Keep on Keeping On: Marv Heiman on The Continued Legacy of Curtis Mayfield | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Tuesday, August 16th, 2022  

Keep on Keeping On: Marv Heiman on The Continued Legacy of Curtis Mayfield

The Former Curtom Records Executive and Also Mayfield’s Manager Reflects Upon the Life and Career of the Cultural Icon on the 50th Anniversary of Super Fly, Originally Released on July 11, 1972

Jul 11, 2022
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Heiman’s Early Years

“My father was a bandleader in Chicago. He was brought [there] in the ’20s by Al Capone,” former Curtom Records executive Marv Heiman reflects upon his Midwestern roots. “My dad played the speakeasies for the Capones.”

A Chicago native, Heiman, 76, began his own career as a working musician in his teens, eventually earning a degree in Business from Roosevelt University and studying percussion at DePaul. During his freshman year, under the name Marv Stuart, he began booking local rock groups into dance halls along Chicago’s fabled Rush Street, as well as at nearby colleges such as Northwestern, University of Illinois, and University of Wisconsin. Heiman’s circle quickly expanded until he found himself at the center of his city’s bustling music scene.

“I had a group called the New Colony Six that later got a record deal somewhere and made two hits. Of course, they left my connection, ‘cause they weren’t working anymore for $200, $250 a night for three or four hours,” Heiman recalls the successes of his early clientele. “I had a group called The Buckinghams who later had a hit with ‘Kind of a Drag.’ I started to book another group called The Big Thing that later changed their name and went with [producer] Jimmy Guercio—that group became [Grammy-winning rock outfit] Chicago.”

Baby Huey & the Babysitters

Despite Heiman’s brushes with greatness, his most remarkable client up to that point arrived in the form of a young 400-pound soul-singing powerhouse from Richmond, Indiana. “All during that time,” he confirms, “I had the number one hottest college band: Baby Huey & the Babysitters.”

The behemoth musical force of James “Baby Huey” Ramey swept Chicago in the mid-’60s, the larger-than-life singer quickly amassing a devoted following with his radical synthesis of soul, funk, and psychedelic rock. On and off Rush Street, as well as on numerous college campuses, Heiman booked Ramey and his band across the Midwest until national interest at last caught up in the form of a phone call from the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles.

“They wanted to book him for two weeks, and after the first week, they called me,” Heiman recalls. “They wanted to keep him for six weeks. The lines were three, four blocks long every night.”

Building on the group’s popularity, Heiman managed to book Baby Huey & the Babysitters on the Merv Griffin, Steve Allen, and Della [Reese] shows—a rare feat for a group yet to produce a record. In 1969, however, after an eight-week stint at Studio 54, Ramey gave Heiman an ultimatum: Either Heiman would secure the band a record deal, or Ramey was taking his group to New York City in search of greener pastures. Heiman agreed to Ramey’s conditions, asking for names of Chicago-based record companies in which the singer was interested. Ramey immediately named Curtis Mayfield and his newfound label Curtom.

Momentarily dumbstruck, Heiman struggled to recognize the name of the versatile guitar prodigy from Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, who had since gone on to achieve stardom with his influential R&B group The Impressions. The band had risen to prominence several years prior as musical architects of the civil rights movement, providing a significant portion of its national soundtrack with a number of revered Top 40 hits. “Other than Baby Huey & the Babysitters,” Heiman confesses, “I was booking all-white rock groups.”

“Do you know the song ‘People Get Ready’ that I do?” Ramey had asked. “‘Gypsy Woman?’ ‘It’s All Right?’—that’s all Curtis. He wrote and produced them with The Impressions.”

Heiman recognized the group’s name, remarking to Ramey, “Now I know The Impressions—they’ve had a ton of number one records.”

Meeting Mayfield and Subsequent Arrangements

After contacting Curtom, Heiman was introduced to singer/songwriter Donny Hathaway, then working in the company’s A&R department. Hathaway agreed to meet Heiman at Thumbs Up, a favorite Rush Street haunt of Baby Huey & the Babysitters, in order to catch the group’s Friday night set. “It was a dump,” Heiman recalls of the venue. “But you had lines two, three blocks long and we’d draw in 400 people every night.” After watching the band’s performance in the crowded club, Hathaway turned to Heiman, remarking, “They’re phenomenal. I want to sign them.”

