Curtis Mayfield, 57, a Chicago-born singer, songwriter and instrumentalist who gave voice to an age of social change and became a major figure in American popular music, died Dec. 26 in Roswell, Ga. He lived in the Atlanta area.
An acknowledged king of soul, he was one of the first and foremost civil rights champions in the black music community. From his early days with the Impressions, he was known as a man who expanded the horizons of black popular song, to speak not only of matters of the heart but also of the issues of the street.
Mr. Mayfield, who was a producer as well as performer, had continued his career after being left a quadriplegic by an onstage accident in 1990. He had been in declining health in recent years as a result of the injury, and his right leg was amputated last year.
A nurse at North Fulton Regional Hospital in Roswell confirmed that Mr. Mayfield had died there, but the exact cause of his death was not immediately available.
Inducted twice into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mr. Mayfield began singing as a youth in a church choir. In time, he blended--or performed in--the styles of gospel, soul and rhythm and blues, and he won perhaps his greatest fame for the militantly anti-drug songs on the soundtrack of the 1972 film "Superfly."
With his pen and guitar, and the high tenor voice of his early years, he pioneered in employing the power of music to exhort audiences to struggle for their rights and take pride in themselves. His messages resonated through hits such as "We're a Winner," "This Is My Country" and "Keep on Pushing."
The styles of performers ranging from Ice-T to Jimi Hendrix were traced to him, and in 1997, Rolling Stone magazine said, "Black music as we hear it today simply wouldn't exist without him."
For his part, Mr. Mayfield, a modest man, once told the Associated Press that he was pleased that his songs had reached so many people but that he had written them to satisfy himself. "I wrote them for myself," he said. "Being a young black man, observing and sensing the need for race equality and women's rights, I wrote about what was important to me."
In general, while writing on many of the most provocative matters of his day, Mr. Mayfield was regarded by students of the musical scene as a voice of unity, moderation and uplift. But they said he sometimes showed a bitter edge as in such hits as "If There's a Hell Down Below, We're All Gonna Go."
What were considered to be his principal messages, inspiration and faith, were described as part of his childhood heritage. "I think my grandmother was one of my biggest influences," Mr. Mayfield, a high school dropout, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1972. "She was a very religious person. . . . She gave me the common sense to see the right and wrong in situations. My idea is to lay them both out so people can make up their own minds."
The start of his career was traced to his days in the choir of his grandmother's Traveling Soul Spiritualistic Church. There he met Jerry Butler, who joined him and three others in 1956 to form the Impressions. Two years later, when Mr. Mayfield was still in his teens, that group made its first recording, "For Your Precious Love."
It became a hit, Butler left to begin a solo career, and Mr. Mayfield joined him as songwriter and guitarist for a time before rejoining the Impressions in the early 1960s.
Those were years of transition and change for Mr. Mayfield as well as for the society around him. Soon after returning to the Impressions, the group had a Top 20 hit with the romantic "Gypsy Woman." But within a short time, Mr. Mayfield had developed what students of his career described as a style of secular gospel--adapting gospel characteristics to social and political ends.
Among the results were "I'm So Proud" and "Keep on Pushing."
"You know," he said years later, "to talk about the '60s almost brings tears to my eyes. What we did. What we all did. We changed the world."
After leaving the Impressions at the end of the '60s, Mr. Mayfield made solo albums. Some were concerned with such themes as peace and brotherhood; he also wrote music to satisfy what he called a need to produce songs about how "we as all people deal with our lives." He was well-received abroad.
He scored his greatest commercial and critical success with the soundtrack to "Superfly," which was one of the best known of the so-called Blaxploitation films.
"Freddie's Dead" and "Superfly," both from the film, became Top 10 singles, esteemed for their combination of high intensity rock/disco music with sharp social commentary.
He became a Grammy Legend Award winner in 1994 and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner the next year.
The 1990 accident, in which a light tower fell on him at a free concert in Brooklyn, N.Y, left him paralyzed below the neck. But in 1996, he released "New World Order," his 25th solo album.
"How many 54-year-old quadriplegics are putting albums out?" he asked. "You just have to deal with what you got, try to sustain yourself as best you can and look to the things that you can do."
In addition to his wife, Altheida, Mr. Mayfield is survived by his mother; 10 children; two sisters; a brother; and seven grandchildren.
CAPTION: Curtis Mayfield