30 Years Ago: Curtis Mayfield Paralyzed During an Outdoor Concert
Curtis Mayfield was crafting a comeback. He'd just released the second of two 1990 albums before taking the stage for an outdoor performance on Aug. 13 at Wingate Field in Brooklyn.
New York state Sen. Martin Markowitz sponsored concerts like this every year, in a show of appreciation for his constituents. As many as 10,000 people had already made their way toward the stage. So Markowitz was reluctant to cancel, even as storm clouds loomed. Instead, he decided to move up the headliner's performance, in the hopes that Mayfield could squeeze in a few songs before the skies opened up.
A set by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes was cut short, as Markowitz took the stage to introduce Mayfield. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "we've decided that we're going to bring up Curtis Mayfield. I'm thrilled ... "
At that moment, just as Markowitz said "I'm thrilled," a huge gust of wind blew through the event space. Giant speakers began to teeter, as rows of spectators scattered. Markowitz attempted to keep going: "Ladies and gentlemen, Curtis Mayfield."
That's when a second blast of air, perhaps as high was 54 mph according to UPI, shook loose a huge metal rig above them. "As Mayfield was ready to come onstage," Markowitz told UPI, "an overwhelming wind hit us and blew the speakers off the stage and the lighting trusses down."
Stage lights came loose and began falling from above. One of them struck Mayfield in the back of the neck and he crumpled, as Markowitz dove to the floor. At least six others were injured that day, including a 12-year-old girl, police told The New York Times.
Bandmate Lee Goodness' kit ended up saving Mayfield's life, as the tangled truss came to rest on a bass drum. But Mayfield couldn't move. He lay waiting for the ambulance, unable to use his arms or legs. Just then, the rain finally began falling in torrents.
There was hope, at least at first, that Mayfield might eventually recover. His son Todd attributed the accident to "gross negligence. It so tragic. I still can't believe this has happened,” the younger Mayfield told the Los Angeles Times a day later. "We are at a loss for words. Right now, he is paralyzed from the neck down, but we're hoping that when the swelling goes down he'll be able to regain some movement in his body."
Doctors at Kings County Medical Center later informed Mayfield that he'd suffered breaks in the third, fourth and fifth vertebrae in his neck. They confirmed that Mayfield wouldn't be able to walk, much less play guitar.
The composer of classic songs like "People Get Ready" and "Superfly" was just 48 years old.
Watch Curtis Mayfield's Comeback Video for 'New World Order'
A long road to any kind of meaningful recovery was still ahead. Mayfield battled atrophy, diabetes, serial urinary-tract infections and an agonizing syndrome called "phantom hands," all while his feet curved downward from lack of use. His family converted a downstairs library into a new bedroom, just before their home caught fire. Water from the firemen's hoses destroyed a priceless collection of songs stored in the basement. Todd Mayfield worked tirelessly to salvage what he could.
"I think overall I'm dealing with it pretty good," his father said back then, "but you can't help but wake up every once in a while with a tear in your eye."
Slowly but surely, Mayfield began to to re-emerge. His old band, the Impressions, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1991. An all-star album titled All Men Are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield followed in 1994, with updates of classic Mayfield songs by Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Phil Collins, the Isley Brothers, Elton John and Whitney Houston, among others.
He also earned a Grammy Legend Award in 1994, making a surprise appearance on stage to join the chorus of the Impressions' 1964 favorite "Amen." A Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award followed in 1995, then a new studio project. New World Order marked a comeback as unexpected as it was complete: The 1996 Top 25 R&B smash earned three Grammy nominations, including Best R&B Album.
In a sign of how difficult things remained, however, a breathless Mayfield had to lay down in the studio in order to record his vocal tracks. He then lost a leg to diabetes-related amputation in 1998, and was too ill to attend his solo induction ceremony into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. He died the day after Christmas the same year, after spending a decade as a quadriplegic.
Curtis Mayfield never sang in front of an audience again.