The following night, Mayfield accompanied Hathaway to Thumbs Up to watch Baby Huey & the Babysitters perform. “That’s the first time I met Curtis,” Heiman states, an aching sense of nostalgia creeping into his voice, before continuing, “He wanted Baby Huey, not the band. [Mayfield] said, ‘He’s it. He’s the artist. This kid could be a superstar.’ ”

On Monday, Heiman arrived at Curtom’s offices to negotiate a deal with Mayfield, who made a peculiar comment during their meeting. “‘We’ve had seven Top Five records and The Impressions have never done any of those shows,” Mayfield referred to Baby Huey & the Babysitters’ appearances on Griffin, Allen, and Reese. Heiman phoned some television executives, and was told that no program had been contacted on The Impressions’ behalf by a manager or booking agent, but that each was interested in having the group appear. “The Impressions got all three shows,” Heiman states. “Curtis says to me, ‘I want you to come out there with us. I’ll cover all your expenses. I’d like you to be there.’”

Shortly after negotiating Ramey’s deal with Mayfield, Heiman received a call from Ike Turner in Los Angeles. Turner, who had heard about Baby Huey & the Babysitters, was interested in meeting Ramey and the group. Ramey agreed to fly to California, where the group waited in the studio while he was introduced to Tina Turner and her band. Eventually, Turner sat down with Heiman.

“As we started to talk, Ike Turner says, ‘Are you negotiating with anybody else?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ ‘Who?’ ‘Curtis Mayfield, Curtom Records.’ He left the room and he never came back. I guess, in hindsight, he was pissed that I didn’t let him know that we were in negotiations. We hadn’t signed anything.”

The following week, Heiman visited Curtom with Ramey, who signed the contract and began recording his debut album with Mayfield. Unfortunately, Ramey’s worsening struggle with substance abuse became a frequent obstacle in the record’s progression, and he was eventually placed into an experimental rehabilitation program at the UW Health University Hospital in Madison, Wisconsin. Through their mutual desire to ensure Ramey’s success, Mayfield and Heiman formed a bond, and were soon exploring further professional opportunities with one another.

“During the time [Mayfield and Ramey] were doing the album, Curtis says to me, ‘I want you to manage The Impressions.’ On a handshake, we agreed on the commission. He says, ‘I don’t wanna sign anything, I wanna see how this goes.’” Prompted by Mayfield’s “outstanding” professional reputation and prolific output, Heiman agreed to these terms.

While on the road with Mayfield and The Impressions, Heiman found himself witnessing up close the reality of racism in America, leaving him both disheartened and with a clearer perspective: “Dick Clark used to have a thing called Caravan of Stars, where he’d put various acts together and they’d tour on buses. One bus would be for the musicians, one bus would be for the sound and lighting, and one bus would be for the artist. Curtis said, ‘I want you to come with us.’ It was The Impressions, Martha Reeves, The Four Tops, and another Motown act, and they’re all playing guitars and singing and playing poker…We get to Atlanta, Georgia,” Heiman continues, “and they say, ‘Marv, you’ve got to get out here and go to this hotel.’ I got to their rehearsal the following afternoon and they’ve got the bathrooms [marked] COLORED ONLY. And I’d never seen that. That was my introduction to what was going on in the late-’60s/early-’70s in the South.”

Perhaps Mayfield sensed Heiman’s unease at the sight, because shortly thereafter, the artist employed his notorious penchant for pranks in a stunt that has remained with Heiman ever since: “I was taking the three biggest Black program directors from New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to dinner in Atlanta, ‘cause the Black Music Convention was there,” Heiman recalls. “So, I said, ‘Are you gonna go, too, Curtis?’ He said, ‘No, I can’t, but I’ve got a place you should take them.’ He says, ‘It’s about 50 miles outside of Atlanta.’ They come out of the hotel, and the four of us go. We got to the place and the Black waitresses were all dressed as Aunt Jemima,” Heiman describes the scene. “They had a 14 year-old boy with his arms through [a pillory]...he sang the menu. These guys were so pissed and I don’t blame them. One of them said, ‘That’s like us taking you to a Nazi Germany-themed restaurant. We’re leaving.’ I get a hold of Curtis when I get back to the hotel. I said, ‘You really fucked us up in these three major markets.’ He starts laughing. He thought it was the funniest thing. He says, “I’ll be right over. I’ll straighten those three guys out.’ Which he did, but do you know how embarrassing that was?”

As shocking a stunt as Mayfield may have pulled, one suspects that the famously socially conscious artist had his new friend’s best interest in mind. Perhaps Mayfield was merely attempting to expose Heiman to the utter ugliness of the country’s race relations and to encourage him to acknowledge the privilege of insulation from these realities he had enjoyed. Needless to say, Mayfield’s efforts proved effective.

