“We planned and worked hard, from the very start
Tried to make him better, than all the rest
But the brother proved to be so much less.”
‘Eddie Should Know Better’ by Curtis Mayfield (1972)
Curtis Mayfield would’ve been 77 today, like his friend Muhammad Ali he was born in 1942, and the “gentle genius”, as he was often referred, passed away on Boxing Day in 1999. His legend, as one of the greatest musicians, songwriters and innovators of the century, was secured long before being struck by falling rigging while performing in Brooklyn in 1990. An accident that would paralyse him from the neck down.
He and Ali were both powerful social commentators, transcending their area of excellence in lives in the public eye that ran in parallel and through some of the most turbulent episodes in modern American history. In 1958 a 15 year-old Mayfield joined The Impressions a short two years before the then Cassius Clay flew off to the Rome Olympics, the musical pioneer’s passing came just three years after Ali’s iconic opening of the 1996 Atlanta games. An event that marked the beginning of the end for the century’s most famous face, for one last time he was able to demonstrate his courage and defiance, fighting, inch by inch, the symptoms of Parkinsons to deliver the Olympic flame.
That two teenagers from humble beginnings could become such colossal influences on their times and that their wisdom and deeds reverberate so long beyond their own lives is testimony to their respective greatness of course.
(Ali and Mayfield indulge in some playful sparring prior to Ali’s return in 1971 – forgive the awful sound track on this version of the footage)
Mayfield’s lyrics still resonate and boast relevance today, a reality that may have frustrated a man who longed for change, just as Ali would’ve surely shaken his head at much of the division which grips the country, and the world, he loved and that loved him back.
At the height of his powers Mayfield’s message drew sanction too, echoing Ali’s career, with radio stations removing songs like The Impressions’ Keep On Pushing’, written by Mayfield, from their airwaves at the time Ali was facing Sonny Liston with Malcolm X sitting ringside. A fight that occurred in the tinderbox America had become; mere months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in late 1963 and Martin Luther King’s enduring ‘I have a dream’ speech earlier the same year.
The significance of the song can not be over sold, part of the soundtrack of that period in history it would also be used to introduce Barack Obama’s keynote address to the 2004 Democratic Convention and the Album cover would subsequently feature on Bob Dylan’s own seminal 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home. Mayfield, like Ali, mattered.
Such was Mayfield’s will and the necessity he felt to create, that he continued to write songs, and sing too, beyond his life-changing accident in 1990. His distinctive high tenor voice, that could wander higher into falsetto, captured line by line whilst he laid flat on his back. The only position in which his diaphragm could relax sufficiently for his trademark voice to ebb and swell once more.
The legends of Ali and Mayfield, so polarised in personality and yet unified in their pursuit of change, were the richer for the adversity and circumstance their lives required them to overcome. In the moment, they may not have chosen to face the obstacles and pitfalls they did but without them, and their attempts to overcome them, much of the significance would be stripped from their entwined stories.
Perhaps not surprisingly, and despite the beauty of Mayfield’s words in song, it is the ever loquacious Ali who better communicated the power of defeat, of the lessons it imparted to him and the impact and example a conquering return offered those facing their own problems in life.
“Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.”
A message with currency in the aftermath of Saturday night’s astonishing result in Madison Square Gardens. The venue for some of Ali’s greatest triumphs and most pulsating defeats.
If Anthony Joshua is to soldier on toward the greatness it is now easy to believe he had assumed would be his, his defeat to Andy Ruiz Jnr., a man he was supposed to beat with aplomb, offers the first of many of the sporting obstacles Ali required to forge his legend.
The comparison between the two, Ali and Joshua, doesn’t survive scrutiny of course nor do the times Joshua lives in offer him a canvas on which to paint the pictures Ali and Mayfield did in their words and deeds. However, if the hackneyed philosophies the giant Brit litters his interviews with are to mean more than the sound bytes they offer to the sycophantic press largely in his thrall until this point, then he has a great place to start.
As Curtis might have said, were he here for Joshua to request advice from,
“Keep on pushing.”