Born 12 August 1920, Linden, Louisiana
R&B vocalist, songwriter, pianist.
Percy Mayfield has been called the “Poet Laureate of the Blues”. He certainly had a talent for poetry and was a master at expressing his emotions (often feelings of despair and depression). His willingness to investigate the darker side of the human psyche separated him from other songwriters in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Louisiana-born Mayfield started writing songs at a young age. He got his musical start in Texas, but moved to Los Angeles in 1942, where he soon formed his own group, the Maytones. Mayfield made his first recordings in late 1947, for the Gru-V-Tone label. Though he had a beautiful, distinctive baritone voice, Mayfield didn’t see himself as a singer at that time. He considered himself primarily a songwriter and has said that being a singer was forced on him. “Every time I took a song to a recording company to audition it for other artists, the company would only accept it if I would sing it”. The piano-dominated “Jack You Ain’t Nowhere (Parts 1 and 2)” became his first release in 1948, but it is very uncharacteristic of his oeuvre as a whole. It was followed by “Two Years of Torture”, a song that he would later re-record several times. His third record, “Alma Lee”, on the Selective label, was issued under the moniker Dallas Red.
After a few more releases on small labels, Percy was signed by Specialty Records in 1950, where he made his most important and most successful records, produced by label owner Art Rupe and arranged by saxophonist Maxwell Davis. His debut Specialty single, “Please Send Me Someone To Love” was a # 1 R&B hit and the start of a solid string of R&B smashes over the next two years. Seven Specialty singles went Top 10, incuding “Lost Love”, “What A Fool I Was” and “Big Question”. At this time he was the top blues balladeer and the women went crazy for him. Then, in August 1952, a horrific car accident left his handsome face disfigured. The quality of his recordings was undiminished, but the chart success stopped. It must be said that listening to a whole CD of Specialty material is probably not the best way to appreciate the beauty of individual tracks. There is not much variation in the tempo and the chord progressions.
Mayfield left Specialty in 1954 and recorded sporadically for Chess, Cash, Specialty (again) and Imperial before Ray Charles hired him as a staff songwriter in 1960. This would result in several major hits for Ray : “At the Club”, “Hide Nor Hair”, “But On the Other Hand Baby” and, best of all, the now classic number one “Hit the Road Jack” (1961). The B-side of that huge hit, “The Danger Zone”, was also written by Mayfield. Starting 1962, Percy also recorded for Ray Charles’s Tangerine label and he returned to the R&B charts (# 25, also # 99 pop) in 1963 with a remake of “The River’s Invitation”. This song, originally recorded for Specialty by Mayfield in January 1952, has become one of his most covered compositions, with versions by Aretha Franklin, Alexis Korner, Georgie Fame, Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, Joe Cocker and many others. Elvis Presley has also recorded one of Mayfield’s songs, “Stranger In My Own Hometown” (released on the LP “From Memphis To Vegas”, 1969). Percy himself recorded it in 1964. He had many releases on Tangerine (1962-67), but didn’t return to the R&B charts until 1970, with “To Live In the Past” (# 41) on RCA. His last chart entry was “I Don’t Want To Be President” (# 64) on Atlantic in 1974.
If the years 1950-52 represented Mayfield’s first peak, the decade of 1961-71 formed his second. He had six albums released, two on Tangerine, one on Brunswick and three on RCA. He was writing intelligent songs, often containing social commentary, and approached his craft as seriously as any novelist or poet.
After 1974 Mayfield fell into obscurity and poverty. He was rediscovered in the early 1980s by Bay Area keyboardist Mark Naftalin, which led to the recording of a new album, “Hit the Road Again”, with the Phillip Walker Blues Band on the Timeless label (1982). He continued to perform until his death from a heart attack in 1984.
Jasmine Records in the UK has just released the most complete overview of his early work, “Lost Love : The Singles As & Bs 1947-1962” (JASMCD 3071, October 2016). 56 tracks on 2 CDs.
More info :
Discography : http://www.soulfulkindamusic.net/pmayfield. htm
Acknowledgements : Geoffrey Himes, Billy Vera, Bill Dahl, Pete Bowen.
Dik, November 2016
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