Joining Curtom

Founded in 1968 and distributed at the time by Buddha Records and the two executives who ran its promotion and business side (one of whom was Neil Bogart, future founder of Casablanca Records), Curtom had been the brainchild of Mayfield and manager Eddie Thomas, who handled marketing and promotion. Among the first Black-owned record labels, Curtom was ripe for expansion by the time Heiman arrived the following year.

“I was managing The Impressions for about four months,” Heiman states, “and Curtis says, ‘I would like for you to come out to Curtom.’” Before introducing Heiman to Thomas, Mayfield made him an offer he could not refuse: “Curtis says to me before I meet Eddie, ‘Marv, I want you to run the business end of Curtom. I’m gonna give you 10% ownership in the company. Eddie Thomas will do the marketing and promotion, and I’ll do the creative.’” After introductions, however, tensions arose between Thomas and Heiman, as Thomas disapproved of the idea of Heiman receiving 10% of the record company and music publishing share.

“Eddie decides to quit right then and there,” Heiman remarks. “He says, ‘I’ll sell my entire 40% of the record company and the publishing for $25,000.’” Taking Heiman aside, Mayfield asked whether Heiman could provide the money. Considering the welfare of his wife Adrienne and young child, Heiman offered what he could—$15,000. Mayfield replied, “‘I’ll give you 25 grand, no interest. You’ll pay me back over a period of time.’ We did the deal, Eddie left,” Heiman finishes. “I now owned 40% of the record company and the music publishing. I did not know anything about either business.”

Sensing Heiman’s uncertainty, Mayfield put him into contact with his attorney Lou Harris, who instructed Heiman to read Billboard’s The Business of Music, form some questions, and meet him in New York, where Harris promised to spend a day addressing them. A week later, Heiman made the trip.

“I met with Lou. Asked him all kinds of questions and got answers. Some were probably stupid questions, some were very, very good.”

Curtis

During this period, Mayfield began working on his solo debut, which was eventually released as Curtis in September 1970. A far more experimental outing than his previous work with The Impressions, the album continued Mayfield’s lyrical emphasis on social consciousness, while expanding into sonic realms previously unexplored, most notably complex funk and dalliances with psychedelia.

Boasting the now-iconic single “Move On Up,” which initially failed to chart upon its release before an edited single version peaked at #12 on the UK Singles chart the following year, Curtis arrived as both a warning (“(Don’t Worry) If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go”) and revelation (“Miss Black America,” “Wild and Free”).

As Mayfield sang his truths in his signature high tenor, Curtis peaked at #1 on the US R&B chart and #19 on the Pop chart, later receiving the Prix Otis Redding for Best R&B Album from the French Academy of Jazz in 1972. Curtis has since been hailed as a classic, a key entry in Mayfield’s extensive catalog.

“That was the time of the solo artist, whether it was Bob Dylan or Diana Ross—who had left The Supremes—and others,” Heiman explains. “I said, ‘You know what, we could have two major artists. Let’s find a replacement for you in The Impressions and then we’ve got you as a solo artist.’”

Mayfield would officially leave The Impressions the following year, replaced within the group by Leroy Hutson, once a member of The Mayfield Singers alongside Donny Hathaway while the two were students at Howard University.

Mayfield would go on to release a number of solo records over the following several years, each equipped with its own evolving sound, placing him among the pioneers of an expanding genre with a growing audience whose sociopolitical concerns were continually deepening.

With the release of The Impressions’ groundbreaking 1964 hit “Keep On Pushing,” the following year’s “People Get Ready” (a top selection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, who frequently played the song at his marches), and 1968’s “We’re a Winner,” Mayfield received recognition from numerous cultural luminaries, and became an iconic figure of the civil rights movement. As his partner, Heiman frequently found himself introduced to any number of stars.

“I’m using Curtis’ old house in Atlanta,” Heiman recalls an incident from October 1970. “He and I are talking, and training for a fight in Atlanta was Muhammad Ali.” Heiman continues, “[Ali] and a bunch of his people come right up into Curtis’s driveway, the whole thing. There’s a [video] on Google where Curtis is pretending to fight with Muhammad Ali. I’m laughing my ass off. Curtis introduced me. So, Muhammad Ali says, ‘Curtis, I want you to sing ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the fight.’ I can’t remember who he fought. It was a white guy [Jerry Quarry]. He killed ‘em. So anyway, Curtis goes up between the ropes and he rips his left pants in the rear end. And he says, ‘Thank god that wasn’t on TV.’ He comes out and I said, ‘Well, it was a little tight.’ And he says, ‘Kiss my ass!’ ”

Two days after the fight in Atlanta, Mayfield and Heiman were delivered the news of James Ramey’s fatal, drug-induced heart attack at Chicago’s Roberts Motel. Heiman managed to convince a reluctant Mayfield to keep the recordings of the unfinished album, which would eventually be released on Curtom the following February as The Baby Huey Story — The Living Legend. The album remains one of the finest of its genre. In the wake of the 26 year-old singer’s untimely demise, Mayfield and Heiman said their goodbyes and strode together into a new decade.

