Curtis Eugene Highsmith Sr. entered life to C.L. Highsmith and Viola Hill on September 2, 1942, in Robersonville, North Carolina.
Born into sharecropping in the segregated south, between Greenville and Bethel, North Carolina, he watched his father as he 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, who’s 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 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, New York 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 after. 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 Curtis’s earlier years, while working at the bank, Curtis performed as front man 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 he enjoyed singing solo at countless appearances and performances.
Curtis expanded his business resume 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 include serving on the board of directors for Central Suffolk Hospital, board member of Community Awareness Program (CAP), board member of Suffolk County Council for Abused/ Battered Women, and a member of the Riverhead Rotary & 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 and was grand marshal and master of ceremonies for the Riverhead High School Homecoming festivities; he also 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, Riverhead High School Navy JROTC Award, and honored by the Riverhead Kiwanis Club at its annual “Breakfast of Stars.”
He passed away peacefully at home while asleep on April 24, 2020. Besides his parents, three siblings preceded him in death: sister Neva Turner, and two brothers, Joseph Highsmith and Clarence Highsmith.
He is survived by his wife Ardell, brother Willie (Cora) Andrews; sisters Hattie Crump and Vickie (Earl) Porter; by eight children: Jeffery, Stanley, Jacqueline, Mark, Rhonda, Curtis Jr., Ashley and Serafina; by 15 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren; a number of nieces, nephews, family members, close friends, and an overwhelming fan-base who will miss Little Curtis’ big voice.
Funeral arrangements were entrusted to the care of Tuthill-Mangano Funeral Home in Riverhead. Family and friends may pay tribute to Curtis and leave messages of condolences at the funeral home’s website.
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