He entered life to C.L. Highsmith and Viola Hill on Sept. 2, 1942, in Robersonville, N.C. Born into sharecropping in the segregated South, between Greenville and Bethel, N.C., he watched as his father tried raising a family of eight earning $6 a week. Curtis attended Highsmith Elementary School, Post Oak Middle School and graduated from Bethel Union High School. Curtis was an infielder on the school’s baseball team and loved to share his stories of being known to initiate a triple play. Curtis also loved to sing and play the piano whenever he could get an audience, which was most times. Everyone knew Curtis Highsmith — one of the most popular guys on campus, whose competitive nature would not allow him to settle for average or second best.
Curtis gained his communication skills at a young age accompanying his mother on door-to-door Bible ministry as a Jehovah’s Witness, and carried his training and confidence into the classroom, on stage and in high school debate competitions. Many do not know that Curtis was also on the male cheerleading squad, supporting the school’s basketball and football teams, and was a member of the student council. He enjoyed clubs like the 4H Club, Glee Club and Drama Club, which aided in his desire to sing and entertain the crowd.
Witnessing his father work to exhaustion for little pay, and after working odd jobs to save enough money to move, Curtis moved his father, mother and entire family to Riverhead, N.Y., for a better life away from the segregated South and inhumane wages.
In Riverhead, Curtis worked as a bellhop at the Henry Perkins Hotel during the day; but at night, Little Curtis began to emerge as he performed on the stages of local night spots like the Blue Bird, Hydes Inn, Rites Inn, The Diner, Pickney’s Inn and Fives.
In 1967, Curtis fell in love with Ardell Hale, and they were married a year later on March 2, 1968. In 1972, Curtis began working for Franklin National Bank as a teller and moved to Riverhead Savings Bank shortly afterward. In 1980, Curtis successfully completed The School of Savings Banking at the Harriman Campus of Columbia University. Over the years, Curtis worked his way up to senior vice president of public relations for the bank, and his name became well known throughout the community of Riverhead and surrounding areas.
Throughout his earlier years, while working at the bank, Curtis performed as frontman for several bands, performing at clubs, class reunions, weddings, music festivals and local celebrations. He was best known as “Little Curtis,” the charismatic front man for Little Curtis and the Big Men, with whom he released two notable singles: “I Want Peace” and “Try a Little Tenderness.” Curtis was also a band leader for Freedom Train Express, Little Curtis & Take 5 and Reflections, and enjoyed singing solo at countless appearances and performances.
Curtis expanded his business résumé by going into a partnership and opening B & C Cosmetic and Beauty Supply shop on Main Street in the heart of Riverhead. For over a decade, B & C sold hair care supplies and equipment to local customers, barber shops and hair salons, while employing in-house beauticians for customers who needed their hair styled, cut and colored.
Curtis’ community contributions included serving on the board of directors of the former Central Suffolk Hospital, board member of the Community Awareness Program, board member of Suffolk County Council for Abused/ Battered Women and a member of the Riverhead Rotary and Chamber of Commerce.
For the community youth, Curtis coached the Riverhead Bucks in the Flanders Little League and hosted a number of community soap box derbies. Curtis gave keynote speeches for the CAP “Say No To Drugs” march, served as grand marshal and master of ceremonies for Riverhead High School homecoming festivities, and gave high school lectures on business, drug awareness and self-development for the enrichment of the community.
Curtis was honored by the community on a number of occasions, including receiving the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Meritorious Award for Community Service, Riverhead Chamber of Commerce Special Service Award, a Proclamation from the Town of Riverhead for community activism and Riverhead High School Navy JROTC Award, and was honored by the Riverhead Kiwanis Club at its annual “Breakfast of Stars.”
On April 24, 2020, Curtis Highsmith Sr. passed away peacefully while asleep at home. Besides his parents, three siblings preceded him in death: sister Neva Turner and brothers Joseph Highsmith and Clarence Highsmith. He is survived by his wife, Ardell Highsmith, brother Willie (Cora) Andrews and sisters Hattie Crump and Vickie (Earl) Porter; eight children, Jeffery, Stanley, Jacqueline, Mark, Rhonda, Curtis Jr., Ashley and Serafina; 15 grandchildren; six great-grandchildren; a number of nieces, nephews, family members and close friends; and an overwhelming fan base who will miss Little Curtis’ big voice.
Curtis’ funeral has been entrusted to Tuthill-Mangano Funeral Home in Riverhead.
Family and friends who wish to pay tribute to Curtis and his family may do so online at manganofh.com.
This is a paid notice.