Super Fly

“This was now ’71,” recounts Heiman, “and I received a script in the mail from Neil Bogart called Super Fly. I read it. I flipped. I got it over to Curtis’ place. He read it. Flipped. He says, ‘I definitely want to do it.’ So I called Neil Bogart and I said, ‘We definitely want it—but we want it on Curtom Records and we want to own the master.’ Because the one thing Curtis had negotiated through the years was Curtom owned their own masters, which was very rare.”

Bogart then introduced Heiman to Sig Shore, the film’s producer. Shore informed Heiman that $300,000 was needed to make the film, but only $160,000 had been available. Heiman managed to raise the remaining $140,000, becoming executive producer. Heiman and Shore arranged a meeting with Warner Brothers, screening Super Fly with company president Frank Wells in attendance.

“They saw the film and [Wells] turns to me and says, ‘I want the deal. What do you guys want?’” Heiman asked for one million dollars up front, to which Wells agreed, before noting that Warner Brothers Pictures wanted the soundtrack released on either Atlantic or Warner Brothers, with publishing rights to be owned by Warner Chappell. “The answer to that was ‘no,’” Heiman adamantly states, having told Wells, “It goes on Curtom, distributed by Buddha, and we own the publishing.” Heiman’s proposal was initially a no-go for Wells. “Sig and I got up and I said, ‘We have a meeting with 20th Century Fox in an hour and a half,’” recounts Heiman. “[Wells] stops me and says, ‘Alright, you’ve got the deal.’”

Released on August 4, 1972, Super Fly was not only a controversial hit within the burgeoning Blaxploitation genre, but also with mainstream audiences across the country. On the film’s opening night, Neil Bogart and company invited “all of the pimps” who “brought their women in limousines.” The event was a spectacle, enthusiastically received by those in attendance.

“When the movie was shown, immediately in the theater they all stood up and were applauding and screaming. The very next day, the movie theater was packed, several blocks long of people coming to see it. The album was selling 100,000 copies a week. It was the largest seller of 8-track tapes. It sold a million 8-track tapes alone. We had two number one singles, ‘Super Fly’ and ‘Freddie’s Dead.’ The movie grossed about 22 to 25 million dollars. Everywhere in the major cities, the lines were unbelievable. In that situation, Curtis had also done it as a solo artist.”

In many ways, it has been observed, the message of Mayfield’s soundtrack runs counter to much of what is depicted in the film. While Super Fly the film received criticism for its perceived ethnic stereotyping and glorification of gang life, Super Fly the album rose to prominence as a seminal work of profound social commentary, a sensitive yet bold statement in the face of America’s overwhelming drug epidemic and rising poverty rate against an expanding backdrop of urban decay and political neglect. Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly remains a quintessential sociopolitical soul album, a parent to a long line of similar creative cries for justice to come.

“Freddie’s Dead” received a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song, “Junkie Chase” received one nomination for Best R&B Instrumental Performance, and Super Fly received a nomination for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or TV Special. Such promise in the air, Curtis Mayfield was invited to perform at the 1973 Grammy Awards.

“We’re at rehearsal,” recalls Heiman. “Curtis and I are talking and I see four guys coming over. I said, ‘Curtis, you’re not gonna believe this—it’s The Beatles.’ They come over: ‘Mr. Mayfield…” He says, ‘No, call me Curtis.’ He introduced me; we all shook hands. McCartney, or was it Lennon, I can’t remember, was saying, ‘You have no idea how your music in the ’60s influenced our music that came out.’ They said, ‘This is an honor like you won’t believe.’ I gave them my business card. They sent me a signed picture of them on the Ed Sullivan Show, which I still have in my office. Each one personally signed it.”

And yet a certain regret lingers in Heiman’s voice: “It was the most that an artist had been nominated for Grammys at that time,” before adding, “[Mayfield] lost the single ‘Freddie’s Dead’ to ‘Me and Mrs. Jones,’ which was a one-time hit. He lost the soundtrack album, which sold millions, to an album that did 100,000, called The Godfather.”

