By Howard Pousner
Long before Atlanta was the ATL, the Motown of the Dirty South, before Big Boi was even a little boy, Curtis Mayfield saw the city as a potential music capital.
Curtis Compton, firstname.lastname@example.org Curtis Mayfield’s widow Altheida Mayfield, center, with daughter Timfany Mayfield-Scott, left, Scott’s daughters, Taylor, 2-months, and Michaela, 8, son, Kirk, and daughter Sharon Mayfield-Lavigne, right, in Atlanta.
Though he didn’t move his family here permanently until 1979, the Chicago native bought a small home in the decade before that near what’s now Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where he could get away and work. That’s also where Mayfield wrote most of the 1972 hit soundtrack album “Superfly.”
Acclaimed as a new creative peak in an already storied career, the album painted a bleak picture of life in the drug-gutted ghetto. If the movie was fiction, the lyrics and music were truth. In essence, “Superfly” conveyed the flip side of Mayfield’s earlier, more socially hopeful hits with the Impressions such as “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushin’, which were embraced as civil rights anthems.
Some draw a line from “Superfly” to the gritty realism of the best of today’s rap and hip-hop, the genres that have etched Atlanta’s name on the world music map.
But before Mayfield could witness the scene’s full flowering, he died young, at 57 in 1999, spending his last decade here paralyzed from the neck down after stage lighting toppled on him during a Brooklyn sound check.
So his widow, Altheida Mayfield, is gratified that the National Black Arts Festival plans to remember her husband with a tribute concert at Symphony Hall on Friday, returning some of the love and talent he invested in his adopted home.
A multi-generational slate of artists — his old group the Impressions, Eddie Levert, Van Hunt, Frank McComb, Dionne Farris and Joi Gilliam — will perform in the Legends Celebration program “To Curtis With Love.”
“It’s an honor,” she said. “Curtis loved Atlanta. He felt like Atlanta was quite young and there was a lot of room here to grow.”
Altheida Mayfield, 66, was speaking of the landscape of Atlanta, then known as a city in a forest, still breaking in its spikes as a major league town. But she said her husband also saw it as a place where creativity could mushroom.
“Curtis kind of had foresight on things,” said Mayfield, whose seven children with the singer all still call Atlanta home. “When we moved here, he kind of felt like Atlanta was going to be the next top record place.”
But first it turned out to be the place where he performed a nifty feat of career reinvention, leaving behind the Impressions, and their gospel-informed soul stylings, for freer, funkier expressions as a solo artist.
Altheida Mayfield said her husband’s “Superfly”-era transformation was fueled more by practical considerations than creative ones, however. Wanting to control his artistic destiny, he founded Curtom Records and went solo to give his new label two acts to promote. He was determined not to compete with the group he joined as a high school kid in 1958.
“You have to remember that the Impressions were his baby,” his widow said. “He wouldn’t dare step over and try to come back with anything that would resemble the Impressions. He just took a different turn immediately to make it Curtis.
“But once he stepped out and became just Curtis, he opened up a lot more.”
Fred Cash, who grew up with Mayfield in the Impressions, agrees that his friend’s new beats, horn licks and more complex arrangements marked “a whole different direction.” In an interview from his home in Chattanooga, Cash said he wasn’t surprised that Mayfield could pull off such a rapid reboot.
“People used to ask Curtis, ‘Man, how do you come up with these different-type songs?’” Cash recounts. “One thing he would always tell them: ‘I’m living, I’m looking at what’s going on and I’m able to take that and put it into music.’”
“I have to pull my hat off to him because he had the ability to do that,” Cash said, “just a great kind of poet really.”
Some of his interpretive gifts were no doubt owed to the fact that Mayfield was very much his poetry-loving mother’s son, and grandson of a church-loving grandmother who helped raise him in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green public housing project. Having grown up poor, he had a stout work ethic after becoming a professional musician at age 16.
Cash fondly remembers Mayfield always wanting to try out new songs back at the hotel late at night after shows on tour.
“Me and Curtis didn’t do any partying back then, and he’d be in the room next to me and I’d hear a knock on the door,” Cash recalled. “He’d have his robe on, sitting on the side of the bed with his guitar: ‘Listen to this, See what you think.’”
Even after his terrible accident, Mayfield managed to make one last album, 1996’s Grammy-nominated “New World Order,” which he recorded with a non-functioning diaphragm and lungs so weak he had to lay flat on his back and sing into an overhead microphone. Fittingly, some of Atlanta’s young talent from the musical rising he’d predicted years before served as collaborators.
“Curtis was always telling me, ‘We have to find out who we are down here on this earth,’” Altheida Mayfield recalled. “A lot of us don’t find out what our purpose is, but Curtis found that out early and that’s how he developed the music he gave the world.”
Legends Celebration: “To Curtis With Love”
8 p.m. Friday, Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St., Atlanta. Tickets, $25-$65, at the Woodruff Arts Center box office, 404-733-5000, or www.nbaf.org .