Winfred James Matthews believes he could have been a soul music superstar. He had all the right ingredients: a mellow voice, a smooth dancing style and the kind of piano music that could arouse an audience.

But within two hours on the afternoon of May 31, 1976, Matthews' bright ambitions dimmed.

Matthews, who lives in Laurel, and three friends were arrested in Anacostia for punching an off-duty D.C. police officer at a Gino's restaurant in what they said was self-defense. The four men say they were later beaten at the 7th District police station by officers wielding blackjacks.

By the end of the day, Matthews' legs were marked with lumps and dark bruises, and four of his music-making fingers were broken.

A D.C. Superior Court jury recently awarded $125,000 to Matthews and his three friends after they successfully sued the city government for acts of brutality by 7th District police officers.

Matthews, 26, who sustained the most serious injuries, was awarded $75,000. His brother, Robert, 28, who received two black eyes and several bruises from the police beatings, received $25,000. Ronald Steele, 25, was awarded $15,000 and Michael Lawrence, 23, received $10,000. Both of the latter sustained cuts and bruises in the incident.

Matthews recently said he will use part of the money to establish a trust fund for his 5-year old daughter, Sheree Nakia. He plans to spend about $5,000 to buy a baby grand piano.

"I've always promised to buy myself a nice piano," said Matthews, who now works as a vending machine repairman at the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt. "I plan to play for my own entertainment or when friends come around. As far as a career in music is concerned, I think I can forget it."

When his shattered fingers had healed, Matthews found that his playing speed on the piano had been cut in half. His stiff-jointed fingers could no longer stretch to play the soul and jazz harmonies that drew him to the keyboard.

Matthews was introduced to music as a 12-year-old boy in Alliance, Ohio, by a grandmother who gave him a toy organ. "I loved music, but I didn't know a thing about playing an organ," Mattews recalls. "But I spent a lot of hours banging on the keyboard until I finally got a sound that I liked."

A lot of other people liked the sounds Matthews made on the piano and organ keyboards. By the time he was 15, Matthews was a star vocalist, pianist and drummer with the "Belairs and the Steppers," a music troupe of singers and musicians that toured the major cities of Ohio as a band.

"By working with a lot of professional musicians, I got a chance to meet the members of successful groups like the Ohio Players and the OJays," Matthews said. "I was inspired by these guys who had turned their natural abilities into good careers.

"I felt that if they could make money with their talent, I could do the same thing," said Matthews, whose trademark was a pair of tan cowboy boots with spit-shined pointed toes.

Matthews came to Washington in June 1970 for what was supposed to be a two week visit with relatives. But after only a few days in the city, the 17-year-old decided to stay.

"I found Washington to be a very exciting city, compared to Alliance, which was kind of dull," Matthews said. "I decided that I wanted to develop a music career in Washington. I knew I had to do a lot of hard work on my music before I would be ready to make my first appearance because competition is so intense here."

Matthews said he enrolled at Potomac High School in Oxon Hill, where he graduated in 1971, and took a part-time job as a shoe salesman to earn the money to buy a $1,500 double-key-board organ.

After he graduated from high school, Matthews sponsored weekend disco dances for teen-agers in the recreation center of an Oxon Hill apartment complex to earn the money to pay for music courses he took at the University of Maryland and Prince George's Community College.

But additional financial burdens forced him in 1975 to "put my music career on the shelf," temporarily.

He took a full-time job as a credit manager trainee at a suburban furniture store.

"Things just got really tight," Matthew said. "My plan was to work full time for a while, then get back to my music career."

Salomi Morris of Hillcrest Heights said that music "was all Winfred talked about" when he rented a room from her in 1972. "He told everybody he wanted to go into music," Morris said. "He said he was going to organize a band and make it big in music."

Matthews said he was looking forward to a pleasant outing with friends on Memorial Day three years ago. It was a cloudless, warm day, and the group headed to a pool in Anacostia.

Later in the afternoon, the young people discovered they were hungry, so they drove to Gino's to get a bite to eat.

According to testimony in the Superior Court trial, Steele, Lawrence and Robert Matthews were waiting in line to order food in the restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE when John P. Monley walked in. Winfred Matthews was in the men's room at the time.

The men said Monley, an off-duty D.C. police officer who never identified himself as an officer, pushed his way to the front of the line at the cashier's window to complain that the french fries were missing from his chicken dinner.

According to testimony, Monley, who is white, shouted racial slurs to a black woman cashier and turned from the counter and threw a punch when he was asked to apologize.

Lawrence said that, in self-defense, he struck Monley and knocked him to the floor. He then dropped a plastic trash can on him before he left the restaurant. The Matthews brothers, Steele and Lawrence were arrested by hastily summoned 7th District police officers who arrived as the men were leaving.

Monley, who testified in court that he drank nearly a pint of rum shortly before the fracas, said the four men backed him against a wall in the restaurant, then jumped and beat him.

According to Matthews' testimony, this is what happened:

An hour after the arrest, Matthews was held in the cellblock of the 7th District police station and ordered to strip to his undershorts.

Officer Joseph Flakes Jr. hit him with his fists and told him to confess that he had hit Monley. Matthews refused and Flakes returned with Steele. The officer then beat Steele and demanded a confession from him.

When Steele wouldn't sign, the officer left and returned with a blackjack. He beat both of the men and then beat Matthews' brother Robert. The beatings finally stopped when Lawrence signed a statement, saying that he had punched Monley.

In the trial, Flakes denied that he had beat the men. No charges have been filed against him.

Matthews testified that he was squatting in a corner of a cell with his hands spread over his eyes and nose when he received a punch and heard bones in his hands break.

When Matthews and the three other men were treated for their injuries at D.C. General Hospital later that night, he learned that he had fractured the middle and little fingers of his left hand and the ring finger and thumb of the right hand.

Matthews had been charged with intent to kill a police officer and was released on personal bond. Ten days later, the charges against him and the others were dropped by a judge who said he found no basis for them.

A short time later, a D.C. Superior Court grand jury indicted the four on charges of assaulting a police officer with intent to kill. The U.S. attorney later dropped the case.