In Mayfield’s hotel room, Heiman found his partner distraught. “He was going on 90 out of 115 dates at white colleges with Super Fly all across the country. I come up there and he says to me, ‘Cancel my tour.’ I said, ‘What? Curtis, it starts in four days. You can’t do that, you’re gonna get sued.’ He said, ‘I’ll get doctors’ letters and everything else.’ I said, ‘Curtis, this is a terrible mistake.’ Well, that’s what he did. Canceled the tour. And there were problems.”

Despite Mayfield’s occasional lows, Heiman is swift to emphasize the good times shared with him, returning to Mayfield’s fondness for practical jokes.

“I had an accountants’ and lawyers’ meeting with Curtom to go over the year-end and the sales and get the financial statements so we could see them. So, [Mayfield] had told me that he had gotten [popular 1972-released pornographic film] Deep Throat, the video, through a connection. I said, ‘Send it over, I’m gonna tell them it’s a Curtis Mayfield promotion and I’ll put it on.’” As the group prepared to leave, Heiman insisted they remain. “I put it in…and it’s a cartoon. They’re looking at me like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ I called Curtis and said, ‘You shithead, you sent me a cartoon!’” Generously, Mayfield notified him that the proper tape was already on its way over. “They stayed for the whole goddamn movie,” Heiman concludes.

Claudine, Sweet Exorcist, Signing to Warner, Let’s Do It Again, Sparkle, Linda Clifford

The following year, Heiman was contacted by 20th Century Fox: “We’re doing a movie called Claudine, starring Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones. We want Curtis to do the music.”

Once again, Heiman insisted upon the same conditions before agreeing. Recorded and produced at Curtom with Gladys Knight & the Pips, Claudine sold one million copies following its release in March 1974, with hit single “On and On” receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song. During this period, Mayfield had also released several more solo albums, most notably the introspective Sweet Exorcist, his most criminally underrated work.

“Our contract was then coming up at the end of 1974,” Heiman says, before noting the many knocks at his door. “Atlantic, Columbia, Warner Brothers, and MCA were all calling me, and I was taking meetings.”

Citing his positive working relationship with Warner Brothers president Mo Ostin and executive Joe Smith, as well as the fact that Neil Bogart had recently departed Buddha to form Casablanca, which was to be distributed by Warner Brothers, Heiman signed with Warner under the usual conditions that he and Mayfield maintain ownership of the publishing and their masters, as well as that Bogart and Casablanca promote Mayfield’s music on radio. Unfortunately, despite Heiman’s agreement, Bogart soon left Warner Brothers to operate Casablanca independently.

Four months later, Ostin contacted Heiman with another soundtrack opportunity for Mayfield: “It’s called Let’s Do It Again,” he informed Heiman. “It’s Bill Cosby, Sidney Poitier, and J.J. Walker.” After reading the script, Mayfield readily agreed to provide a soundtrack, insisting it be recorded with The Staple Singers. “[At the time] we had the biggest single sales in the history of Warner Brothers with ‘Let’s Do It Again’ by The Staple Singers from the movie.”

The following year, Mayfield wrote and produced the soundtrack to Sparkle, performed by Aretha Franklin in lieu of the film’s main actresses, per Mayfield’s request. Despite the album’s success, the changing fashion of the decade began to guide popular music into territories unfamiliar to Mayfield. “Curtis was starting not to have the successes, because disco dance music was taking off and he wasn’t a disco dance artist, that just wasn’t his music.”

Soon after, inspiration found Heiman at the Playboy Club in Chicago, where he heard Linda Clifford perform.

“I had [Clifford] come to Curtom the very next day. I signed her to the record company and to management. We had a deal for her with Paramount, we released an album…it didn’t do very well. I brought in [prominent Motown arranger] Gil Askey for the next album. Gil produced the album, which included ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now.’ The album was a smash on Curtom/Warner. [Clifford] was nominated for the American Music Awards’ Best New Female Artist. She did not win, but the record took off. They thought that she would be the successor, at that time, to Donna Summer.”

Signing with RSO

After deciding not to renew his contract with Warner Brothers, Mayfield and Heiman signed with RSO Records, despite Mo Ostin’s warning against working with founder Robert Stigwood. “They were the hottest record company in the world,” Heiman says of RSO, which had signed such popular artists as Bee Gees, Andy Gibb, and Eric Clapton. “I met with them. They offered me everything I wanted. There were no negotiations,” Heiman explains, before adding, “A year and a half into the deal, Stigwood decides to close the company.”

When confronted by Heiman regarding money owed, Stigwood merely shrugged: “Uh, well, sue me.”

