Curtis Mayfield’s storied music career will mark its 60th anniversary next year. To celebrate the occasion — and Mayfield’s still influential legacy — the late soul icon’s estate is ramping up multiple projects. The slate includes a website, new recordings, merchandise, DVDs and a documentary.
“It’s taken some time to put things in order,” says Altheida Mayfield, Mayfield’s widow. “Now it’s time to celebrate and re-evaluate his legacy; to let him touch people’s hearts again. But we’re doing it the way Curtis would have liked it done.”
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Left a quadriplegic when stage lighting equipment fell on him in 1990, Mayfield passed away in 1999. Since then, Altheida and her family have been poring through Mayfield’s massive cache of material in his Atlanta home studio as well as original works found as far away as South Africa. Among the estate’s release plans for 2016: the digitizing and repackaging of several Mayfield classics from original master recordings (including some thought lost), DVDs featuring video footage of concerts and interviews plus the announcement of details regarding a documentary and feature film about the artist’s life.
Already up and running is a new website documenting Mayfield’s multi-faceted legacy as a singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist, social activist and label owner (Curtom). Kirk Mayfield, Curtis’ oldest son and VP of Curtom Classics and Mayfield Media, hopes to begin rolling out a line of T-shirts, posters and other merchandise to coincide with his father’s June 3 birthdate.
“We want to keep his name alive,” says Kirk, who would also like to see Curtis’ songs remade in Spanish and other languages. “A lot of people appreciate his music and want to learn more about him.”
Nicknamed the “Gentle Genius,” Mayfield was reintroduced to a new generation of fans earlier this year when the acclaimed civil rights drama Selma, starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King, featured the song “Keep on Pushing.” The Mayfield-penned 1964 track was one of several top 15 R&B and pop hits scored by the singer/songwriter’s then-group the Impressions. A compelling voice during that era’s civil rights movement, Mayfield—who formally launched his career with Impressions forerunner the Roosters — was also the creative impetus behind the Impressions’ empowerment anthems “People Get Ready” and “We’re a Winner.”
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Leaving the Impressions in 1970, Mayfield forged an equally indelible solo career. That chapter includes the Super Fly soundtrack (featuring the R&B/pop hits “Superfly” and “Freddie’s Dead”), the top 10 R&B hits “Kung Fu,” “Only You Babe” and “So In Love” as well as writing/producing the soundtracks for Claudine featuring Gladys Knight & the Pips and Sparkle featuring Aretha Franklin. Along the way he garnered a host of accolades including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and double induction (solo and group) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Mayfield’s last solo album — for which he recorded vocals while lying on his back — was 1997’s New World Order.
Mayfield’s catalog of more than 1700 songs is administered by Warner Chappell and the Mayfield estate worldwide. Rhino oversees licensing of the masters in North America in conjunction with the estate. Most recently, Mayfield’s music has been licensed for several television and film projects. These include ABC-TV’s Black-ish (“Freddie’s Dead”) and the stage play Every Brilliant Thing (“Move on Up”).
“Upcoming projects like the documentary and film are still hush-hush until we get everything under way,” says Altheida. “There are several projects that I’ve been working on very diligently for a couple of years. I’m hopeful that when they hit, these will give people a chance to see who Curtis was as a man. Everyone knows his music. But they don’t understand that this music came from a very humble man who had a rough way to go.”