In the classic 1972 blaxploitation movie Superfly, Curtis Mayfield, slender and ”fly” in his ’70s threads, can be seen in the club scenes performing the film’s soundtrack. In doing so, he defined the soul music of the day with a silky moonlight tenor and lyrics that chronicled the era’s racial tensions. Fittingly, the refrain he wrote for the title song was ”Trying to get over.”
Nearly 25 years later, Mayfield himself is not only trying to get over but succeeding miraculously. In 1990, a lighting rig collapsed on Mayfield at a Brooklyn concert, crushing three of his vertebrae and paralyzing him from the neck down. It appeared that the soft-spoken guitarist, who had helped create the Chicago soul sound, scored fifteen top 30 pop hits with the Impressions, and led a vital solo career, would be permanently sidelined.
Subsequently, rappers and hip-hop producers kept Mayfield’s music alive by liberally sampling from classics like ”Keep On Pushing” and ”People Get Ready.” And Mayfield tribute records are plentiful. But now the master is weighing in with his own new work, the aptly titled New World Order.
Released last week, the album features collaborations with young rap and R&B producers, including hitmaker Narada Michael Walden. After Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples stepped up for impassioned cameos, Mayfield — who resides in Atlanta and who, at 54, uses a wheelchair — lay on his back in bed, faced the heavens, and sang his vocal parts as sweet and pure as ever. ”We sort of made magic,” he says.
New World Order is to be celebrated for its transgenerational blending of Mayfield’s deep soul sensibility and a decidedly new-school vibe. But that the record exists at all is the greatest cause for celebration. ”This whole experience has made me brighten up,” Mayfield says, ”and proven to me that there is still a future.”