“I can do better’n that,” Heiman replied.

The following day, Heiman arranged for Jesse Jackson and members of Operation PUSH to picket RSO offices. “In addition, I hired the top litigating entertainment attorney,” he adds. “He had three other lawsuits against RSO and won all of ‘em.” After Heiman called off the pickets, Stigwood sat down and signed a check, paying off the entire contract.

Relocation to Atlanta

Soon after, Mayfield made the decision to relocate permanently to Atlanta from Chicago. “[Mayfield] said, ‘I still want you to manage me,’” Heiman states. “‘But can you make separate deals for the artists?’ I got Linda Clifford with Capitol, which didn’t go well because she wanted to change her style with what her husband wanted. Curtis went with Casablanca, but Neil Bogart died about five months later, so Casablanca was no more.”

In Atlanta, Mayfield continued to release new music, though 1982’s Honesty and 1985’s We Come in Peace with a Message of Love failed to receive the attention or accolades of the work he had been releasing a decade prior. In 1983, Mayfield reunited with The Impressions for the group’s well-received Silver Anniversary Tour. Mayfield and Heiman still spoke regularly, with the latter often traveling to Georgia in order to discuss business opportunities.

Throughout the ’80s, Mayfield acquainted himself with Atlanta’s unique creative culture, becoming a prominent figure of the local music scene. Despite the current lull in his recording career, Mayfield’s image remained ever relevant as the struggle for social justice raged on. “If anything, I think much of his music and lyrics were ahead of their time,” reflects Heiman. “He was a preacher. His grandmother, whom he loved, was a preacher. I honestly believe that Curtis’ music was preaching what the world was about.”

Wingate Field

In July 1990, Mayfield released Take It to the Streets, his first studio album in five years. That August brought an invitation for Mayfield to perform an outdoor concert at Brooklyn’s Wingate Field, with The Temptations as his opening act. It was during this performance on August 13, 1990, that the 48 year-old Mayfield’s life would be altered permanently.

“That night, it started to rain,” Heiman’s voice softens. “They asked Curtis to go on, because they didn’t want to refund the money. They cut The Temptations short and the band got out there and started to play ‘Super Fly.’ He was introduced. He walked out onstage and the people were screaming. Curtis plugged his guitar chord into the amplifier. A 60 mile an hour wind hit the stage. The ceiling lights and sound system fell on top of him. He was an instant quadriplegic.”

Of the 10,000 in attendance, two doctors, both in the front row, managed to perform an emergency tracheotomy on Mayfield. Heiman, on vacation in Europe with Adrienne, received a phone call from his son telling him, “They don’t know if Curtis is going to live. I called the hospital, and they would not give me any information,” Heiman says. “It was all over the news, including in Europe, where we were.”

Mayfield was flown to an Atlanta hospital, where Heiman visited him shortly thereafter. “A telegram came,” Heiman recalls. “They brought it to [Mayfield’s] room. He says, ‘Would you open it?’ I open it up and it says ‘Curtis and The Impressions are going to be put into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.’ He started to get emotional. I said, ‘Give me a minute.’ I went out of his room and lost it completely.”

Aftermath

Mayfield, along with The Impressions, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame the following year. He would receive a second induction as a solo artist eight years later in 1999.

During this time, Mayfield expressed his apprehension to Heiman, telling his longtime manager and business partner, “‘I’m nervous about the money because I can’t tour anymore. I don’t know if I could ever write another song because I can’t play my guitar.’” Heiman agreed to handle all affairs whenever possible, scheduling a meeting with BMI president Frances W. Preston in New York, who granted Mayfield $6,000 a month perpetuity. “From that day until he died, he was getting $6,000 a month from BMI.”

Heimen also negotiated deals with Warner Chappell and Mo Ostin to produce more funding for Mayfield. As a result, Heiman was placed in charge of Mayfield’s masters, contracts, negotiations, and money. “At that point in time, hip-hop and rap started to take off. These artists, the major ones, were using drums from one of [Mayfield’s] records, a horn section, guitar…it was unbelievable. The money was pouring in.”

Indeed, over the following decade, major artists such as A Tribe Called Quest, The Notorious B.I.G., Cypress Hill, Snoop Dogg, Beastie Boys, Ice Cube, OutKast, and Eminem would all sample Mayfield’s solo work, his work with The Impressions, or tracks on which he held a production credit. Curtis Mayfield became relevant to an entirely new generation of listeners.

