Curtis Mayfield's songs still 'Sparkle,' 36 years later
Curtis Mayfield's widow, Altheida Mayfield, flips through old family albums of her late husband in Atlanta.
Curtis Mayfield's widow, Altheida Mayfield.
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ATLANTA -- When she saw the YouTube trailer and heard the music for the remake of "Sparkle," it put a twinkle in Altheida Mayfield's eyes.
See, she was right there beside her husband, the late, great Curtis Mayfield, when the R&B singer-songwriter-producer was working up the songs for the original "Sparkle," the 1976 musical drama about a three-sister girl group who become Motown stars.
Because of some long-term legal drama with a former estate trustee over her husband's copyright and publishing rights, Mayfield's widow isn't always the first to know when his music is being revived for a new project. But she wasn't surprised that four of his eight tunes from the original "Sparkle" soundtrack are being resurrected for the remake 36 years later.
"Most of the songs that Curtis did, they're just timeless," recalled Mrs. Mayfield, who moved with Curtis and their growing family from Chicago to Atlanta in 1979. "I don't know where it came from, but he seemed to have a foresight."
If Mayfield indeed could see the future, he would have known that his songs -- ranging from socially hopeful hits such as "People Get Ready" and "Keep on Pushin' " to later grittier compositions such as "Superfly" -- would never fall out of vogue.
This year in particular is shaping up to be a fine one for a reappreciation of the musician who died in Atlanta at age 57 in 1999, a decade after being paralyzed from the neck down when stage lighting toppled on him during a Brooklyn sound check.
In addition to "Sparkle," which opens today and stars Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston in her final role, a tribute to Mayfield sold out Lincoln Center's 2,700-seat Avery Fisher Hall in New York last month. Artists as diverse as Mavis Staples, Sinead O'Connor, the Roots, TV on the Radio and Mayfield's old band the Impressions delved into his songbook during "Here but I'm Gone: A 70th Birthday Tribute to Curtis Mayfield." Other projects are bubbling up as well. A proposed "Superfly" Broadway show featuring Mayfield's music was the subject of a developmental workshop in New York in March, and director-choreographer Bill T. Jones ("Fela!") is reportedly preparing for another one soon.
At 67, Mrs. Mayfield, who continues to call Atlanta home, as do most of their six children and 13 grandchildren, has ideas of her own, including a line of red wines (named after Curtis' songs such as "Gypsy Woman") she's planning to launch later this year and a biography that she hopes will be made into a movie.
Among the many things she would like the world to know is how Curtis, inspired by a gospel-loving grandmother and an opera-loving mom who struggled to keep her kids fed, made himself into a professional musician in his early teens.
Mrs. Mayfield recalls her husband as an artist of humility who could turn out polished song lyrics in mere minutes but who had a perfectionist's streak in terms of how they went down in the studio. For instance, when the filmmakers behind the original "Sparkle" wanted young star Lonette McKee to sing Mayfield's songs, he insisted on bringing in Aretha Franklin. "And she laid it out!" his wife recalled.
Happy memories play in her mind, such as that day in the mid-1970s when they were hanging around the house all day in Chicago and, around 5:30, he told her he had to get to work. The project was the soundtrack for "Let's Do It Again," an Atlanta-set Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby film.
"He runs in, takes a shower and writes a song out on a piece of toilet paper," she recounted.
"I was like, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'I gotta get to the studio and put down this song.' I was laughing at it, and said, 'But you wrote it on toilet paper!' And he stuck it in his pocket, and out the door he went."
All these years later, Curtis Mayfield's widow said of what became the movie's title tune, "I still can't hear that song and not want to get up and dance."
First Published August 17, 2012 12:00 am