Saturday, December 26, 2009

Remembering Curtis Mayfield on the 10th Anniversary of his Death

curtis mayfield 35.jpgUnlike the deaths of musical icons like Elvis Presley, John Lennon or Michael Jackson, there was not much fanfare when soul brother Curtis Mayfield died—ten years ago on December 26, 1999 —at the North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell, Georgia. At the age of fifty-seven, after more than four decades of songwriting, production and performance, the man whose friends nicknamed “the gentle genius” was gone.

Outside of old soul radio stations, not many seemed to care that the Mayfield was gone. Where were the distraught fans clutching photos of the bespectacled brown-skinned man while candles blew in the winter wind? Where were the urban troubadours strumming songs like “People Get Ready” or “Choice of Colors” on acoustic guitar? Where were the VH1 specials featuring neo-soulsters Lenny Kravitz, D’Angelo, John Legend, Joss Stone, Jill Scott and Maxwell talking how Mayfield’s musical magic and angelic voice had inspired their own creative spirits?

While Mayfield’s death and subsequent cremation a few days later became nothing more than a footnote in the national consciousness, I sat on the couch in my mom’s Baltimore living room and shed a few tears for the fallen artist. As memories of Mayfield rushed to my head, I was transported back to the Harlem hood of my youth where I first bought the Super Fly soundtrack album at Mr. Freddy’s Soul Shack in 1972, when I was nine.

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bill Withers
Contrary to popular belief, Singer/songwriter Bill Withers is not dead. So take heart, fans who never stopped bumping his laidback 70s soul classics “Ain’t No Sunshine” and “Lean On Me”—the man is still alive and writing music. “Jesse Jackson recently called me to find out if I was still alive,” Withers told a reporter in 2006. “He said his wife was walking around the house upset because she heard that I had died. We get a lot of those calls from foreign countries and everything. I’m used to it by now.”

In their lovingly enlightening documentary Still Bill, filmmakers Damani Baker and Alex Vlack have constructed a brilliant portrait of a musician who’s currently more in tune with his family than with show business and the endless demands of stardom. As Withers admits candidly, “The fame game was kicking my ass.”

Like many of us who grew up in the 1970s, Living Colour vocalist Corey Glover, who performed a riveting version of Withers’ jealous guy anthem “Who is He (And What is He to You?)” at a tribute concert in Brooklyn last year, was raised under the spell of Bill.

“When I was a kid, we played that tape in my fathers Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme,” remembers Glover, whose performance was captured in the documentary. “Those are some of my earliest memories of Bill Withers. Driving with my family to cookouts and picnics while everyone sang along to ‘Lean on Me’. His music is literally therapeutic for him and us. To me, he is what Bob Dylan wants to be.”

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