In 1994, Mayfield was awarded a Grammy Legend Award. “I arranged MedVac to fly him to the show,” says Heiman. “Jerry Butler, The Impressions, and I wheeled him out on stage to receive the award. I had to put a band together to do a medley of his songs before I wheeled him out…nobody turned me down.” Popular artists such as Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, and Eric Clapton stepped in to perform a live medley of Mayfield’s songs in celebration.

Following Mayfield’s Grammy win, Mo Ostin informed Heiman that he wanted to record a tribute album to Mayfield. Heiman traveled to Burbank to meet with him. During their meeting, Ostin informed Heiman, “I’m giving you the highest royalty we’ve ever paid anybody, it’s the royalty we pay Madonna. I’m giving you 21%. I’m giving you $750,000 dollars. You’ll have to pay for the recording sessions and whatever isn’t spent, give it to Curtis.”

Once again, Heiman was joined by Franklin, Wonder, Clapton, and Springsteen, as well as Gladys Knight, BB King, Steve Winwood, Elton John, Phil Collins, Lenny Kravitz, and The Isley Brothers, among others.

“It was a who’s who,” as Heiman puts it, adding, “and not one of them said, ‘Send me a list of his songs.’ Stevie Wonder said, ‘I’m doing ‘Amen’...Not one artist sent me a bill for the recording sessions, they all said to me, ‘We’ll pay for it. Give it to Curtis.’”

Released in February 1994, A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield served as a warm precursor to Mayfield’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, which he was to receive the following year. “Only three or four artists had ever received both awards,” Heiman notes.

Despite the line-up on his tribute album, Mayfield’s famous fans were not limited to the entertainment industry. “Bill Clinton was a big Curtis Mayfield fan,” says Heiman. “He played saxophone on the Tonight Show and stuff…he would play a Curtis song.” During Clinton’s first presidential campaign, while attending a benefit with Adrienne, Heiman spoke with Clinton’s office assistant, who informed him that Clinton was a huge Impressions and Curtis Mayfield fan. “So when he won the White House, I put together a package of CDs and albums of The Impressions and Curtis Mayfield, and sent it there. I have a personal letter from him thanking me and [saying] how much it meant to him.”

After Mayfield was presented with his Lifetime Achievement Award, Heiman was informed by Mo Ostin that Warner Brothers was contemplating a new Curtis Mayfield solo album, about which Heiman hesitated, telling Ostin he wasn’t sure whether or not Mayfield could do it. “If he can, I’m gonna give you $750,000,” Ostin assured Heiman. “If he can’t or he doesn’t like what he does, we’ll eat it and won’t release it.”

“I convinced Curtis to hire a pianist,” Heiman tells of Mayfield’s preparation for the album. “He came over every day in Atlanta and [Mayfield] would hum melodies that the guy would write down. Then I hired a full-time assistant to dictate his lyrics.”

Going into the studio, Mayfield’s vocal cords were not functioning, until he was laid flat upon his back, at which point “he could sing.” Released in September 1996, New World Order served as Mayfield’s comeback, as well as his final album. Securing three Grammy nominations, the album represented to critics Mayfield’s return to form after more than two decades.

“It was unbelievable,” Heiman marvels. “Curtis was in People magazine, Us Weekly, Newsweek. Rolling Stone said it was one of the greatest albums they’d ever listened to. It sold good, not great, but it sold good—a couple hundred thousand copies.” More importantly, the new album “kept Curtis going,” with the artist doing 100 phone interviews that year.

By 1999, Mayfield had undergone a leg amputation due to diabetes and his health had begun to worsen, Heiman commenting on his old friend’s strength, “I never saw him break down.”

Speaking fondly of Mayfield, three years his senior, Heiman recalls, “He used to say to me, ‘Young man,’ and then he would say, ‘I love you, and I’ll see you next time.’”

That December, Heiman flew to Atlanta once more: “I was there before Christmas, and he said something I didn’t grasp. This time, he said ‘Marv, I love you.’ He didn’t say anything else.” Curtis Mayfield died on December 26, 1999, as a result of complications of type 2 diabetes. He was 57 years old. “It was like he had a premonition in his mind,” Heiman remarks.

Two months subsequent to Mayfield’s passing and during the 2000 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Heiman arranged for a tribute to Mayfield to be held at a local church, where 50 gospel singers sang alongside The Impressions, Erykah Badu, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire’s horn section, and Eric Clapton, who had insisted upon flying in from London.

