The R&B singer with a conscience.

By Tom Sinclair
Updated January 07, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST

Curtis Mayfield: ‘Superfly’ Guy

”I plan to stay a believer,” sang Curtis Mayfield in 1971, and perhaps there is not a more fitting epitaph for the velvet-voiced soul man, who died Dec. 26, in Roswell, Ga., of undisclosed causes at age 57. Throughout his 40-plus- year career, the Chicago-born Mayfield never stopped believing in the resilience of the human spirit—or in the power of music as a tool for consciousness-raising. With the Impressions, the vocal group he joined in 1958 and led until 1970, he brought civil rights and racial pride to the airwaves with inspirational hits like ”People Get Ready” and ”We’re a Winner”; as a solo artist, he enjoyed his commercial zenith with a classic triptych of antidrug songs — ”Freddie’s Dead,” ”Superfly,” and ”Pusherman” — from the soundtrack to the 1972 film Superfly.

Even after the 1990 accident on a Brooklyn stage that left him a quadriplegic, Mayfield never surrendered to despair, and he recorded his final album, 1996’s Grammy-nominated New World Order, lying on the floor to make singing easier. His work continues to inspire artists from Lauryn Hill (with whom he collaborated on ”Here but I’m Gone (Part II)” for the Mod Squad soundtrack in 1999) to D’Angelo and Eric Clapton (who jointly performed Mayfield’s ”I’ve Been Trying” on the occasion of the singer’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999). ”Curtis changed the course of modern music,” Clapton once said, ”bringing refinement, cool, and social comment to R&B and leading the way for songwriters, players, and singers in all fields of music.” As the Impressions once sang: ”Amen.”

Essential Albums: The Impressions: The Greatest Hits (MCA, 1998), Curtis (Curtom, 1970), Superfly (Rhino, 1972)