to the studio.
“It ended up being one of his biggest songs. It just came to him. He didn’t try to understand how it worked, he just went with it,” said Altheida Mayfield.
Given today’s fascination with reality TV and following the lives of women with famous spouses, the AmNews asked Mayfield what cameras would have captured if they had followed her family around while her husband was alive.
“We were very simple people. We enjoyed life. The stuff these ‘housewives’ go through on these shows, I didn’t go through that. I had six kids. I didn’t have time for that. I didn’t have a nanny. I could barely find a babysitter with so many kids,” she said with a laugh.
“A lot of women I see on those shows are insecure. A lot of that drama is coming from insecurity. If you are this insecure, you have no business with that man. If you aren’t secure in your relationship enough to know that when that man walks out the door, he’s coming home, don’t jump in it. It’s not going to be pretty. I didn’t have any insecurities. Curtis didn’t allow me to go through that.”
Their marriage was tested when an accident at a 1990 Brooklyn concert left Curtis Mayfield in a wheelchair paralyzed from the neck down. But he rallied and even recorded another album after the accident in a painstaking fashion. He recorded the entire “New World Order” album on his back, line by line.
“We got through that just like everything else. We always remained a family unit,” said Altheida Mayfield.
“I love ‘The Makings of You.’ It is such a special song. It’s one of the prettiest songs I’ve ever heard.”
Since her husband’s death in 1999, Mayfield has made efforts to preserve his legacy and make sure that later generations recognize his contributions to the world. The purpose of the Curtis Mayfield Foundation is to provide music education to under-resourced youth.