Todd Mayfield tells his father's story in new biography Traveling Soul
Originally published on December 20, 2016
Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield explores how the soulful singer first became interested in music and how his life changed after becoming a quadriplegic, from the perspective of Curtis Mayfield's son Todd Mayfield.
Todd explains that his father was inspired by his grandmother Reverend Annabelle Mayfield, who founded the Traveling Souls Spiritualist Church. Curtis would sing in the choir and traveled with the gospel group all around the country. He taught himself every instrument he played. "He was a self-taught person, self-motivated and he just found that was what he wanted to do with his life very early," explains Todd on his father's beginnings as a musician.
Curtis was always a talented songwriter and he began to take interest in the civil rights movement. "Overtime he penned a lot of love songs, a lot of party songs, but he also began writing songs that were considered inspirational to the civil rights movement," says Todd. Martin Luther King would have his congregation sing songs like "People Get Ready" before a march. Todd says his father "was very observant and very sensitive to what was going in society," so he would often write about his experiences.
His commercial success came in the early '70s when he released his first solo album. Curtis felt he could write and perform edgier songs to reflect the shift in the civil rights movement, with the Black Panthers and Black Power movement. His music became funkier with more bass and percussion. Todd admits, "he would sleep with his guitar very close by and a tape recorder. And sometimes he'd wake up in the middle of the night and have something in his head and he'd run to another room and lay it down and record it so he wouldn't forget it."
Todd says that his father never missed a beat even after becoming a quadriplegic. Curtis was struck by a falling stage light at public concert in Brooklyn, New York in August 1990. "Amazingly he was still able to record another album in that state, which is pretty much remarkable," says Todd, considering the physical challenges Curtis faced. But Todd admits, "to come from where he came from you have to have a lot of inner strength and drive."