“I cannot tell you how many artists were in the audience,” recalls Heiman. “Carole King to Earth, Wind & Fire. I mean, every record president that lived in L.A. was there. The place was packed. Carole King came up to me and she says, ‘There was only one Curtis Mayfield.’” Heiman went backstage to thank Stevie Wonder, who replied, “‘Thank me? Thank you, that you wanted me to do this for Curtis, who I’ve known for so many years.” One of many mourners, President Clinton sent Heiman a telegram offering his condolences.

“Back in Chicago,” Heiman continues, “I get a phone call from the Congress. It was [Representative] John Lewis. He asked me if I would fly to Washington D.C. I went to Congress, and the entire Black Congressional Caucus got on stage, and they brought me up to read a plaque to Congress. The plaque [stated] that Martin Luther King Jr. [was influenced by] and the entire civil rights movement was based upon the music of Curtis Mayfield. ‘We’re a Winner,’ ‘This Is My Country,’ ‘People Get Ready,’ ‘It’s All Right,’ a bunch of songs are mentioned. I have that plaque in my office in Chicago.”

Heiman closes with a testament to the bond shared between the two longtime companions: “I never had a management agreement, it was all done on handshake, for 30 years…I lost my good friend when he passed away.”

Afterlife

In the years since his death, the cultural relevance of Curtis Mayfield has remained indelible within the fabric of American popular culture, many friends and fans recalling his impact to this day, and Mayfield’s fellow artists still eager to acknowledge his influence.

“Curtis Mayfield was one of the biggest giants in the music industry, and Eugene Record learned how to play the guitar across the street from [him], and that led us to our sound for ‘Have You Seen Her,’” reflects Marshall Thompson of the Chi-Lites. “One of our singers lived right across the street from Curtis. He was in the Cabrini-Green projects, and that’s where we rehearsed every day [across the street from Cabrini-Green]. It was surprising, because Curtis and them got their hits before we even got ours, and to come out of rehearsals every day and see Curtis and them across the street, and then go on to the Regal Theater to see their show…that really knocked me out, just to come see him and talk to him a lot backstage. I seen their career just skyrocket…and the next thing you know, we skyrocketed. Great ideas from Curtis. He’s one of the guys responsible for what we did, because he put it out there and we copied it from him. Then people started copying it from us.”

“Curtis was self-taught on guitar. He was listed by Rolling Stone as one of the top guitarists [ranked at #34] in the history of music,” adds Heiman. “He wrote every song in all of the black keys on a piano. Nobody but Phil Upchurch could play his guitar, ‘cause it was tuned to all of the black keys on a piano. That’s the way he wrote all of his music.”

“What style! An official gift with words and with song,” marvels veteran trumpeter, poet, and former Babysitter, Turk Littles. “A lyricist from his heart [with] a controlled capability of his ‘falsetto’ to die for. Curtis was a hell of a writer and stayed true to his beliefs and choices. God, what an honor and a blessing to have been his friend, [as well as to have had] his acceptance of me as an artist of Curtom.”

“I first witnessed Curtis Mayfield live at a small club in New York’s Greenwich Village when he started to etch out his solo career. Then and throughout his creative lifetime, I was a fan,” says William E. Berry, Jr., New York-based writer, academic, activist, and publisher of acclaimed literary journal aaduna. “And with each album, he stretched his creativity and established his vocal and composing genius that many tried to imitate. I purchased every tribute album where his contemporaries offered their rendition of songs but there was only one Curtis, an influencer and pathfinder.”

“‘Pusherman’ may have the best bassline ever,” states singer/songwriter Jen Chapin, daughter of musician and activist Harry Chapin. “But then again, every part of that song is perfect—lyrics, conga, those ringing guitar chord stabs…everything.”

“Curtis Mayfield will always exist at the highest echelons of musical gods,” Berry concludes. “Where he is probably conducting master classes for other artists above the ‘hell below.’”

Notably, the boldest testament to Mayfield’s persevering legacy arrived in the form of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, who used “Move On Up” as their exit song during an appearance in August 2020. The President and Vice President also included The Impressions’ “We’re a Winner” and Mayfield’s aforementioned “Move On Up” on their official inauguration playlist in January 2021.

Currently in a state of transit, America has never been in greater need of minds and messages such as Mayfield’s. President Biden and Vice President Harris’ inclusion of two of Mayfield’s most enduring classics was a powerful gesture to those who value the music. There remains a promise of unity, first made by a young Mayfield all of those years ago. The story and song, if given a chance, may very well do their part in repairing a fractured nation. Reflecting upon the opening line of 1971’s “Keep on Keeping On,” one must consider the continued truth of Mayfield’s insistence: “Everybody gather round and listen to my song/I’ve only got one.”

www.curtismayfield.com

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